1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Development aid: Less is sometimes more

May 7, 2020

Germany is a global leader in development aid with thousands of projects, many in the world’s poorest countries. But now Berlin says less is more and is concentrating its efforts. The strategy is proving controversial.

Gerd Müller
Image: Imago/photothek/M. Gottschalk

Higher yields for cashew farmers. More health workers in the battle against cholera. And more training posts for young people in rural areas. Three goals that Germany had been aiming to achieve in its development cooperation with Sierra Leone. But Berlin now looks set to dump its cooperation with the West African country.

Development Minister Gerd Müller of the conservative CSU party is planning to restructure Germany's aid program. Sierra Leone and, it seems, a further 24 countries — including Nepal and Myanmar in Asia as well Guatemala and Nicaragua in Latin America — will soon see direct aid from Germany cut off. "Our problem is: we can't do everything everywhere," Müller told DW. His Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) currently has an annual budget of nearly €11 billion. "That's a lot of money," Müller admits. "But 85 partner countries is simply too many. It's like running around and trying to water a big garden with a watering can. Which is why we need to concentrate our efforts."

'Unfair towards our country'

The idea is that in future Germany will mainly support governments that are willing to introduce reforms. "We need to do more to help our partners make their own contribution," says Müller. "Above all when it comes to combating corruption, which is an absolute prerequisite for private investment. That's why our partners must fight corruption, implement good governance and respect human rights. This is a message that our partner countries must understand."

A staff member unloads Chinese medical supplies from an airplane at the Kotota International Airport in Accra, capital of Ghana,
A staff member unloads Chinese medical supplies at Kotota International Airport in AccraImage: imago images/X. Zheng

But that message is not going down well in all partner countries: "We do not really know where the German position came from," says Francis Ben Kaifala in an interview with DW. "In the two years that I have been at the head of anti-corruption in Sierra Leone, I'm ready to challenge anybody who says we are doing badly in the fight against corruption." And, last year, Sierra Leone did in fact manage to climb from position 129 to position 119 in Transparency International's global corruption index. "To say that there are no policies and programs to address corruption would be unfair towards our country," Kaifala argues.

NGOs moving in?

But the withdrawal of state-sector development initiatives does not only come in response to government corruption or a reluctance to push through reform processes. Even countries that have achieved significant economic growth, such as Mongolia, will in future no longer receive state backing from Germany. Berlin is also planning to hand over the initiative in some target nations to other backers like France and the United Kingdom or even the European Union. In Sierra Leone, for instance, the UK is already playing a much bigger role than Germany. The German plan — a plan that Gerd Müller calls "BMZ 2030" — is also about preventing chaotic overlapping between a multitude of donor nations and their many different organizations.

Heike Spielmans
Heike Spielmans is concerned that some countries might be left behind.Image: VENRO

One knock-on effect of the withdrawal of state aid is that new opportunities will emerge for German NGOs to play a bigger role. Heike Spielmans, the director of VENRO, an umbrella organization of 120 German organizations, welcomes the fact that corruption and human rights are moving up the agenda:

"It remains problematic, however, when state-sector development cooperation is reduced to nothing. That's because civil society urgently needs partners on the ground in these countries," she told DW. If the German development ministry withdraws, the political dialogue could simply run dry, she said. And that would in turn mean less room for maneuver for NGOs.

Germany Tanzania relations
German cooperation with Tanzania has been active since 1975Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Michael Kappeler

Keep talking even where dialogue is difficult

Heike Spielmans is also pleased to note that in future state development funds will only go to projects that prioritize environmental sustainability, climate compatibility and gender equality. Still, she warns that while concentrating on core themes and values is good and right, interventions must always be measured and cautious. "The watering can metaphor is sometimes so negative. But it needn't be. When, for instance, there is one specific project. That, too, can be worthwhile. It's not always a case of the more, the better."

Spielmans is also concerned that some countries that urgently need support might be left behind: "The number of least-developed countries on our partner list is shrinking. I think it's important that the ministry does not simply stop cooperating with countries where dialogue is perhaps more strained."

Germany's withdrawal from development projects and partnership is certain to trigger further debate. "Which does not however mean that we're going to leave behind countries facing emergencies like hunger and abject poverty," Minister Müller insists: "Every country in the world has Germany at its side when it comes to combatting hunger and poverty." He pledged that emergency aid would still be forthcoming in regions where Germany is no longer committed to long-term development projects.

DW's editors send out a selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille