Dialogue with partner organisations

We’re connected by more than just projects

Karin Urschel, Head of Projects at medico
Karin Urschel is Head of Projects at medico and responsible for the project coordination in South America. (Photo: medico)
South Africa, Jordan, Brazil: for the first time, medico has organised regional forums in which several partner organisations came together. On the idea of the forums, the topics for sharing experience and the shift to the right in Latin America: Interview with Karin Urschel.

In its jubilee year, medico engaged in an intensive dialogue with its partners. What led to the three regional forums?

medico took its 50th anniversary as an opportunity to position itself. Over the years there have been countless exciting events and debates in Frankfurt and Berlin. Project partners from the global South also participated in some of these. However, in 2018 we again supported over 120 projects in some 30 countries, so that the great majority of project partners were not involved in these local discussions. This is the reason for the regional forums, where we wanted to go beyond bilateral meetings with our partners on official trips, and above all to establish a relationship between them and their expertise. Several are intellectually at home in the world, but for many others the comparison with other countries and experience with different kinds of political practice and perspectives were new. As a result, they were all the more interested in participating in such a dialogue.

Other aid organisations regularly hold such “family reunions”.

We have serious reservations about such events, where the funding organisation is the focus of attention and it announces a topic which is of interest to it. This is exactly what we did not want. Instead of transferring debates from here to countries of the global South, we focused on what interests both ourselves and partners working in one region on very different issues. This is why we included them in planning topics. In fact, each of the three meetings had its own emphasis. In South Africa, for example, it was the difficult question of the influence of external funding on the work of local organisations and social movements. Ultimately, accepting and granting funds is always associated with impositions and opportunities which should be reflected upon. Questions like these can only be discussed openly and unbiased on an equal footing if medico is not the focus. In all three forums, participants were able to engage without pressure to act or time constraints – the forums lasted two to three days. The locations and timing was also of decisive importance. The meeting in Brazil happened right before the World Social Forum, so that the invited partner organisations from Latin America could also participate in that. For the Near and Middle East region, a forum in Amman in Jordan was the logical choice, as Kurdish and Palestinian partners were able to travel there as well.

What was the forum in Amman about?

The focus was on the provisional failure of the Arab revolutions, whether in Egypt or in Syria. How did this happen, and what possibilities for action remain in such contexts for progressive political forces? The prevailing opinion was that the uprising will return, as there has been no change in the oppressive socio-economic and political conditions. Here again, the political significance of support was discussed. For example, the Lebanese partner Ghassan Issa emphasised how important it is in establishing civil society structures to support community-based approaches, work together and form networks.

You participated in the meeting in Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. The forum took place in a context of a shift to the right in Latin America.

And that exactly was the issue we discussed with partners from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Venezuela and Brazil. The meeting took place before the emergence of the democratic protest movement and the repressive response of the government in Nicaragua, the worsening conflicts in Venezuela and the election of the radical right-wing President Bolsonaro in Brazil. How can a majority support a political rollback which intends to abolish social rights and achievements which have raised millions of people out of poverty, which is threatening democracy, and which stands for racism, sexism and nationalism? The consensus opinion was that to understand how things could reach this point, you have to look at the shortcomings of the left-wing projects and progressive governments. Leaving aside the indisputable progress in combating poverty or in the health care sector, the blatant social inequality was not shaken up. They also persisted on an extractive development model which further increased dependence on the world market.

Whether in Nicaragua, Venezuela or Brazil, there are plenty of reasons for resignation in the face of the political situation. Have partners given up?

I was very impressed that despite everything they are still looking to the future. In the latest medico newsletter, a Brazil partner was quoted as saying, “Let’s save our pessimism for better days”. That captures the attitude pretty well – people know that the times are bad, and they’re not trying to disguise the fact. But nobody gave up. Most are still active in social movements – they would not had they resigned.

The left is by no means politically united in Latin America either. In addition, the partners have different political traditions and are working on different issues. How well can these differences be bridged in the dialogues?

It’s not a matter of agreeing on every assessment. Differences emerged for example over Venezuelan politics. But the tone was very respectful. In particular, if you aren’t from Nicaragua or Venezuela and you hear assessments from there, this can have a significant impact on your own ideas. However, there was a lot of common ground, for example on the meaning of critical solidarity and that people still believe in participative and emancipatory utopias, despite justified criticism of left-wing government projects. Learning from each other and seeking opportunities for emancipation together – this still works, despite the contradictions.

Do you intend to hold regional forums like this regularly now?

All the forums were a very special experience, and fully met our expectations and those of the partner organisations. Several of these have been engaging in direct dialogue ever since. Instead of setting this as a model for all time, we should continue to try out the wide range of possibilities for dialogue and networking. Later this year, for example, we have scheduled a dialogue in Nepal with partner organisations from the Asian region on the question of how reconstruction after natural disasters has to be conceived in order to change power structures in association with local self-help groups and permanently improve living conditions.

What are your personal conclusions?

It’s really motivating to meet such determined partners. By supporting projects we make it possible for those taking action to continue or expand their activities. We don’t interfere in partners’ prioritisation of their activities, as long as we are convinced that they are valuable. It showed me once again how important it is to find partners whose goals and utopian ideas we share. The ties between us go beyond contractual agreements on projects. We are linked by a common view of the world and the search for strengthening an emancipatory and participative project based on solidarity, even in times of major setbacks. This fits in with what our Brazilian partner Antonio Martins wrote in an article after the forum: “ The meeting of partners in Salvador showed that we are still alive, that new links are forming between Latin America and those in Europe who think in terms of the global South, and that our inadequacies and occasional defeats are perhaps simply the spices for new dreams.”

Interview: Christian Saelzer


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