Preventing the Migrant Wave Germany Exports Employment Offices to Africa

In order to combat the root causes of economic migration, Germany has opened a job center in Ghana that helps people find local employment. But what happens when German bureaucracy comes head to head with the everyday reality in Ghana?

Mr Tette at the Mr David Tetteat the Ghanaian-German Centre for Jobs, Migration and Reintegration, Accra, Ghana
Ruth McDowall / DER SPIEGEL

Mr Tette at the Mr David Tetteat the Ghanaian-German Centre for Jobs, Migration and Reintegration, Accra, Ghana

By in Accra, Ghana

When the harmattan wind picks up dust from the Sahara and carries it down south, the sunlight reflecting off the glass façade of the Gnat Heights Tower is softened. On the ground floor of the seven-floor office building, the air conditioning drowns out the noise of Independence Avenue outside, along which traffic rushing into the center of the Ghanaian capital of Accra. The walls are painted gray, the new office furniture is of plain black wood and in the lobby in front of the consultation rooms, there's a stand bearing informational materials that still smell as though they've come straight from the printer.

There are four chairs in the lobby. David Tette thinks that should be enough, at least at the beginning.

Tette comes from a poor village in eastern Ghana and is now essentially the director of the first German employment office located south of the Sahara. And he has done everything he can to make the office look to his compatriots like a serious German agency. It's a morning in December, shortly after the agency opened its doors, and Tette is in his windowless office digging through a cabinet on the search for a package of Jacobs Krönung coffee -- which, he says, is currently his primary source of sustenance. Tette is a short 55-year-old wearing a carefully trimmed moustache, a plaid jacket and neatly ironed trousers. He never dreamed that he might one day be the center of attention.

Tette glances at a photo showing him with a proud smile on his face next to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier when suddenly one of his two job consultants appears in the doorway and says that a young man was just in the office wanting to apply to an offshore oil company in Germany. Tette grabs his head. "Offshore?" he says incredulously. "In Germany?"

Yesterday, 13 employees from the telephone company on the third floor came to visit and wanted to know whether Tette had a job for them in Germany. And only this morning, a building superintendent named Freewill showed up saying he was looking for a job as a "Top Manager/Operations Executive," preferably abroad.

Tette looks a bit perplexed.

"Maybe it's because of the sign," he says. "Ghanaian-German Centre for Jobs, Migration and Reintegration" it says on the façade outside, a choice of wording that could indeed lead one to believe that the offices were the starting point for a journey to Europe. But they aren't. To the contrary, Tette is offering traineeships and jobs in Ghana for those who want to stay and for those returning home from abroad.

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In his opening speech a few days earlier, Tette said it's not as though Ghana didn't offer a future. In contrast to Germany, he went on, there just wasn't anybody to point young people in the right direction. "Every German who leaves school goes to the Arbeitsamt," he said, using the German word for employment office. Next to him, the German president nodded solemnly, flanked by the equally solemn Ghanaian labor minister, Ignatius Baffour Awuah, who had just ceremoniously cut through a yellow ribbon.

Stemming the Flow

The employment office in Ghana is an experiment being conducted at the intersection of German and Ghanaian interests. From the German perspective, it's part of the response to several traumatic summers full of refugee arrivals, a response that has seen the country slowly expand its border protection activities. In Libya, German police officers are helping to develop a coast guard. In Niger, they are building fences in the desert sand. In Sudan, they are equipping border guards. These measures, intended to block the flow of migrants as early as possible, are complemented by policies aimed at combatting the causes of flight in Africa. To this end, the first migration center opened in Tunis last March, followed by another in Casablanca in September. The new office in Accra was followed in January of this year by one in Dakar. All of them are financed by German taxpayers and are coordinated by the German development agency GIZ. "We have to provide arguments for why it makes more sense for people to make a contribution in their home countries," Steinmeier said at the opening.

There are currently 4,098 Ghanaians living in Germany without a residency permit. Instead of leaving the country, many of them ultimately go underground. They know that failed migrants who return home from Europe with nothing can expect ridicule and derision. Cast out by families who often sold all they had to finance the trip, the returnees meander through the city -- frustrated, branded as losers and often suffering from the traumatic events experienced during their trip.

For the Ghanaian government, these young men are a potential source of volatility, and successfully absorbing their return is a question of domestic stability. It is also worth asking what happens to a society when, within the course of just a few years, an estimated half-million people leave their homeland because they no longer see a future there.

Development Aid Failures

Even if Ghana is often presented as a prime example of a stable African democracy, the country has never truly escaped its cycle of constantly reoccurring crises. Recently, for example, the country's exports plunged by more than 15 percent as a consequence of falling global commodities prices. Nana Akufo-Addo, a lawyer who has been president of Ghana since January 2017, recently fumed in a widely acclaimed speech that his country can no longer be dependent on the generosity of European taxpayers. All of the aid has done nothing, he said, adding that future assistance would also be useless.

Akufo-Addo is essentially demanding a second independence for his country, 60 years after the first one. That's why he's planning increased funding for schools and universities. That's why greenhouses are springing up across the country in the hopes of boosting agricultural production. That's why he has launched a program called "One District, One Factory," whose aim is that of processing commodities within Ghana prior to export.

Akufo-Addo hopes to create thousands of jobs. But people must be found to fill those positions.

Officially, there are 46 Public Employment Centres spread across the country, but generally they only have a couple of message boards posted. There is no central database of unfilled jobs. On that score, it would seem that the Germans could be helpful.

Such is the starting point for the experiment.

The question, though, is what it looks like when two cultures put their heads together on an issue like that. What will happen when German bureaucracy meets Ghanaian reality? And more importantly, will the Ghanaians even accept what the Germans are offering?

The First Wave

On the recent morning in Tette's office, he says that his first real client has said he will be showing up soon, a young football player who recently returned to Ghana. Plus, the local papers wrote extensively about Steinmeier's visit. Tette believes the first wave of job-seekers is about to crash over him.

Yet he also has to find a way to relax a bit after all the stress of the recent weeks. There were all the furniture deliveries that missed their delivery appointments only to show up unexpectedly. And all the dreamers. It's not like Tette is unable to understand these people. He himself spent nine years in Berlin at a time when all you needed for a visa was a passport, an acceptance letter from a university and 3,000 deutsche marks in your pocket. Tette's family was able to afford it. His mother directed a girls' school and his father led a road construction company.

Tette's oldest sister was the first to leave. To help finance her medical studies in the United States, the family sold their old piano. A second sister went to college in Hannover. A cousin of his is a master brewer in Bremen. Tette believes this wanderlust comes from his grandfather, who was a German teacher and loved watching German gameshows.

After finishing his biochemistry studies in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi, Tette decided to head to Berlin at age 27 to study food technology. He learned how to dance the waltz so that he wasn't constantly standing on the sidelines when his Catholic student association threw parties. He began walking faster and he now excuses himself in restaurants when he eats fufu, a staple African food, with his hands. He never really thought he would stay. He wanted to "acquire knowledge," he says, "and use it to build something in Ghana."

After holding jobs at a chemical company and at an institute for market ecology, Tette joined GIZ in 2010. For seven years, he helped Ghanaians who had studied overseas to launch their careers once they had returned home. He was, in short, an obvious choice to lead the employment office. It is a position in which you need to be familiar with both worlds.

'Test Mission'

Over the years, Tette has become fluent in the language of development aid. In his office, he speaks of a "test mission" to explore the situation in Accra. He describes a "mapping" project he assigned to determine the degree to which he could rely on existing development aid programs when it came to job placement. That was followed by Skype conferences, interface workshops and constant communication. It is a sensitive job. To ensure that it doesn't look as though GIZ is interfering in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country, the development aid organization needed a "bilateral partner" that would, in a best-case scenario, view the project as its own.

Tette says that over the course of several conversations, he "pushed" Baffour, the new labor minister, to realize that helping people find jobs is one of the core tasks of his portfolio.

Whereas the Tunisians initially suspected that the project was primarily a German attempt to get rid of Islamist extremists, the Ghanaians were mostly interested in the size of the budget. Baffour also saw it as an excellent opportunity to bring the various divisions in his ministry, which were spread out across the city, under a single roof. Tette says he explored the idea and looked at several buildings in the city, including one that UNESCO used to occupy. But it was decrepit and filled with asbestos, and Tette vetoed it. "Our bookkeepers would never approve a complete refurbishment," he says.

Ultimately, they agreed on a compromise. Because time was short, Tette initially rented the rooms on Independence Avenue. At the same time, they began planning to construct a new building to be located where the parking lot of Baffour's headquarters currently stands, offices they hope to move into later this year. To keep costs down, Tette envisions "a modular structure made from recycled shipping containers."

Currently, they are evaluating three possible designs submitted by local architects. Which is to say, Tette had completed his appraisal by the end of November but Baffour's people are stalling. "They are driving me crazy," he complains as he calls the number of Emma Ofori, his Labor Ministry contact, for the third time this morning.

Ofori, for her part, says that Tette has long since become a German himself, pointing to the fact that he puts far too much pressure on himself as evidence. Ofori, a young woman with short dreadlocks, should know: "I see him more often than my husband," she says a few days later as she navigates her black BMW SUV through Accra's rush-hour traffic. As a ministry official, Ofori belongs to the small upper class in Accras that leads a kind of jet-set life and flies business class to international conferences.

"My minister," she says, "would be thrilled to be able to dedicate the building during his term." But like Tette, Ofori also has the impression that things are moving too slowly. Tette has to get his procurement staff to sign off on every single piece of furniture. He lectures her at length about tax money and asbestos, but what is she supposed to do?

"We follow the pace of the German government," Ofori says. "We don't want to push too hard."

In November, just a month before the dedication, she is sitting together with Tette and his superior, Alan Walsch, in Baffour's office, where the yellow-painted walls are mildewing. Whereas Baffour is slumped deeply in his easy chair, Walsch and Tette are perched on the edges of their seats like schoolchildren. They are pleased that the minister has reserved half an hour for them. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Tette mentions that he had been at a conference with a few local NGOs that morning. Baffour turns to Ofori and asks pointedly, "Were we invited?" Ofori shakes her head. Baffour looks over to Walsch, but before he can say anything, Tette says that they will certainly be invited next time. "Why not this time?" the minister wants to know. But there is no satisfactory answer. And Baffour closes his eyes.

Walsch continues talking about the designs submitted by the architects. When he says he intends to send them to GIZ headquarters in Germany soon, Baffour rejoins the conversation by clearing his throat. "Of course you'll get them beforehand," Tette says to appease him, to which Baffour responds with a satisfied grumble.

Sitting behind his desk the next morning, the minister holds an extensive speech on the president's labor policies in response to a question about his contribution to the project. Baffour briefly mentions his limited budget before glancing apologetically out the window. Down below is the parking lot that he had made available for the construction of the new agency, a patch of red earth on which a couple of old cars are rusting away. Baffour pauses.

"My contribution?" he finally asks. "Well, I am the boss."

The Germans say that the labor minister isn't actually the type of person to stand in the way. They see him as someone who values etiquette, is aware of his country's colonial history and expects to be treated as an equal. They view it as a positive sign that he calls himself the boss. We want them to take ownership, the Germans say -- but they say it with a sly grin.

'Good, But Not Good'

On a Wednesday morning which finds Tette still calling around trying to obtain Baffour's evaluation report, the first returnee is sitting in the office of employment counsellor Kwaku Yeboah. Yeboah is in his early thirties and is wearing a gray suit. He went to university in the German city of Osnabrück and later helped set up the diaspora division in the Foreign Ministry back in Ghana. A questionnaire is sitting on his desk.

"Hey Jude, how are you?" Yeboah asks the young man with trembling hands sitting across from him.

"Good, but not good."

"How old are you?"


Yeboah takes a closer look at him. On the phone, Jude had said he was a football player, and with his carefully sculpted beard, stylish trainers and huge watch, he does look like one.

"How long did you spend in Germany?"

"About two years."

"How did you get there?"

As Yeboah takes notes, Jude tells him about playing for a top-league team in northern Ghana, about payments that weren't enough to live from and about working in illegal gold mines. A Ghanaian businessman then discovered him during a pick-up game, Jude says, and got him in touch with a Czech agent who promised to fulfill his dream of a career in Europe.

"But the guy was gay, you know?" Jude says.

"Gay?" Yeboah asks.

Amid the ensuing giggling, Jude says that he's not sure if the Czech man was even an agent at all. At some point, he left Prague for Germany and applied for asylum. What followed was a trip through refugee shelters, temporary permission to remain in the country and a letter written on his behalf by the mayor of the town of Langenfeld, penned in part because Jude had helped the local football team advance to the next level.

"Why did you come back?"

"Too many headaches."

"Do you have a place to sleep?"

"No problem, no problem."

Yeboah leans back in his chair.

The traffic on Independence Avenue is audible through the drawn blinds. Yeboah says he knows someone who could possibly arrange a trial with Wa All Stars, a top Ghanaian team. He promises to call Jude when he knows more.

Later, long after Jude has left, Yeboah runs through a few other options. GIZ, he says, recently launched a project at Accra's largest garbage dump that teaches young people how to recycle electronic waste. At the same time, he says, a local clan chief stopped by that morning who offers IT classes. His students all sleep in a dormitory. Why not offer something like that to Jude if it doesn't work out with the All Stars?

Retreating to Vagueness

Yeboah estimates that he has around 600 jobs to offer at the moment. Their offerings include agricultural courses, where trainees can learn how to plant rice and sugar cane, and they cooperate with social organizations that operate fish farms, repair garages and tailor's shops. At the meeting to which the Labor Ministry hadn't been invited, they informed local NGOs how to apply to GIZ for project support. And they said that projects that don't reserve 90 percent of the budget for travel costs and salaries have a greater chance of success.

The first of these applications are now coming in and employment agent Yeboah, who is glancing through them, furrows his brow at the unrealistic sums being asked for and the vaguely formulated project goals. "It has to be understandable to headquarters," he told the clan chief that morning, before they went through his flowery prose line by line. Now it is part of the towering pile of paper stacked on Yeboah's desk. At the very top is the resume of the building superintendent who dreams of becoming a senior executive.

Yeboah grabs the application and waves it in the air. "Five pages of blah, blah, blah," he says. "Sometimes it seems like we Africans only produce paper."

Germans and Ghanaians have different ways of communicating. Germans, Tette believes, are more direct. They are clear and true to their word -- that's what he learned from his grandfather. Ghanaians, by contrast, retreat to vagueness when addressing people in authority, he says. How quickly that can lead to misunderstandings becomes apparent by taking a closer look at Jude's story.

The scent of roasted chicken wafts through the evening air in the Teshie district of Accra as Jude sinks, exhausted, into a plastic chair in front of a church where he is waiting for an acquaintance who has offered him a place to crash for the night.

Jude says he sleeps somewhere else each night. The people who give him shelter, he says, look at him funny, as though he were hiding something. When he poked around the port yesterday looking for work, he says he was shooed away like a fly. Jude says he never learned how to do anything except play football. When he was 15, he hawked things on the street. His father had already died by then and Jude didn't know where his mother was. His sister, he says, has a newborn baby and he doesn't want to be a burden.

What's the deal with the Czech agent?

Jude gazes emptily at a mango tree. "I stayed in his apartment for three weeks," he says. "He touched me. He tried to pull me into his bed, but I resisted, even on the one occasion when he pointed a pistol at me."

Jude managed to make his way to Germany, where he told an official what had happened, though he of course suspected that his story was not sufficient justification for asylum. The official told him that he would only have a chance to come back to Germany if he left in accordance with the law. If he were deported, the official said, he would be blocked from returning for up to three years. That's why he prefers not to be identified with a full name and photograph in this story.

Jude takes his mobile phone out of his pocket and shows pictures of an older blonde woman.

"Elka," he says.

They met in a refugee hostel in Hilden, a town near Düsseldorf. Elka, who had just lost her job, was a volunteer at the hostel and they fell in love. He cooked fufu for her and she came along on her bicycle when he headed to football practice through the strawberry fields. He took the 50 euros Elka had shoved into his pocket at the Düsseldorf airport and bought shoes for his sister's baby.

"We want to get married," Jude says.

Next year, once she has saved up enough money, Elka intends to come to Ghana to get him. He has to make ends meet until then. Jude isn't sure if a trial with the Wa All Stars is the right idea. At his last club, called Eleven Wise, he only received 7 euros per month. He had actually been hoping, he says, that Yeboah would place him in a job he could live from. Something in agriculture, for example.

Why didn't he say anything?

"I assumed that Yeboah would know," Jude says.

Does the Employment Office Have a Future?

It's difficult to say whether Jude could have been clearer or whether a questionnaire can offer a sufficient picture of a life like the one led by Jude. The first returnee, in any case, doesn't look like someone who wants to reintegrate in the long term. And the question this raises is what that means for the future of the employment office?

Tette says he's aware of the problem. A psychologist who has been tasked with looking after hardship cases told him that there is often a transitionary phase among returnees. "It takes some time for your mind to arrive," Tette says.

Minds. That's actually what it's all about. It's about the myth that everyone can quickly and easily achieve wealth in Europe. It is Tette's task to point out that hard work and a modest income at home might actually be the better solution. But it's not easy. The 300 euros Jude was gifted each month by the German state is more than even a teacher earns in Ghana.

"We need time," Tette says. "And we need role models."

The lobby television is showing an Al Jazeera documentary that is full of horrific images of sinking rubber rafts in the Mediterranean.

Then Tette loses his patience. After Emma Ofori again offers extensive excuses for why the ministry still hasn't completed its evaluation of the architectural plans, he sends his secretary to the ministry. A half-hour later, he receives a text message telling him that there is a problem with the copy machine. Tette exhales loudly.

For months, he says, he's been working at 120 percent capacity. And yet, it still sometimes seems to him like he's wandering aimlessly between the front lines rather than building bridges. And it's not just the Ghanaians who are making life difficult for him, he says. It's the Germans too, who demand a report for everything. On some days, he says, he feels like he is still having to prove that a black man like himself can be trusted.

The employment office in Tunis announced that it hoped to advise 2,000 clients in the first year. In the end, it was far fewer than that, which is one reason that Tette is wary of making a forecast. The only thing that is certain is that he will hand over control of the office to the Ghanaians in two years. Tette knows that real change is dependent on creating jobs that are independent of the development aid industry. And it is essential that government ministers sincerely view the project as their own.

For the moment, he'd be happy enough if he could soon start work paving over the parking lot in front of Baffour's office.

With additional reporting by Marc Hujer.


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