‘There are red lines for us’

Interview with Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, Chair of the Management Board.

Mr Schäfer-Gümbel, the Taliban have now banned women from working in NGOs. What are the implications for GIZ?

Schäfer-Gümbel: The actions of the Taliban are unacceptable. There are red lines for us. Federal Development Minister Svenja Schulze was right to suspend work in Afghanistan, and that applies to us as well. Some of our local staff are obviously women. We never publish figures though, for security reasons.

Do you have any hope that the Taliban might change course in any way?

Schäfer-Gümbel: An enterprise like GIZ, mandated to drive forward sustainable development, always hopes that things will change for the better, but this is a case where we have no influence. The donor community is working together closely. UN consultations continue. Our great strength is that we can act very swiftly and very precisely whenever the opportunity arises. We have, for instance, worked with NGOs to provide food and water for the people. But for the moment everything has been suspended. 

What about the local staff still in the country?

Schäfer-Gümbel: Over the last few months we have been able to get 24,000 people out of Afghanistan on behalf of the German Government. They were not all local staff. This figure included women and men who had been working for human rights organisations, the media and the judiciary. They had all been given guarantees that they were entitled to enter Germany within the framework of the evacuation. It is the German Government that lays down the criteria. Decisions have still to be taken on many applications. 

To what extent can you justify working at all in countries with openly antidemocratic governments?

Schäfer-Gümbel: That is always a very problematic question. And the number of fragile countries that we are engaged in, where state authority is weak or ineffectual, keeps growing. In South Sudan, Sudan and Mali, for instance, we are currently working with non-government bodies. The aim is to support the people directly and improve their daily lives. We have ten ongoing projects in Yemen, that are ensuring water supplies, delivering health care and creating jobs. The focus is to help the people, not the government. And GIZ can operate effectively even under difficult conditions. 

What does Olaf Scholz’s new political direction mean for international development cooperation?

Schäfer-Gümbel: It is obvious to all of us that the world has changed since 24 February. A great many factors are coming together at the moment – the pandemic and its consequences, the climate and energy crisis, and now Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. As a result of these events, there are about 150 million more hungry people in the world. The number of people living in absolute poverty has risen by at least 75 million according to the World Bank. Food and fertiliser prices have rocketed. I believe that development cooperation is more important than ever, because a growing number of people in the Global South are fighting for survival. For these reasons, the new political direction impacts massively on development cooperation.

Can you be more specific?

Schäfer-Gümbel: The overlapping crises have significantly set back some of the last ten years of development achievements. This means that international efforts must be stepped up a great deal. 

But in Germany the new political direction means that more funding is being channelled into the armed forces rather than development.

Schäfer-Gümbel: There can be no development without security, and no security without development. They are interlinked, although each is valid in its own sense. Closely dovetailing development cooperation, diplomacy and security makes good sense. Generally, GIZ is able to act in fragile contexts without requiring any Bundeswehr deployment. And when we operate in areas where the Bundeswehr does have a mandate, we do not necessarily always work in symbiosis. That is not necessary and would not always be helpful for us. 

 The Bundeswehr is being pulled out of Mali. Will GIZ leave too?

Schäfer-Gümbel: That is a decision that will be taken by the German Government. But just let me say again, fragile statehood is a phenomenon that is on the rise. It is practically the norm for GIZ. Two thirds of our projects are implemented against this backdrop. The presence of the Bundeswehr in the partner country is the absolute exception to the rule. 

If you look at Ukraine, will GIZ come into play primarily once hostilities come to an end?

Schäfer-Gümbel: We are already operating in Ukraine, securing energy supplies with generators and supporting internally displaced people. At the moment we have 32 projects on the ground. But obviously enormous funding and effort will be needed to rebuild Ukraine. That will be a massive task for us too.

Published on 10 January 2023: Afghanistan, Mali, Ukraine – Interview with Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, Chair of the GIZ Management Board​ (rp-online.de)