AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Austrian actor and founder of the NGO ‘Menschen für Menschen’ (People for People), Karlheinz Böhm was buried last Friday in Salzburg, Austria. His remains came to rest in a cemetery in his native country yet earth from Africa was carried to Europe in order to allow him to rest in Ethiopian soil as he had wished to be buried in the country that he reportedly loved so much. In German-speaking Europe, which includes Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Böhm, while he was alive, grew into the Bob Geldof of development aid. The NGO he founded in response to the drought and famine that struck the Horn of Africa in the 1980s raised huge sums of money and channelled development aid to Ethiopia. ‘Menschen für Menschen’ grew into an important development agent. Böhm’s iconic status as the actor who played the last emperor of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire enabled the success of his fundraising and development work.

I grew up in a royalist household and from a young age on, I watched Böhm acting the emperor–my mother adores everything royal and aristocratic, real and imagined. Between 1955 and 1957, alongside the legendary Romy Schneider who played a radiant but tragic empress Sissi, Karl-Heinz Böhm was cast as Franz Joseph, the handsome young emperor of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Here‘s some highlights from the film):

In post-World War II Europe–still reeling from devastation and embracing the cold efficiency and sacrifice of the ’Wiederaufbau’ (reconstruction)–the trilogy of the Sissi movies provided relief in the form of nostalgic warmth, romance, law and order, and the ‘Beschaulichkeit’ (tranquillity) of the conservative Biedermeier 19th century era during which bourgeois life triumphed.

While we were watching the third of the three Sissi movies broadcast on German TV to commemorate Böhm,  my mother remembered how the two actors dealt differently with the legacy of their imperial, apparently life-defining roles: Romy Schneider entirely repudiated the over-idyllic and kitsch movies, a huge success that still endures, in which she mostly bats her eyelids at the handsome emperor. In contrast, Böhm is said to have found a meaningful purpose in the movies in that they made people happy and celebrated romantic love. It seems that this ambition, to make people happy, triggered Böhm’s founding of his own NGO. (He kept acting and starred in some popular English language films, including “Peeping Tom” in 1960, as well as in a range of Disney films)

In a relatively short period of time, his organisation grew into a powerful development actor in Germany and in Ethiopia. His wife, who hails from Ethiopia, runs a successful operation that it can almost no longer be called a NON-governmental organisation: given the political support it receives, in Germany and Ethiopia, it seems to behave as if it was an agent of official German development aid.

Germanophone celebrities line-up to pledge support, corporate sponsors abound. High school pupils are offered ‘packages’ for fundraising activities.

Judging from the material available on the website of  Menschen für Menschen, the focus is on mobilisation and collecting money to support educational and agricultural development projects.

Despite the success, some former sponsors dissent and claim that the NGO is inefficient. Critics point out that they may have received a clean bill from several organisations that rate NGOs yet they refuse to open their books to public scrutiny.

While critics claim that the NGO squanders the money and does not enough to allocate resources to really help people, the real question that one should ask is if this kind of development aid will really change anything in the long run? No doubt, there are Africans whose lives improve directly from this development aid. Is this good enough? With all the money collecting and mobilising young people in German schools, with all the corporate and government involvement, is there still enough space and time for critical reflection on development policy: what is the purpose of development aid? What is and should be the role of private or public actors? How does aid help – in the short and in the long run? What is the effect of development work on the donor countries? What image of Africa and Africans is being cultivated? Is this model sustainable? How does it look like in 50 years – will Germans still be collecting money for agricultural projects in Ethiopia? Or are Ethiopians then growing their own food, enough to feed all?

According to Jean Ziegler, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, almost one billion people out of a world population of some 7 billion, suffer hunger every day. The Declaration of Berne calculated in 2009 that the industrial states paid 8900 billion US$ to save their banks from collapse; the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations FAO estimates that a 44 billion US$ investment would reduce extreme hunger by half.

At Böhm’s memorial, an Austrian politician reminded the audience that we were one world–there was no such thing as a third world or a first world.

Well, if this was truly the case, would western friends of Africa not do more to force their corporate and political elites to do more to combat hunger?

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Thomas M Blaser

Sociology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.


One thought on “The legacy of the ‘German Bob Geldof of development aid’

  1. well he also did movies with Fassbinder (Martha 1974) and seemed to have been a bit pissed off with his “Franz-Josef” image (we have the same problem regarding our mothers). And obviously this kind of development aid is not sustainable – but writing a self righteous obituary is not sustainable either – he did something and one should respect that and by the way – he started five years ahead of Geldof.

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