Reflecting major trends in development cooperation

The Academy for International Cooperation and its predecessors have been preparing experts for foreign assignments since 1965. Ten years ago, it was absorbed into GIZ. Inge Halene has been part of the programme for 20 years. A conversation about learning – and the major trends of the future.

Ms Halene, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH is now 10 years old – but programmes to prepare development cooperation experts for assignments abroad have been around longer.

Much longer! It all started back in the 1960s when the German Foundation for International Development’s Central Office for Foreign Affairs (“Zentralstelle für Auslandskunde der Deutschen Stiftung für Internationale Entwicklung”) was founded at Uhlhof, a beautiful old villa in Bad Honnef. Two mergers, one relocation and 45 years later, it is what we now know as GIZ’s Academy for International Cooperation, or AIZ, based in Bonn-Röttgen. Today, we are the largest and most experienced provider of courses to prepare experts for assignments abroad in the field of development cooperation in the whole of Germany. More than 35 German seconding organisations such as political foundations, forumZFD and the Goethe Institute regularly send their experts to us to get them ready for their assignments.

So what does preparing these experts for assignments abroad actually involve?

Our aim is to make sure that the participants are fully prepared for their assignments in developing countries and emerging economies so that they can get to work quickly and effectively once they get on site. Our global GIZ network and contact with all of the other seconding organisations enables us to tailor the content of our courses precisely to the needs of the participants. They can take courses on a wide range of topics with us, ranging from language lessons and seminars on improving advisory skills, to security training to prepare them for assignments in crisis areas. Our security training doesn’t hold back – the courses take place on a former military base where we simulate attacks, checkpoints and much more. We currently offer a total of 23 training courses on different topics that last between half a day and four weeks.

All in person?

Until recently we mainly offered in-person training, as establishing bonds between the participants plays a crucial role. We have been offering online training for some time, but the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this development enormously. Almost all of our courses have now been virtualised. In 2019 we carried out 16 training courses digitally. In 2020, it was more than 800. It has worked very well. Only courses such as diversity training and security training, which are all about having the direct experience and trying out new approaches, cannot be carried out online.

Why is it so important that the participants bond?

Experts from more than 35 organisations associated with German international cooperation meet one another at our courses, and will go on to either work in the same country in different fields or in the same field in different countries. The networks and friendships that come out of these preparatory courses often last for decades. This fosters global collaboration and the exchange of information between the organisations.

Thinking about the Academy as a place of learning – how has it developed over the decades?

It’s a fascinating story. As we have experts from so many different organisations on our courses, and because we are continuously adapting the course programme to new requirements, the Academy reflects the major trends in development cooperation on a much smaller scale. Let’s start with the mergers we were a part of – first into InWEnt, then into GIZ. They show a clear trend of moving away from small-scale entities with everyone doing their own thing and towards integrated thinking and international cooperation with the different players working together. It has also been interesting to see how development cooperation has become increasingly professionalised over the decades. In the 80s and 90s, our courses were still attended much more by development workers who worked on a more basic level.

The cliché of bearded Birkenstock-wearers digging wells in Africa…

Precisely! (laughs) It was often people who had learned a profession in Germany, like engineers. They would go abroad for a couple of years, pass on their knowledge and then return to their old jobs. These people do still exist, and they still play a valuable role, but today they are in the minority. Over time, international cooperation has become a specialist career path with its own specific degrees. Our participants are real experts in their fields – and obviously still have a great deal of passion for what they do.

What other developments have you seen?

There used to be a wide-held opinion that the superior North had to show the under-developed South how to do things properly. This attitude, which was accepted as normal back then and rarely questioned, was reflected in the content of the courses. Thankfully, we have made massive strides forwards since then. In our training programmes, we now communicate an image of an equal partnership. The North can learn from the South too – and South-South cooperation relationships are playing an increasingly important role. For example, an expert from Peru might advise on a project in Mali as the two countries are facing similar challenges and each could benefit from the approaches of the other.
At the same time, the demands placed on experts are becoming ever greater, and all organisations are finding it more difficult to recruit suitable personnel. Once found, they have to be ready to get to work on site as quickly as possible, meaning that the preparation time has been getting shorter and shorter over the years. Experts currently spend an average of around 12 days with us.

How does global politics influence how you prepare people for assignments abroad?

One of the more significant things we are noticing is that the topic of security is overtaking all other areas. Demand for our security training has grown considerably in recent years. This is obviously due to the fact that armed conflicts are increasing all over the world, and that German development cooperation is increasingly taking place in and focusing on fragile contexts. We have had to adapt the Academy to this.

What does the future of preparing people for assignments abroad look like?

I believe that digitalisation offers a great many opportunities for learning. It enables us to make training processes even more flexible and customisable. Participants have been able to attend a preparatory course with us and then receive coaching from their trainer online during their assignment for some years now. Providing courses digitally means that many more topics can now be explored alongside the participant’s assignment, allowing them to draw on their practical experiences, without them having to return to Germany. Digital networking is also sure to play a greater role going forward. Participants on our preparatory courses can already meet and chat on our online platform. Who’s going where? Who’s working in the same field? They can find answers there and have the opportunity to make new contacts.

Courses on handling diversity and complexity are also increasingly in demand. This is due to the global phenomenon of developments such as digitalisation and globalisation accelerating change, and requires a great deal of flexibility from experts on assignments abroad too. The focus on conflict regions is also leading to a decrease in traditional on-site assignments. Instead, more flexible models such as ‘blended assignments’ are being used, where the experts spend strictly limited periods of time supporting the partners on site multiple times per year. We will adapt our preparatory training offers in line with these trends.

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