Political solidarity is front and centre

The medico Project Department has changed its name to the “Department for Transnational Cooperation”. Why? Karin Urschel, the outgoing head of department, explains in an interview.

medico: After 17 years, you will soon be handing over the helm of what up until now has been medico’s Project Department to your colleague Till Küster, and next year you will also be handing over your regional responsibilities. Looking back, what has changed the most in your work at medico during this period?

Karin Urschel: Based on what has always been a broad understanding of what constitutes health and what its prerequisites are, we have succeeded in exploring this in new fields as well. In 2006, for instance, we started working in the area of flight and migration, work which has steadily gained in importance ever since. In recent years, the relationship to feminist movements has become stronger. And the climate crisis or the issue of climate justice have also increasingly been on the agenda for several years now. It is good that medico has been able to tap into such developments and help to foster them. It is also striking how much the department and medico as a whole have both grown. At present we have active partnerships in 33 countries - considerably more than at the start of the millennium. In addition to expanding the subject areas we work in, collaborations have also been established in new regions.

There is currently another change at medico: the department you have been at the head of for so long has changed its name. The “Project Department” has now become the “Department for Transnational Cooperation”. How did this come about?

Many years ago, a debate started at the department about whether the term project really tallies with our understanding of collaboration with our partners in the global South. And we agree that the term leads to misunderstandings and oversimplification.

One thing at a time: What is there that could be misunderstood?

Project sounds as if you come together at certain points, complete something and then part ways again. That’s not how we work at all, though. We support emancipatory processes that are open ended. And we enter into relationships with our cooperation partners that are supposed to last longer than a single measure. We have been working with the landless movement in Brazil for 16 years now. Formally, this happens through projects and follow-up projects. But it all revolves around political solidarity that endures. Another example: In the wake of the Syrian war, it was also a matter of getting people out of the country. That’s what we did. But that is not a “project”. Of course, you can channel everything into the form of a project - formulating measures, calculating budgets, setting funding guidelines etc.. We do all that time and again. But much of what defines our collaboration, what we share and are trying to build together, has nothing to do with money. For me, that is what is crucial: We and our partner share much more than projects. The emphasis being on the “much more”. Furthermore, the term project suggests a traditional donor-beneficiary relationship. This does not tally with our vision of cooperation or that of our partners. Just as they do not see themselves as “implementers of projects”, but rather as political actors, the same goes for us: medico also sees itself as a politically active organization, not primarily as some authority approving the release of funds.

That’s why you’re also dropping your previous title of “project coordinator”?

Project coordinator is really misleading when you take a closer look. It sounds like we coordinate the measures ourselves - which we don’t. Our cooperation partners do that locally, and they certainly don’t need us for that. The core of our work is that we work in a spirit of trust with groups or organisations that we share utopias and goals with and with whom we feel political solidarity. The funding from medico is designed to bolster their ability to act. But the ideas and input as to what should be done does not usually come from us. Whether the landless movement in Brazil needs new equipment for sewage treatment at a school or wants to hire lawyers for its legal defence against the government’s lawsuits, that is for them to decide.

Nevertheless, medico is the one giving the money - or not. Doesn’t a term like cooperation make this power relationship invisible?

We cannot, nor do we want to deny that we are in the role of awarding the funds raised here. Nor is it a matter of pretending that there are no differences in power and that, just because you would like it to be the case, you then automatically meet as equal partners. What you can do though is reflect on the conditions of cooperation and to constantly strive for this “equal footing”. The prerequisite for this is respecting the initiatives, organisations, movements or networks we work with as independent political actors.

Is the new name also in response to calls from partners?

Some did always have a certain scepticism towards support in the form of projects. But no-one approached us about changing the name; the impetus came from the department itself. I also want to make it clear again: project is not a filthy word and we also support projects. After disasters like the tsunamis in Indonesia or the earthquakes in Haiti, we clearly carried out emergency relief projects. But even in acute crisis situations, our concept of critical emergency aid aims to promote processes and forces that have more than just a short-term impact. And it is precisely the partnership relationships developed over many years that have made it possible to organise swift help in acute emergency situations as well.

Does the new name just reflect a changed view of things or also a change in practice? In other words, could and should the department already have had a different name 15 years ago?

The new name catches up with a development that has been under way for a long time now. It is an expression of the fact that thinking evolves. But it does not mark the beginning of a new programme. It points out that projects are still a necessary part of cooperation, but not the most important one - and also a difficult part. The fact is that in a wide variety of contexts we are seeing that thinking and working on a project basis segments the work of our partners and risks making it non-political. In their constant search for sources of funding, they are pushed into projects that in some cases are not theirs - just to fund the structure they need to achieve their aims and objectives. For this reason I’m also glad that we are now at least more frequently able to commit to multi-year institutional funding and to agree on collaborations. How often we succeed in doing this still comes down to budgetary management. But it is something we aim for.

Ten years ago, medico had just two “institutional funding programmes”, funding organisational structures rather than individual measures. Now there are many more. This shows that the approach has changed.

That is true. And at the same time, it reflects the expanded possibilities that medico now has. But it also has to be said that for many of our cooperation partners, institutional funding is not a suitable form of support, because it entails certain requirements such as an overall audit. A social movement, for example, will not want that at all. Let me put it this way: we appreciate institutional funding. But it’s not right for everything and everyone. And this is rarely how collaboration begins. Institutional funding is an expression of closeness that has stood the test of time.

Coming back to the new name of the department. It is not just the term “cooperation” that's new, it's also new that you’re now talking about “transnational” cooperation. Why?

To avoid potential misunderstandings, let me first say what we do not want it to mean: It does not mean turning away from local measures in favour of overarching networks. The local embedding of the actors involved remains the basis of our work. It is, however, about the idea or the ambition of considering local, regional, national and even transnational dimensions in all areas of work. We want a “transnational view”. And we say “transnational” rather than “international” to make it clear that it is about transnational cooperation between civil society actors - and not about relations between states or national institutions. What’s more: fields of work like flight and migration or climate justice can only be tackled from a transnational perspective, as they are per se transnational.

You stressed how important the support of local partner organisations continues to be. It is pretty safe to say that networking has become more important for medico.

medico has been pursuing this approach for a long time, as its heavy involvement in the People’s Health Movement attests. But you’re right, the idea of networking has intensified in the wake of globalisation and also with the emergence of new social movements over the past two decades. Just as World Social Forums initially became an expression of greater transnational networking, something has changed for us too. But I would never say that everything now has to become a network. Whether we are organising regional partner meetings, fostering cross-border meetings, staging conferences or, like in South Africa, are promoting a programme where several and very different partners work together over a period of years: Our aim is always to create connections and bolster the exchange of experiences and perspectives. The transnational newsletter, which has now existed for a year, is also designed to contribute to a different and better dialogue with each other. It is about a dialogue that no longer is only addressed to a German public, but also to a transnational one. It is good that this understanding is being translated into our work more. And the fact that this is now also reflected in a new name for the department is fitting.

Interview by Christian Sälzer
Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa

Published: 26. October 2021

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