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.

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3 thoughts on “An End to Development? The Appointment of Dirk Niebel as BMZ Liquidator

  1. Totgesagte leben länger-There’s life in the old dog yet

    As interesting as I find the debate around Dirk Niebel’s appointment, I am little bit surprised that very few look at it from a ‘rational’, political science and organizational studies perspective: There is a Western democracy and believe it or not they are actually appointing a politician as minister, based on party proportonality and political considerations rather than an ‘expert’ who actually knows about the subject area! This happens all the time-and it very often happens around issues of foreign or development policy, because, as much as we would like to see them as a priority, they are not topics to win votes and get appointments. His predecessor, the ‘red Heidi’, a high school teacher from Gross-Gerau in Hesse, was not exactly an international development heavy-weight. No news here. Niebel is not much different from most of his predecessors. Merging/closing down the BMZ…I can’t remember an incoming government that was not surrounded by such rumours. Despite any rational logic large parts of the BMZ are still based in Bonn-and they actually do relatively well in this little development biotope along the Rhein. Its resilience to be moved to Berlin, merged with the Foreign Office or simply be shut down is remarkable-less so if you think of basic organizational theory and bureaucratic principles. The BMZ is a survivor, by far the smallest ministry and seemingly immune to fundamental changes. Having a ministry for development that does not implement projects (this is done by gtz and similar agencies) and is separate from ‘official’ foreign policy is unique and seems old-fashioned-as much of the development ‘scene’ in Bonn, the highly promoted and subsidised ‘international’ and UN city, seems. The Federal presence in Bonn has always been used in the promotion of the city and is at the core of the outdated ‘Bonn-Berlin contract’ that was signed when the government moved to Berlin in the 1990s. My paradoxical answer is that it is exactly its outdated-ness that mobilizes the political lobby time and again-and until know Bonn seems to have secured its places in the development scene of which the BMZ is likely to remain a part of for the next few years.

    But Daniel also touches on another interesting point: The ‘neoliberalisation’ of aid policy. Here in the UK the conservative lobby is increasingly criticizing what they call ‘Fake Aid’ . The International Policy Network (www.policynetwork.net/uploaded/pdf/Fake_Aid.pdf) as well as the Adam Smith Institute (http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/international/dfid%E2%80%99s-fake-aid–200909044064/) are criticizing DFID spending ‘nearly £1bn on spurious “communications” activities since 2000’ among other points of critique. In this week’s ECONOMIST there is also an interesting article about UK’s foreign aid (‘Wrapped up against the cold’-now only availablee to subscribers…) and Andrew Mitchell, the Tory spokesman on aid is quoted that he want to have ‘a little more private-sector DNA, a bit more civil-service DNA and a little less NGO DNA’. My feeling is that Mr Niebel can definitely identify with more ‘private-sector DNA’, the traditional domain of the FDP.

    So the aid policy pendulum may swing (again) in the ‘neoliberal’ direction, but the BMZ will remain a happy swinger’s club…figuratively speaking, of course!

  2. Hello Mr Esser,
    thanks for this pointed analysis on the recent German development policy events. I found your website as an – admittedly less profound – article of mine is related to your that post by coincidence.
    All the best,
    Christoph

  3. Pingback: New UK development minister is an anti-development lobbyist on a mission | Daniel Esser

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