Friedbert Ottacher: Equal partnerships

Apr. 2022

Friedbert Ottacher grew up with his three siblings in Spittal an der Drau, a small town in the Austrian state of Carinthia. His father worked for the state forestry. His mother was a housewife. Friedbert’s childhood was not one of material plen-ty. The only heating in the house was to be found in the kitchen. And travelling to another country on a family holiday would have been inconceivable. But as a member of the Boy Scout movement, he did enjoy many an experience with like-minded people. Above all, he discovered the meaning of cohesion, together-ness and taking responsibility for others. And it was precisely those experienc-es that shaped the values he still holds dear today, especially as someone who has been involved in cooperation between so-called developing and industrial-ised nations for more than 20 years. A conversation about a somewhat different kind of North-South divide.

How does a young person get the idea to go into development aid? Is it an area you’ve always wanted to work in, or was it more of an adventure?

When you’re young, all you really know is what you don’t want. It was no different for me. When the point came to decide if I wanted to study, I ruled out anything that didn’t appeal to me. The only degree option I was left with was spatial planning and regional development, which was probably because I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. For my final thesis, I worked as a placement student at the Aga Khan Founda-tion and I examined the impact of mountaineering tourism on the high mountain valley of Hunza in northern Pakistan. I went and lived with a family in the area and analysed the impact on culture, land use and the local economy. I felt right as rain during my time there and it was then that for the first time I came into contact with what they then called development aid.

How was it for you at the beginning?

The things I experienced in Pakistan moved me so much that immediately after-wards I applied to the Austrian Development Cooperation (EZA). At the end of the 1990s, I embarked on my career with a stint in Palestine. In my first job as an office manager, I got to know the whole spectrum of development cooperation – from small alliance agencies to the United Nations. Looking back, I was like a sorcerer’s ap-prentice – an entry-level employee managing staff, approving budgets and negotiat-ing projects with Palestinian ministers. Unfortunately the programme came to an end with the outbreak of the Second Intifada. I was forced to close down the office and lay everybody off.

And then what happened?

After coming back from Palestine, I gained practical experience working as a pro-gramme coordinator for different Austrian aid organisations. As the years went by, I worked on projects in Albania, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. As each project came and went, it became more and more clear to me that development aid the way it was initi-ated by President Truman in 1949 was out of date. So I wrote a book with my col-league of many years, Thomas Vogel, in which we call for a rethink. This resulted in a publication called Development Cooperation in Transition, which most recently came out in its third edition.

What do you think needs to change?

In the turbulent years of the 1970s and 1980s, there was heated discussion about global injustice, unfair trade conditions and exploitation, whereas now development cooperation is all too often preoccupied with itself. To counter the growing level of criticism, elaborate measurements are put in place to gauge impact, and there are continual efforts to make structures and processes more professional – which all too often create more bureaucracy and make cooperation even more technical.

But it would be much more important to come back to political aspects – to underpin the actual work carried out on projects.

 And here in Europe we need to become more vocal – like the British aid organisation Oxfam, with its annual publication on the unequal distribution of global wealth. The only way to address and combat the primary causes of poverty and inequality is through public engagement and political campaigns.

What’s needed to set the ball rolling?

As with everything in life, it’s a gradual process, and it’s no different for development cooperation. At the beginning it was just about organising charity events, with the affluent industrialised nations in the north sending much-cited ‘fish’ to the poor de-veloping nations in the south in order to relieve famine. Later there was more focus on helping others to become self-sufficient and sending ‘fishing rods’. But that’s not how you win the battle in a globalised world. What we need instead is to empower those countries to address their issues with the community of nations. To keep us-ing the same metaphor, fishing grounds on the coast will only develop if you can get them protected internationally from overfishing by third parties. Basically, as well as providing emergency aid in the event of a disaster, or helping people to become self-sufficient, we need to help developing countries take care of their own interests. Not as petitioners – thinking about the North-South divide we’ve all heard about – but on an equal footing, in a partnership of equals.

But development cooperation has also been successful. Or do you see things differently?

Without question. In the sub-Saharan regions, or in Africa where the poorest coun-tries are, I do see progress being made, especially in terms of healthcare and educa-tion. In 1990, only one in every two children went to school there. By 2015, that number was four out of five. And infant and maternal mortality has been halved. People read a lot into development cooperation, and there are extremely high expec-tations. But you have to maintain a sense of proportion. Germany may spend around 20 billion euros on development cooperation every year, and at roughly 150 billion euros per year that accounts for the lion’s share of global spendings. But that total number is the equivalent of just one quarter of the gross domestic product of the German state of Bavaria. It’s illusory to believe this will save the planet or defeat poverty and hunger.

What do you think the key will be to breaking the vicious circle?

Education, education and once again: education. It creates access to the world, un-derstanding and connection. We also have to think about the macro-trend of digital transformation, which has already come a long way in Africa. People in Africa some-times take on and implement this kind of change much more readily. It’s something you see in things like M-Pesa, the money transfer service for mobile phones, which has already been used to transfer money from one mobile to another for more than a decade, and it’s so simple. But to use it, you still need a basic level of education. You need to be able to work with numbers and read and write. That’s why I think the commitment shown by the PATRIZIA Foundation is so important. Its actions have made it possible to set up the right technical infrastructure for education, and that creates opportunities to generate income and with that, create opportunities to lead a life of self-determination and enjoy a better future.

Interview conducted by Andreas Menke.


Friedbert Ottacher

Friedbert Ottacher sees himself as a bridge-builder who is very happy to pass on his knowledge and experience – as a seminar provider, a programme coordinator, a key-note speaker and an author. Everything he does revolves around the topic of devel-opment cooperation. An independent consultant, he also works as a university lectur-er and teaches at universities in Vienna and Innsbruck. Ottacher is part of a patchwork family of five living in Vienna. In his old age he would like to spend more time working as a funeral orator and tourist guide in Vienna. For more information, go to