German Development Minister on Africa Famine 'Anyone Can Toss Around Big Numbers'
In a SPIEGEL interview, German Development Minister Dirk Niebel discusses the current famine in Africa, criticism of his country's contribution to fighting the catastrophe and why he believes aid policies must be mutually beneficial to donors and recipients in the age of globalization.
SPIEGEL: Minister Niebel, private individuals in Germany are donating millions for victims of the drought in the Horn of Africa. Have you made a donation too?
Niebel: In this case, not yet, but I have made donations during many catastrophes, and I'll do so again this time. The pictures are terrible and they would tug at anyone's heart. I just got back from vacation and haven't had a chance to access my bank account online.
SPIEGEL: Every day, 25,000 people around the world die of starvation. Are we looking to Africa so intensively right now in order to ease our conscience?
Niebel: No, we're looking there so intensively because this catastrophe is happening right now and on a large scale; because it extends across borders and it touches our hearts.
SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Kenya this July and thought she'd get away with pledging just 1 million ($1.4 million) in aid. That doesn't seem like much for 12 million starving people, does it?
Niebel: If that were true, it wouldn't be enough. But it is not true. That 1 million was a gesture. Beyond that, both the Foreign Ministry and my own Development Ministry have increased funds. Put concretely, it adds up to 30 million in direct emergency relief from the German government. Then there's our contribution to European Union funds, which amounts to around 32 million, as well as our share of the World Bank's pledge, about $35 million. This money comes from German taxpayers.
SPIEGEL: Others are giving much more.
Niebel: Anyone can toss around big numbers. The important thing is that the money we pledge can also be put to use, and that it reaches the people. In that sense, we can consider ourselves to come out quite well in international comparisons. Besides, you can really throw as much money as you want at the underlying structural problem.
SPIEGEL: What is the deeper problem?
Niebel: For 15 years, structural aid for rural areas in the affected regions has been shamefully neglected, with only the capital cities receiving attention.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean we can expect continuing images of hunger in the region and repeated requests for billions from the United Nations, because development aid has been going fundamentally wrong for a decade and a half?
Niebel: Wait, let's slow down for a moment. This catastrophe originates first of all from a terrible drought. But yes, these failures do exacerbate the problem. We need to train local farmers so that they can produce good products, and enough products, and in times of drought especially, this also depends on technology, on training and skills: How do I irrigate properly? How can I conserve limited resources?
SPIEGEL: Still, the problem is so acute primarily because radical forces from al-Shabab -- the Taliban of Somalia, so to speak -- prevent aid from getting through.
Niebel: Which is why we need to initiate conversations with those forces who are willing to talk. Al-Shabab is not the same everywhere, just as Taliban groups can vary. The African Union, as the regional organization in the Horn of Africa, needs to do the same thing that was done in Afghanistan, engaging in conversation with moderate forces. Muslim countries, especially the Persian Gulf states, also need to increase their involvement, to influence their fellow Muslims there.
SPIEGEL: Islamists continue to prevent aid deliveries from reaching their targets. What's the latest on the situation?
Niebel: Supply systems are still not working reliably and I appeal emphatically to all involved parties: This is not the time for politics. Right now this is about saving human lives.
SPIEGEL: Some are considering a military protection component. Are you as well?
Niebel: No, Operation Atalanta (the EU's anti-pirate deployment) is in place at the Horn of Africa and there's no reason to invent more military operations beyond that. Instead, we should seek out political dialogue to ensure that supplies truly reach the people.
SPIEGEL: Many people hesitate to donate because of precisely that issue. So, do German government funds really reach their intended targets? How much loss are you willing to accept along the way?
Niebel: None. You can never completely prevent corruption, but you can ensure the highest possible degree of security by sending funds through trustworthy organizations.
SPIEGEL: Is that why you're sending the majority of the aid to Dadaab, an enormous refugee camp in eastern Kenya, even though the government there is resistant to expansion?
Niebel: We have to take the Kenyan government's concerns seriously. Kenya fears, first of all, that the refugee camp is drawing people who will then remain permanently in a region that is already barely able to support its population. The second concern is that this influx of people presents a danger of additional Islamist forces being recruited. I'm traveling to Kenya at the end of this week, in order to talk to those in charge there and form my own impression of the situation.
SPIEGEL: Günter Nooke, the German chancellor's G-8-Africa appointee, sees China as one of the causes of the current famine. Is that true?
Niebel: No. There are many reasons for the famine, but Chinese investments are not among them.
SPIEGEL: Is China helping there, or is it stealing land?
Niebel: One can argue over many aspects of China's development cooperation in Africa, but I do not believe that Chinese investment in agricultural areas is primarily a matter of what you refer to as stealing land.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you essentially Chinese in this regard, too? Your development plan for the region likewise consists of helping only in the places where we (Germans) also reap some benefit.
Niebel: I'm too broad and too tall to be Chinese. But seriously, development cooperation is not something altruistic. Anyone who carries out development aid according to the principle that one side gives and the other side takes isn't living in a globalized world. Development cooperation always benefits both sides. That may come as unwelcome news to those who have been wandering the world in self-knitted Alpaca sweaters since the 1960's, but it is the truth.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean we should demand that the affected countries take greater responsibility?
Niebel: Yes, it does, and that is another thing that distinguishes the development cooperation of this government from that practiced up to now. It is a fact that during my time in office, in several cases I've stopped and blocked payments worth millions, for various reasons. Sometimes it was because of corruption, sometimes human rights abuses.
SPIEGEL: And yet Kenya is receiving more money from Germany than ever before -- 138 million ($198 million) in three years.
Niebel: I assure you, we are looking very closely at how that money is used and whether the right political advancements are achieved in return. Still, the truth is that we need to work on the structural causes of the catastrophe, on the development of rural areas, in order to reduce the likelihood of similar disasters in the future. That can only be done in the long term.
SPIEGEL: But if we're talking about world hunger, we also have to talk about financial markets. In recent years, banks, hedge funds and investors have discovered food commodities as an object for speculation, which is no small factor behind increasing food prices.
Niebel: Speculation on food goods is certainly a part of the problem, but it is not the crux of it.
SPIEGEL: But it is something we can influence more than we can influence the weather. France is calling for stricter regulations. What about you?
Niebel: As a matter of principle, I believe it necessary to get speculation under control, but protectionism isn't the way to do it.
SPIEGEL: German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has called it "irresponsible speculation in food goods."
Niebel: Anywhere where there is speculation on food and the result is people starving, that is irresponsible.
SPIEGEL: Why have you still not implemented the 0.7 percent target, a commitment on the part of industrialized countries to provide 0.7 percent of their gross national product for development aid? Isn't it time to be honest about it, and bid that target goodbye?
Niebel: I was seven years old when that target was introduced, and Germany has still never achieved it. But it remains an important goal, because giving it up would pave the way in the other direction, to cutbacks.
SPIEGEL: While we're on the topic of doing away with things -- you have now been in office for two years and yet there has still been no move on your part to fulfill your party's campaign promise of disbanding the Development Ministry.
Niebel: That question was inevitable. Well, here's an exclusive for SPIEGEL: We in the Free Democratic Party (FDP) had suggested combining the development and foreign ministries into one -- not because we were opposed to development cooperation, but because we opposed the left-wing development aid practiced by my predecessor, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul of the Social Democratic Party. Then we, as a member of the governing coalition, were put in charge of the Development Ministry and instead we transformed it into a different ministry than the one it had been, even though that meant accepting the media's punishment. The ministry that the FDP had wanted to incorporate into another doesn't exist any more.
SPIEGEL: And what kind of ministry have you created instead?
Niebel: It's no longer Wieczorek-Zeul's charity ministry -- instead, it is Dirk Niebel's globalization ministry.
Interview conducted by Horand Knaup, Christoph Schult and Christoph Schwennicke