An End to Development? The Appointment of Dirk Niebel as BMZ Liquidator

Scarcity facilitates choice. But finding senior politicians who are qualified for high-ranking federal posts can be a headache nonetheless. Germany’s political establishment, not precisely littered with luminaries in the field of International Development, has yet to rival France’s courage to appoint Medecins Sans Frontieres founder Bernard Kouchner as Foreign Minister. While deserving credit for pushing the gender agenda and raising the profile of health-related constraints, former German Development Secretary Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul was also infamous for her resistance to engage with technical matters and her habit of throwing office supplies at non-compliant staff. So the recent change of government in Germany did not only promise new faces; there was modest hope for a fresh approach infused with real expertise.

This hope, it has now turned out, was naive. The Liberal Party (FDP), emboldened by its historic success at the polls, has managed to snatch not only the Ministry of Health (the new incumbent is a 36-year old medical doctor and former enlisted officer in the Bundeswehr) and the Foreign Office. It also sends the new leader of the Bundesministerium fuer wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung (BMZ) into the coalition government. His name is Dirk Niebel. And that’s about all that development practitioners know about him.

In the past, Niebel distinguished himself mostly as a fervent critic of Germany’s administrative system for managing unemployment benefits. Hitting a central nerve of those advocating for social safety nets and the social embeddedness of capitalist enterprise in the Rheinische tradition, Niebel laments the “unemployment industry” (“Arbeitslosenindustrie”) and propagates a libertarian agenda. His website contains several posts about employment policies (the most prominent being to dissolve the German Employment Agency) but is completely silent on any issues related to human development abroad. During his campaign, Niebel did mention the BMZ occasionally – and advocated its liquidation.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle’s justification of Niebel’s appointment did little to dispel substantive doubts. Germany’s new Foreign Secretary responded to journalists’ befuddlement by pointing out that he wanted to end the situation in which the BMZ was practicing an “alternative foreign policy.” The BMZ’s previous insistence on human rights as an unalienable item on Germany’s economic cooperation agenda in times of global competition is thus likely a thing of the past. Ministerial solo attempts such as Wieczorek-Zeul’s reception of the Dalai Lama despite protests by trade lobbyists and right-wing politicians will give way to a hierarchical model led by trade, not aid.

With neoliberalism back in the German driver’s seat, its gaze set firmly on the marvels of market-led economic growth, the FDP’s apparent objective of paralyzing and demoting–and eventually dissolving–the BMZ is a logical conclusion. Where bureaucracy is considered the enemy and ‘free’ trade the solution, calling in the liquidator makes sense. The next four years will show whether the process is marked by agony or silent death.