German election: What's at stake for global development

The Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany. Photo by: Andy Hay / CC BY

BERLIN — Under 12 years of Angela Merkel's chancellorship, Germany has emerged as a leader in global development. In 2016, it became the second-highest donor country — overtaking the United Kingdom to come in behind the United States — after hitting the global target of spending 0.7 percent of its gross national income on official development assistance for the first time.

Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, has touted this rise in the current national election campaigns as evidence of her commitment to human rights and global development issues. Officials expect development assistance to continue to increase under a new Merkel administration if — as is widely anticipated — she retains the chancellorship for another four years after the vote on September 24.

But other parties have expressed concern about a development policy they say is too focused on a single issue: stopping the influx of refugees and migrants to Europe. They warn that by roping ODA into a key domestic policy debate, Merkel and her CDU party have politicized development. Critics have also raised ethical concerns about the programs German money is supporting, questioning if it is being used to boost German businesses and authoritarian regimes at the expense of the people it is meant to benefit, and about the role of the private sector.

Development experts are frustrated at how little airing these issues have had during the current campaign, even as Germany's approach to them becomes increasingly significant.

“We don't really have alternative options, what to do differently when it comes to development policy,” said Stephan Klingebiel, who heads the bilateral and multilateral development cooperation department at the German Development Institute. "We might need to have more specialized and strategic discussions on development policy in Germany."

Germany as a global actor

Experts said the emphasis on development under the Merkel administration has been both a reflection of her own priorities, and a response to the retreat of other traditional donor governments.

“From the beginning, she had this open-minded thinking,” Klingebiel said. The challenges facing Europe, including the growing number of refugees and migrants, made it “pretty clear that Germany has to play a stronger role. I think what she is really trying to do is to emphasize, especially, options for Germany to play a more important role when it comes to global challenges.”

That is reflected in the ODA budget, he said, which was less than 0.4 percent of GNI when she entered the chancellorship in 2005, as well as in how the administration has become more assertive in helping set the international development agenda.

Merkel's government used the presidency of the G-20 this year to encourage other members of the rich country grouping to invest more in job creation in Africa — part of the German government's broader effort to reduce the number of migrants looking to Europe for job opportunities.

Germany has also used its own Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development — the main channel of its development policy — to push this agenda further. "Dealing with the refugee situation is a top priority for German development policy," according to ministerial documents. To do so, officials have unveiled specific strategies to improve international food security, push for stability in the Middle East and North Africa, and address the root causes of displacement.

Four more years under Merkel is likely to entrench this approach and bring in similar policies, experts agreed — which is why they should have been more closely interrogated.

Merkel faces questions

Though the election campaigns have been dominated by domestic concerns about the refugees and migrants who entered the country in 2015 and 2016 after Merkel threw open Germany's borders, opposition parties have raised questions about her government's development policy — including just how much praise is warranted for the ODA increase.

That is because one-quarter of Germany's ODA in 2016 was money spent domestically, to administer the refugee program and support new arrivals. The approach, adopted by several European countries, has been controversial for diverting money from overseas aid work.

Uwe Kekeritz, the Green party's spokesperson for development policy, said this was, essentially, a dodge. "We want to keep the promise made by industrial countries decades ago: spend 0.7 percent of our [GNI] on ODA in developing countries without counting costs for refugees in Germany towards the quota," he told Devex.

Beyond levels of expenditure, development experts have some significant concerns about where and how Germany is channeling its development money.

"The development issue has been instrumentalized in terms of the migration issue and the international debate on migration," said Gunther Maihold, a deputy director at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. He warned that the CDU's approach — promising voters that development assistance can be instrumental in stemming migration — holds potential long-term risks.

"If you generate expectations that development cooperation will not be able to fulfill, this could affect, in the long run, the legitimacy of development cooperation," he said.

Critics say that the government's singular focus on migration has also pushed it into agreements with authoritarian regimes that undermine its commitments to human rights — and said this was an issue that should have been explored more during the campaign.

German media revealed in 2016 that the German Corporation for International Cooperation — or GIZ, the major international development agency closely linked to the German government — was coordinating a European Union project in Sudan, where the government has been accused of severe human rights abuses. The initiative, part of the EU's Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, included plans to train border police, provide equipment for the registering of refugees, and assist with the construction of two camps, with the aim of slowing the flow of refugees and migrants to Europe. GIZ responded at the time that there were no concrete plans in place.

Günter Nooke, the personal representative of the German chancellor for Africa, said Trust Fund representatives were also discussing a potential project with Eritrea, although it did not come together. The United Nations Human Rights Council has accused the Eritrean regime and its officials of murdering, raping, enslaving, and torturing its citizens.

Wenzel Michalski, Germany director of Human Rights Watch, called these kinds of agreements "potentially very, very problematic," not least because the Merkel government has been unwilling to reveal details about the deals, including the exact terms of German involvement. "The NGOs in Germany are very worried and concerned. We don't have really proper information," said Michalski.

The future of German aid

Merkel's administration has also carved out a role for Germany's businesses within its development approach that has other parties concerned.

The Marshall Plan with Africa, a proposal from the development ministry to guide Germany's future cooperation with the continent, prioritizes private investment, including a suggestion that ODA be used to secure these investments. Nooke said this reflects an emerging way of thinking about development assistance within the administration.

"The money of the taxpayers should be used for promoting private investments to trigger business and economic growth in the countries," he said. "That is a change in this narrative of helping — to come out of this helping mode to the normal thing of ‘jobs must be created by the companies.’"

Other parties are skeptical.

"Private investments need to respect human rights, such as the right to food, to consider environmental and social issues," Kekeritz said. "Many times the administration puts access to foreign markets and profit first. That needs to change."

Overall, development experts are frustrated these concerns did not come in for more scrutiny during the campaign. Klingebiel said this reflected both a political disinterest in engaging on the issue, but also a lack of broad policy differences.

"What we see at the moment, and this is really traditional in Germany, is that the main parties have something like an explicit or implicit consensus that development policy should be important and should support development issues," but they offer little more detail, he said.

In its platform, the Social Democrats, for instance, link development to shoring up fragile states and addressing the refugee problem. SPD is the country's main opposition party, although it is currently the minority in a grand governing coalition with the CDU. The party's commitments extend to a guarantee that an SPD-led government will maintain Germany's commitment both to humanitarian and development aid.

Even the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is currently polling third, has echoes of the CDU's development strategy in its own proposals. With its message of "Germany first," the nationalist party has called for boosting support for unstable countries and tying development assistance more tightly to partner countries’ willingness to prevent refugees and migrants from reaching Europe.

This overlap, some worry, has not generated the debate Germany should have been having.

"Let's have more strategic discussions around Germany's development cooperation approach and also in a broader sense what kind of global agenda do we want to support and push," Klingebiel said. "This is really missing."

And this has been a missed opportunity, experts said. A debate on the country's ODA policy could have deepened discussions about Germany's approach as it steps into an increasingly central role on development issues. As it stands, with Merkel's re-election looking secure, experts agree that Germany is likely looking at more of the same when it comes to development policy for the next four years.

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About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.