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A vote for change in Germany – but how much will Germany’s role in global development change?

Written by Gundula Löffler

This past Sunday, Germany elected a new Bundestag (Federal Parliament), and with it a new Federal Government. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won the relative majority of votes, 25.7%, ahead of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), with 24.1% – 8.8 percentage points fewer than 2017 – who had to concede defeat after four consecutive terms in office. The Greens, with 14.8%, significantly strengthened their position from the previous election (8.9 % in 2017), while the Free Democrat Party (FDP) roughly maintained its share of the vote at 11.5%. It appears that, after 16 years of conservative rule delivered through the politics of small, steady steps – Angela Merkel’s preferred governing approach – Germany was ready for change, one that will result in more decisive and forceful political engagement with the big global challenges of our times.

The substantial shift in the distribution of votes creates an opportunity for the next German government to adopt a new style of policy-making, and to take on a new leadership role in international development. The increase in electoral support for the Greens and the Social Democrats opens the way for Germany to push for stronger links between development, security and environmental issues. The Greens seek to radically transform the German political agenda by focusing on climate change while ensuring social equity and cohesion, both domestically and internationally. Their support initially went through the roof, even putting them ahead of the incumbent CDU/CSU, who were struggling with a weak candidate leading a haphazard campaign. But as voters started to realise just how much this radical transformation would potentially impact their everyday life, a somewhat tamer option promised a shift in a similar direction, but with a greater focus on making the climate transformation socially acceptable: the Social Democrats, with their chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz.

Scholz is far from a novel entity: he is a long-serving career politician with ample leadership experience, most recently in the role of vice chancellor and finance minister of the outgoing CDU/CSU and SPD coalition government. His calm, reliable nature and issue-oriented debating style – interestingly quite similar to Merkel’s – scored him crucial points with the electorate. This similarity – which Scholz occasionally seemed to deliberately exploit, even mimicking the ‘Merkel diamond’ – might have helped put his party in the lead. Now he needs to prove that he can do things differently. His experience in international and development issues has been limited, so he will need to rely on a strong team to give direction in this area.

In the first instance, it will fall to him to lead negotiations to form a new government – potentially with the Greens and the FDP – although anything is possible: the lead over CDU/CSU is narrow, and the conservatives are ready to step in if the Social Democrats do not succeed in forming a stable coalition with the two pivotal junior partners. The next few weeks will show whether Scholz can strike a compromise and reconcile all parties’ major interests and visions in a way that brings about genuine change, both in Germany and abroad.

Is a new strategic vision and approach for international development policy on the horizon?

Despite strong societal engagement and a clear commitment to foreign aid from previous governments, international development is not usually the subject of much public debate in Germany. All the major political parties – SPD, CDU/CSU, Greens, FDP, the Left (die Linke) – are largely in agreement about supporting the 0.7% ODA-to-GNI target, and are firmly committed to the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement (with the exception of the far-right Alternative for Germany or AfD, but luckily no one is thinking of letting them anywhere near executive power). Questions around how to achieve these high-level goals are either left to the bureaucrats in the Bundesministerium fuer Wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung (the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development or BMZ) and its implementing agencies or, where of political interest, addressed in the context of other policy areas.

International development policy was accordingly largely absent from all parties’ campaigns, which were dominated by fierce policy debates around climate change, conflict and security, the global health crisis and economic recovery. While international development policy certainly would have something to say on all of these issues, other policy areas are taking the lead on proposing how to tackle them. So far, the German government’s approach to international development policy is lacking an ‘overall vision binding German development actors beyond the dedicated Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)’ to effectively support global sustainable development. The question is whether a new government under social-democratic leadership is going to break this pattern by articulating a more forceful, strategic vision for international development. Here are two concrete suggestions for how this vision might be taken forward.

Suggestion 1: Putting the BMZ in charge of coordinating government responses to global development challenges

In 2020, BMZ, under CSU leadership at the time, made an attempt at strengthening the strategic orientation of international development policy by adopting the Reform Strategy BMZ 2030. The strategy considers development policy ‘a cross-cutting task for the policy making of the entire government’. What could be seen as a first attempt at putting this approach into practice is the supply chain law (with the impressive German title Lieferkettensorgfaltspflichtengesetz), which holds companies in Germany accountable for ensuring respect for human rights throughout their supply chains. Formulation of the law was led by BMZ, with the involvement of other departments including the Ministry of Labour, which largely supported the proposed legislation, and the Ministry of Economy, which had major concerns. After long discussion a compromise was reached, and the law was finally passed in 2021. The law is a good example of a model that could be applied to other policies governing global public goods, ensuring coherence of domestic policies with global development objectives. Chancellor Scholz should make this approach to policy-making standard practice for addressing issues of global sustainable development by empowering his Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development vis-à-vis her cabinet colleagues to set guidelines for federal policy, by use of his directive competency.

Suggestion 2: Pursuing a more regional, integrated approach in West Africa

The Reform Strategy BMZ 2030 reduced the number of cooperation partner countries from 85 to 60, dividing them into three groups: ‘bilateral partners’, including reform and transformation partners; ‘global partners’; and ‘nexus and peace partners’. The global partnerships focus on jointly protecting global public goods such as climate and human rights, an issue that Germany has shown strong commitment towards. Nexus and peace partnerships seek to tackle structural causes of conflict, displacement and violence. As part of these partnerships, BMZ supports a number of thematic initiatives, including the Marshall Plan with Africa, focused on boosting economic growth, trade and job creation to strengthen Africa’s integration into the global economy. While this is a step in the right direction in terms of articulating a strategic vision and approach to global development, the actual implementation of Germany’s development policy falls short of this vision in practice.

Germany’s engagement in West Africa is a good example of this gap between vision and implementation. Most West African countries still rank in the ‘classic’ bilateral partner list, with which Germany seeks to support the achievement of ‘shared development goals’, usually concentrated around country-specific priority areas ranging from improving water and sanitation services to strengthening decentralisation and good governance. While this approach is tailored to individual countries, it is small-scale and fragmented considering that many countries in the West African region are highly integrated, both socioeconomically and culturally. A great deal of trade and migration (often informal) occurs between neighbouring countries. The governments of the region are pushing for greater economic, trade and monetary coordination and integration through supranational bodies such as ECOWAS and WAEMU. In addition, many of the most critical issues these countries face, such as security threats from jihadist rebels and terrorists, or threats to people’s livelihoods from a drastically changing climate, do not stop at borders and impact the region as a whole. The current approach focuses too much on specific problems without accounting for the bigger picture, leading to a failure to address these issues.

A new German government as leader in global development?

The new German government has the opportunity to take a more coherent and strategic approach to supporting global sustainable development. Doing so would require empowering the Minister for International Cooperation and Development to take the lead on coordinating policy responses to issues that impact global sustainable development. In West Africa, this could mean addressing prevailing development challenges in the broader context of regional security and climate change threats by devising a cooperation strategy for the region as a whole. This should be done in collaboration with ECOWAS and the African Union to ensure strategic alignment with other regional efforts, including on peacebuilding and climate change. A coalition between SPD, FDP and the Greens, in particular with strong green and social democratic influence, may well be inclined to go down these routes. However, it will require leadership from the chancellery directing its own cabinet to adopt a more strategic, more concerted response to today’s global development challenges. Mr. Chancellor, lead the change that German international development policy needs!