Christian Wilmsen

Patterns of Knowledge and Opinion about Development among the German Public

The seeds of greater openness and knowledge about the concept of One World are not sown on unspoilt, one might say virgin, soil, to use an appropriate image for development education in Germany. It is not freshly cleared ground, well ploughed and finely harrowed, No seed-drill could run over it smoothly since the terrain rather more resembles a battlefield. The sowing has to be done by hand, and great care ­taken with the hummocks and hollows.

It matters little whether there ever was freshly cleared, unspoilt ground, in 1952, say, when the German Bundestag (the federal parliament) first made allowance in the federal budget for projects and programmes to be commissioned in developing countries. What is important is that this whole area of work will not be on the conference agenda at all if we in development education do not pay very careful attention to existing perceptions, hopes, reservations and worries. The question is, what are the opinions to which our message has to respond in the 49th year of German development policy?

By patterns of knowledge and opinion I do not mean prejudices. That is a quite different matter. What I mean is the views of development policy taken by the broad majority of citizens in Germany.

My paper is based on the following assumptions:

  • We live in an age with a surfeit of stimuli and information. The term “info-smog” is becoming familiar. I entirely agree with the previous speaker, Klaus Seitz, that much of what is on offer is “unspeakable garbage“. However, there is also no longer a complete lack of information about developing countries and the concept of One World. Every day, on all television channels taken together, there are about three hours of coverage of the issue.
  • It is therefore becoming increasingly important to direct the perpetually meagre staff and funding resources available in development education towards countering those factors which cause lack of interest or feed the public new misinformation that contradicts everything that the experts are agreed on. In other words, it is of more use to try to correct certain patterns of opinion than to pile on more and more information.

I shall suggest that there are six patterns of opinion about development policy:

  • The first three relate to serious misconceptions inferred by the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) from the results of sample surveys conducted in Germany and other industrialized countries between 1981 and 1999.
  • The fourth pattern of opinion derives from an argument that we hear disturbingly often among groups visiting the Ministry. It can be summed up in one sentence: “What difference can a humble individual like me make in this field?”
  • The last two patterns of opinion, unlike the first four, do not relate to misconceptions, or deviations from expert opinion. They are drawn from a study carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and question the causal relationship between particular social phenomena and perceptions on the one hand, and the willingness to support development cooperation on the other.

This refers to the habit, which is widespread in Germany, of regarding what is happening in developing countries as a far-off problem. Many people do not believe that changes in these distant places will affect their own lives – their jobs or their children’s chances in life, for example. Professor Neusel addressed this issue yesterday and summed it up by saying that people in the industrialized countries lack a subjective feeling of involvement.

The misconception that developing countries and development policy are far-away matters undermines interest in them and reduces people’s willingness to have anything to do with them.

Three sample opinion surveys carried out by the EU Commission asked explicitly whether citizens believe that changes in developing countries – “in their political situation, their economies, their population growth” – would influence the citizens’ own lives in the next 10 to 15 years. Fewer than half of the Germans answered “Yes” in 1984. By comparison, around two thirds of the French, British and Dutch responded in the affirmative.

Unfortunately, the EU Commission last included this explicit question in its regular EUROBAROMETER surveys on development policy in 1991, when it was pleasing that the proportion of Germans believing that political, economic and demographic changes in developing countries would affect their own lives in 10 to 15 years’ time had risen to 57 per cent.

There is, however, indirect evidence from other surveys that the population in Germany still regards what happens in developing countries as largely a far-away concern. Underestimation of trading links with the countries of the South is one of many examples.

In the BMZ surveys carried out in the 1980s, the majority of Germans regarded the volume of development cooperation – “development aid”, as it was termed in the surveys – as greater than, for example, trade in finished goods with developing countries. At the time, the latter was in fact already worth around ten times as much as development cooperation.

In the 1990s, trading links between the EU states and the other industrialized countries, on the one hand, and developing countries, on the other, were included in the 1996 EUROBAROMETER. Although 37 per cent of the foreign trade of the EU as a whole was with developing countries in the year in question, and 17 per cent with the United States, the majority of Europeans, including Germans, placed the United States in first place. The authors of the 1996 survey give their assessment of Germany on page 5: “...there is a more widespread tendency to underrate developing countries. They are also inclined to play down prospects for private enterprise in developing countries...”. On page 6, the authors continue: “...Germany is also one of a small group of countries to reject the idea that the EU and developing countries are mutually dependent.”

Underestimation of the economic ties between Europe, including Germany, and the developing countries, can also be inferred from the research literature and from the questions asked by groups visiting the BMZ.

At this point I should state why I allow myself to use the impressions of the BMZ visitors‘ service to underpin my arguments about this and other opinions. The 200 or so groups of visitors to the BMZ each year are more or less representative of the German public. They do not come on their own initiative or out of interest in the Ministry’s development policy. They usually visit us because a Member of the German Bundestag has included us in the itinerary together with other ministries, the Federal Press Agency and the Bundestag itself. The groups visiting the BMZ are thus quite different from all the participants in development activities carried out by bodies responsible for outof-school education. In the latter case, people must have some prior interest or they would not attend in the first place.

The Second Pattern of Opinion

This refers to the tendency among the German public to make generalized, dismissive judgments about conditions in developing countries. No distinction is made between inconceivable poverty, on the one hand, and astonishing progress on the other. This is the impression gained by all the researchers who have evaluated surveys on behalf of the EU, the BMZ and private agencies. We can confirm these unnecessarily negative judgments from the experience of the BMZ visitors’ service.

Given the similarity in this respect between the results of surveys in all the EU states, I should like to tell you about the result of the 1998 survey in Sweden. It is all the more striking and alarming in that this Scandinavian country is among those states which have for a long time been meeting the 0.7 per cent target. According to OECD figures, it is also one of the group of countries with the highest spending per annum and per capita on development education.

The opinion researchers who carried out the 1998 survey for the Swedish Government came to the conclusion that the Swedes had a very pessimistic view of developing countries. Fewer than ten per cent of them, for example, had a realistic idea of the level of literacy in Asian, African and Latin American countries.

The authors of the study carried out by the UNDP in 1998, which I mentioned earlier, state on page 14 that:

“Most surveys do not ask direct questions about people’s attitudes towards developing countries. One that did asked Swiss respondents whether they thought that developing countries were trying to help themselves....Only eight per cent answered ‘often’. Sixty-two per cent answered ‘sometimes’ and twenty-four per cent said ‘never’. These responses raise the possibility that a substantial number of people in the donor countries may have become deeply sceptical that any action by the North could help the developing countries achieve progress...”

It is extremely difficult to impute to people the reasons for the opinions which survey results apparently give them. Given the numerous factors influencing the formation of opinions, this would in any case require more time than is available in this paper. One result of an EU survey, however, is of particular interest in the quest for the causes of this very negative view of developing countries. It relates to the answers given to one of the questions asked in the 1995 EUROBAROMETER, about what specific topics connected with developing countries ­respondents had recently seen, read or heard about. German citizens answered as follows, in order of frequency:

  1. Aid, development issues
  2. Human rights
  3. Disturbances, coups d‘état
  4. War, defence
  5. Refugees, immigration
  6. Culture, customs, traditions
  7. Environment, ecology
  8. Economy, trade
  9. Travel
  10. Sport

I fear that this order of priority confirms the journalistic tenet that “good news is no news” in press reports on development issues as on everything else.

The Third Pattern of Opinion

This manifests itself in a gross overestimate of the scale of development cooperation. This notion has serious consequences. People argue that aid must have failed if poverty persists after so many billions of marks have been spent over the years. This criticism is also made by around half of all the groups of visitors to the BMZ.

I alluded to overestimation of the scale of development cooperation in the context of foreign trade when discussing the first pattern of opinion, namely the “far-off countries” syndrome. Overestimation of development cooperation is not a purely German phenomenon, however. According to the 1996 EUROBAROMETER, it is met with in all EU states, albeit particularly strongly in Germany. The 1998 UNDP study just referred to on “Development Aid: What the public thinks” sees it in fact as a problem in all industrialized countries.

According to the 1996 EUROBAROMETER, 30 per cent of Germans overestimate the proportion of the German federal budget devoted to development cooperation by a factor of between five and 15. In the book entitled “Entwicklungsstrategien für die Dritte Welt” (Development strategies for the Third World) edited by Michael von Hauff and Heinecke Werner, Manfred Kulessa gives a particularly telling account of exaggerated impressions of the political and material scale of development cooperation abroad. Kulessa refers to the situation in the United States, citing a survey by American NGOs entitled “Bread for the World”, according to which 95 per cent of citizens were only able to name food aid or development aid in answer to the question about ways of combating hunger in the world.

The remark I just made about numerous factors also applies of course to overestimation of the scale of development cooperation. I have come to the conclusion, however, that ill-considered and overblown utterances from governmental and non-governmental quarters have tended to focus public attention on so-called aid, that is, on the instrument of development cooperation. Older school textbooks used to carry this emphasis. They give full and detailed descriptions of need in developing countries, but the proposed solutions all come down to aid. No mention is made of economic and social programmes in Asian, African and Latin American countries that are funded out of national resources, without development cooperation. Frequently, there is also no reference to reforms in the industrialized countries which might reduce the damage inflicted on developing countries. One example is the subsidized export of EU agricultural products which, as everyone knows, drives down the prices for farmers in developing countries.

Let me quote two examples to you of overblown and fallacious utterances. In the early 1990s, a state agency said in a full-colour A1 poster about combating desertification that: “...The world population is exploding. Poverty and environmental destruction are the consequence. Today we can tackle these problems. Tomorrow will be too late. We can solve them if we provide education and social security. By helping people to help themselves. We must solve them. Through development aid. One half of the world cannot survive without the other half.”

And in 1991, one of the best-known private German aid agencies – according to the EMNID organization, which monitors donations – stated in the preamble to a conference invitation that: “For three decades, development aid organizations and agencies have been making considerable efforts to combat poverty in the countries of the South, in the so-called Third World. There has been little success, and it seems instead that only certain minorities have become richer, while the majority of the population has become ever poorer.” What is disturbing about this wording is that it leads the less well-informed reader to believe that aid alone, i.e., development cooperation, can achieve the desired result. This quotation provides confirmation of my opening comparison, when I said that the field with which we are dealing, development education, is rather like a battlefield.

The Fourth Pattern of Opinion

Here too I should like to speak of a misconception, but cannot point to any survey results. I refer to the observation made by the BMZ visitors‘ service to which I have already alluded, that citizens say that they cannot make any difference to development policy as “humble individuals”. We have also encountered this statement at meetings outside the BMZ, and often receive similar reports from colleagues in out-of-school education.

I do not propose to discuss this pattern of opinion any further at this point, but to return to it at the end when I make some brief suggestions.

The Fifth and Sixth Patterns of Opinion

Both of these patterns relate to the question of what social policy factors and perceptions may encourage people in industrialized countries to support development cooperation. The focus is on public acceptance of development cooperation as a part of development policy.

Two years ago the United Nations Development Programme – UNDP – brought out a very interesting report on this question. It was based on more than 30 representative surveys in the industrialized countries. The aim of the UNDP was to find out what would cause citizens in the so-called North to support development cooperation.

The researchers commissioned by UNDP discovered that there is little or no correlation between, for example, the volume of external trade links and the scale of development cooperation. Other possible correlations were also found to be negative, such as the influence of the standard of living in a given industrialized country.

UNDP did find two correlations which they believed might have some causal effect. One of these is the domestic rate of government expenditure, that is, the internal redistribution of wealth, and the other is the image which citizens in the industrialized country in question have of the effectiveness of the development cooperation which is actually ­undertaken.

The BMZ is not aware of any studies which provide more substantial evidence than that of the UNDP of what measurable facts and perceptions influence the public acceptance of development cooperation. Until we have better evidence, we may therefore proceed on the following assumptions:

  • Fifth pattern of opinion: A society where there is a high level of internal redistribution of wealth is more open to development cooperation and supports a comparatively high level of spending in comparison with national income.
  • Sixth pattern of opinion: Public support for devoting a substantial proportion of the national budget to development cooperation depends on how the society in question views the work actually done in this field.

We might simplify matters by saying that the UNDP results are self-evident. But the picture is not quite so simple, at least in the case of the sixth pattern of opinion. I could cite statements made at high levels in governmental and non-governmental circles in which two fundamentally different questions asked in opinion polls have been confused. One of these is the question whether citizens are in general terms for or against helping developing countries. The second is how they judge the work done by their government or private agencies. While general support for help is very high –75.2 per cent in Germany according to the 1996 EUROBAROMETER – the rate of approval for what government actually does collapses. If we concentrate too much on whether respondents are generally for or against development cooperation, rather than on how they view the work that we actually do, there is a danger that we shall fail to report adequately on our rate of success and failure. All our efforts may then fail to win back the support we have lost.

Long-term statistics in Germany only cover opinions on government development cooperation. In the four opinion polls carried out by the BMZ in the 1980s, approval of the Federal Government’s development cooperation work was consistently around 20 percentage points higher than disapproval. In 1993, the most recent year in which a BMZ opinion poll was conducted, this advantage had been dissipated: 37 percent expressed approval for the Federal Government’s development cooperation, and 37 per cent expressed disapproval. An appreciably higher percentage than in previous polls declined to express a view.

There is no long-term series of answers to identical questions about the non-governmental sector. And unless the wording is consistent, the results of polls and surveys are at best only partly comparable.

Nevertheless, those who work for private agencies and in development education would do well not to lose sight of a number of highly critical views expressed on occasion by German public opinion.

For the sake of brevity I shall only mention one survey result. This comes from the 1993 BMZ poll, in which it formed part of a so-called statement analysis. Respondents were offered around 30 cards bearing positive or negative statements and were asked whether they agreed with them or not. One of the cards read “Most of the money given in aid disappears into someone’s pocket. Hardly any gets through.” Fifty-one per cent of respondents in Germany answered “Yes”.

Having suggested six patterns of knowledge and opinion to you in summary form, I should like in conclusion to say something about what can be done. The bodies which arranged this conference, the Development Policy Association of German Non-Governmental Organizations (Verband Entwicklungspolitik deutscher Nicht-Regierungsorganisationen, VENRO), the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder (KMK), the development cooperation units of the Länder and the BMZ, agreed that it should not be an empty theoretical exercise but should have implications for practice.

Allow me to make only one suggestion for action in relation to each of five of my patterns of opinion, and to tell you in some cases what the BMZ is actually doing about them. The only way of keeping within my time limit is to restrict myself to one point each.

The First Pattern of Opinion: the “far-off” misconception

Let us use this conference – which has become a ten-yearly event after Cologne in 1990 – to mark a linguistic watershed. We should henceforward totally avoid the term “development assistance” or “development aid”. It is not appropriate to the motives and overall aims pursued by governmental and non-governmental actors. But a yet more important point is the following. If developing countries continue to be seen as a far-away problem, at most a minority of people who are particularly sensitive to ethical issues will take an interest in the needs and prospects of those countries. Having talked to several hundred visitors to the BMZ I am quite sure that the term “development aid” totally misleads people. Countries which are seen largely or exclusively as recipients of aid cannot appear to our citizens to be of importance to us and hence worthy of our interest. The words aid, assistance, in need of aid, and so on, have a negative effect. They obstruct people’s realization that there are countries in the so-called South which are already economic powers in their own right, have a political voice in whether Germany gains a seat in the UN Security Council, and pursue environmental policies which have a definite influence on the ecological balance of the planet. In its 1998 study, the UNDP recommends that terms such as “global housekeeping” or “keeping the world in balance” should be used in preference to “aid”.

The Second Pattern of Opinion: the negative view of the overall situation of developing countries

Whenever you can, point out that population growth in certain developing countries has fallen, sometimes dramatically. A representative opinion poll carried out by the German World Population Foundation in 1996 showed that no nation in Europe was so worried about the growth in the world population as Germany. Analyses of the questions most frequently asked of the BMZ visitors’ service also show that population policy is at the top of the list. For over 15 years it has been one of the three issues raised most often by visitors.

The Third Pattern of Opinion: the overestimation of the scale of development cooperation, which can on closer inspection have deleterious effects on learning about development

Let us rephrase the concept “Think globally, act locally” as “Think globally, describe globally and act locally”. What do I mean by this apparently superfluous addition?

My suggestion follows on directly from the call just made by Klaus Seitz in his paper. He spoke of the need for a “global perspective”. In my view, the public only see development cooperation as the sole solution because so little is said about the other pillars of the development process. Analyses of school textbooks, press reports and information material about donor activities show that well over 80 per cent of all printed and spoken words relate to poverty or outside aid. This must give rise to the notion of so-called omnipotence in the minds of citizens, that is, an overestimate of the role and potential of development cooperation. Henceforth, no material in a print or audio-visual medium should be produced, however short, which is not based on an explicitly didactic overall view. A single chart may often suffice. The public need an overview of the essential components of sustainable development in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in which the most important element is the achievements of those countries themselves, the second most important is reforms to be carried through in the industrialized countries, and the least important is development cooperation.

Let me conclude this suggestion with the recommendation that you have a look at the BMZ OHP set on display outside in the exhibition on the stand of the German Foundation for International Development (DSE). Chart No. 4, entitled “Germany is intricately linked to the developing countries”, and Chart No. 16, entitled “Development contributions at a glance”, directly serve the purpose of my suggestion. Chart No. 4 was in fact an immediate response to the findings of a representative opinion poll carried out in 1981.

The Fourth Pattern of Opinion: the frequently heard cry that the humble individual cannot make a difference

I should like to report that since the change of government in 1998, we have stressed the theme of fair trade with all groups of visitors to the BMZ, and have presented them with a sample packet of tea or coffee with the TransFair logo. This action is in response, partly, to a vote by the representatives of all OECD governments on development policy education and publicity. At the 1998 meeting of this group in Copenhagen, there was rare unanimity and urgency in the recommendation that in future mention of any problem should be accompanied by statements about potential solutions and about what each individual can do personally to help.

I shall miss out the Fifth Pattern of Opinion and come to the Sixth Pattern of Opinion: the greater support for development cooperation where there is a more positive view of the work actually being done

I believe that this conference should mark another watershed: in development education and public relations from now on, no development cooperation project should be without reliable evaluation results or statistics on success and failure rates. Fortunately, it has been possible since 1986 to publish BMZ cross-sectional analyses. Our evaluation department found it a hard struggle to convince the management of the Ministry of the need for publishing these. The key argument which finally won through was the need to demonstrate the credibility of our actions.

With respect to credibility, I should like in concluding to describe to you two small happenings concerning the building of trust at home and abroad.

First credibility at home: recently I had to explain to a group of schoolchildren the aims of the Rio conference, that is, the theme of sustainability. One pupil interrupted me and asked severely what sort of car I drove. Fortunately I was able to give him an answer which satisfied him. Imagine what would have happened, had that not been the case. Even the best arguments would have been thrown back at me.

And credibility abroad: from 1986 to 1990 I worked in Brazil. The BMZ had sent me there as their contact person for German-Brazilian development cooperation. During that time, the Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl decided that it would be a good idea to put forward a proposal to the G7 states for better protection of the tropical rain forests. Brazil was thought of as a pilot country. Time was pressing. The round of negotiations between the German and Brazilian governments for 1987 had just been concluded, so that they no longer provided a forum within which to discuss the German concerns with the Brazilian Government. So I was sent off alone. In several different ministries I had to raise the issue of whether Brazil, the self-confident regional superpower, was prepared to devote half of the agreed German development funds, which were to be doubled, exclusively to protecting the tropical rain forest. The Brazilians agreed. But in one of my discussions, my interlocutor asked me with a mischievous expression: “Senhor Christian, we respect your great concern for environmental protection but – a long pause – are you not the only country left on Earth with no general speed limit?”