Published On: Thu, Sep 12th, 2013

Interview: Development is not just money’- German Minister

Ahead of the German election, Dirk Niebel says he has worked to ensure that Germany’s development money is used wisely. It’s not the amount of money that matters, but the efficiency with which it is used, he says.

DW: We are currently facing a crisis in Syria: around 5,000 people a day are leaving and seeking shelter in neighboring countries. Germany has said it’s prepared to take in 5,000 refugees, in addition to those who have found their own way here over the last few years. You’ve now called for it to be easier for Syrians who are already here to bring family members over. Why are you only making this proposal now? Is that some sort of compensation for the fact that Germany is not prepared to take part in a military operation?

Dirk Niebel: No, I made the proposal some time ago. I’m making it again because the first of the additional 5,000 refugees are now coming to Germany. Together with Sweden, we have taken in the largest number of Syrians. There are 33,000 Syrians already living long-term in Germany, and there are a further 17,000 asylum seekers. These extra 5,000 refugees will be distributed throughout the country.

In addition, of course, there are many who have relatives and who are also prepared to offer financial support if it means that grandchildren, in-laws, children or other relatives can come to them, and who would be in a position to offer them accommodation. It would be a great relief for those affected if we would make that possible, without being much of a burden for Germany.

Syrian refugees wait before boarding a flight to Germany
AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

If Syria agreed to allow its chemical weapons to be placed under international control and possibly to be destroyed, do you think Germany could be involved in their control and destruction?

We want a political solution. The German government won’t take part in any military action. So it’s a light at the end of the tunnel if one can move a bit closer to this political solution.

I know that Germany has plenty of experience in the destruction and removal of military materials, but I’m not in a position to describe precisely what functions Germany could take over and what it couldn’t.

Questioning sacred cows

Let’s talk about your position as development minister. There are elections on September 22. If your party, the FDP, were no longer to be in government, the ministry would go to another party. What are the challenges you see for Germany’s future development policy?

Firstly, there’s the internal structural reform of the ministry, which we started, but which still has to be completed. Every day, we need to fight to ensure that the agencies that do the work in the field are subject to political control. It has to be absolutely clear that it’s the government that decides on the development policy of the Federal Republic of Germany. The implementing agencies must do just that: implement measures on behalf of the government.

We also need to examine our development activities with respect to their effectiveness. From 2015 onwards, the sum of money that is spent should not be the sole criterion of good development work. What is decisive is the effectiveness of what is done. So I’m very much in favor of questioning some sacred cows and finding new ways of measuring good development practice, both in the developing countries as well as in the industrial countries, which are obviously those which carry the responsibility.

When you talk about questioning sacred cows, are you talking about the 0.7 percent target [which the UN has set as a proportion of GDP that industrial countries should invest in development activities by 2015]? Shouldn’t Germany, which is one of the few countries that has come through the economic crisis fairly well, set a different signal and pushed even more strongly for this target?

Germany is the third largest donor in the world with more than 10 billion euros ($13.3 billion). That’s money the taxpayer has to stump up. When I came to office, we had a proportion of 0.35 percent; now it’s 0.38 percent. That’s growth. But it’s not the only criterion. It’s not how much money one spends that determines whether the effects of the development work are good, it’s what one achieves with that money. From 2015 on, that must be the yardstick by which the work is measured.

Promoting rural development

Would the United Nations climate negotiations at the end of the year in Poland be an appropriate international stage for the industrial nations to signal that they are ready to take over responsibility?

We shouldn’t take on too much. If we want to achieve common development and sustainability goals after 2015, we shouldn’t commit ourselves ahead of time, especially in matters of funding. We should first speak about the goals in general. If we put the issue of funding in the foreground, then there’ll soon be those who refuse altogether.

A man loads sacks on to his bicycle in a desert landscape Photo: Larwana Malam Hami (DW Korrespondent)

Minister Niebel, during the last election campaign, you made headlines by calling for the abolition of the development ministry or its absorption into other ministries. Then you were appointed to head the ministry and have committed yourself to the reordering of German development policy. Structurally, you have combined three agencies into one: the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Where have you set new markers with regard to content?

We have rediscovered rural development as a priority – the issue has been neglected for the last 15 years, not just in Germany, but worldwide.

Most people who are poor and suffer from hunger live in the countryside. Rural development is far more than just agriculture. Forty percent of harvest is lost through inadequate knowledge of storage and preservation, inadequate infrastructure to reach the nearest market, and no knowledge of the simplest technology like drip irrigation in countries with water shortages or the maintenance of agricultural machinery. These are all issues which take time – that’s why one doesn’t always have the big successes that one can show in time for the next election.

We have recognized – and this is internationally confirmed – that the power of business must be tied in to development. We can use the ideas, the expertise, the know-how, and also the money of private business to reach development targets. That’s the only way in which we can work even more intensively than we already do with the small amount of tax money we have.

Dirk Niebel has been German development minister since 2009. He’s a member of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), the junior partner in the governing coalition.

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