YJEA: Hello Dr Baumgarten, it’s very nice to have you! I would like to introduce you shortly to our readers before going right into the interview: You have worked for the GIZ, the German development agency, for quite some years now. Your focus has been on health issues in Africa, where you directed the GIZ Office to the African Union until earlier this year. Now you serve as Director of the Office in Togo.
Baumgarten: Thank you very much for the honour of this interview! This is a great opportunity to contribute to your initiative, which I find particularly interesting. I hope I will be able to read some of it in the future.
You attended nursing school and studied medical anthropology and public health. You also have a PhD in social and behavioural sciences. Did you pursue these studies intending to work in the development sector?
I must admit that my motivation to go into the health sector and then from there into social and behavioural sciences was very much centred around my personal interests. At that time, I did not have a clear vision that I would like to work in development cooperation. What motivated me most, I believe, was my strong desire to learn more about the world and look beyond the typical German socialisation which I have been privileged to have. I wanted to get the answers to some general questions such as: Why is the world as it is? What are different approaches to seeing the world? I was interested in learning more about different cultures and, so to say, the meaning of life. Secondly, I wanted to find meaningful employment which matched my idea of contributing in some way to shaping the world. At the time, I thought I would find that concentrating on the health of human beings, so I started out with nursing. I wanted to study medical sciences but then I realised I’m personally more interested in systems, organisations, and ways of decision-making. So, I switched from the health perspective to a broader perspective of how organisations function and how people decide which approach is appropriate for them.
When I completed my doctorate at the University of Heidelberg, I had a great regional interest in India and Nepal because, at the time, I was studying an Indian language and was also working for a professor who conducted research on the region. After my PhD, I wanted to work in Nepal, and I looked for organisations offering positions in this region. I came across the GTZ – the predecessor organisation to today’s GIZ, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH [remark by the editor: the German Agency for International Cooperation] – which offered a traineeship on a health project in Nepal. I thought this was a great opportunity for me, but I didn’t know much about the world of development cooperation. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity for me to learn what it is all about. I participated in a 1.5-year traineeship program. That, I think, was the start of my interest in the world of international cooperation with a view on working in sustainable development. When I started, I worked on issues combining health and social sciences, which I really enjoyed. I got a taste for continuing and developing a career, but it wasn’t clear in my mind initially.
You spoke about your traineeship in Nepal. How was your experience there and what precisely did you work on?
I arrived full of energy and with the conviction that I had learned a lot at university, which I would be able to implement practically. We worked on the questions of how we can interact with villagers at the community level; what the priorities for a village are; what young people and women, in particular, need and so on. At the time, that was a very good experience, and I could contribute a lot by coming in with fresh ideas while also being open to colleagues who had much more cultural experience in the country. This combination of different perspectives was a very good start and, from there, I gained practical experience. I could explore what development cooperation is all about and how to translate theoretical knowledge or research into practical solutions.
“Germany has a long-standing, also colonial, history with Togo and I am personally interested in reflecting on what working together in a ‘post-colonialist’ way can mean.”
How did you feel coming to Nepal and living in a community that is probably very different from what we are used to? How did you manage to adapt, and which learnings did you take?
I had been in Nepal and India several times before and also had done my fieldwork living in Nepal for 1.5 years before joining the GTZ. Thus, I already had some understanding of the cultural context – but it’s not the same coming to a country as a visitor as opposed to actually living there in the community. The learning experience was mostly that you need to be able to listen and always ask questions about whether you have really understood it properly. What happens often is that we jump to conclusions quickly because we think we understood it – but sometimes it might have to be contextualised a bit more. For approaches or solutions to last, you need to develop them jointly and seek feedback on whether it’s really adapted to the local context in which you work. You can come with (German) know-how and ideas, but it doesn’t mean that they are appropriate in this particular situation.
Do you have an example of how one can jump to a conclusion too early that does not work out in the specific country or context?
If we talk about gender equality, it is important to understand what the cultural expectations and limits are that shape the behaviour of men or women and their attitudes towards each other. At the time we were looking for an answer to the question of how AIDS/HIV prevention can be designed to best be heard and understood at the community level. We worked together with women and men of all ages who had experience in looking at gender roles and cultural stereotypes to make sure that we didn’t come solely from a German point of view. Together we developed a theatre performance in a way in which the local community could relate, with situations that they would usually encounter in their neighbourhood, and presented solutions which were applicable to them.
Can you tell us a bit more about how your career continued after your traineeship?
My ambition was to professionalise my technical know-how and knowledge all around health systems and communication. At the time, the Beijing World Conference on Women and the International Conference on Population and Development ICPD were being held, focussing on the rights of women, sexual and reproductive rights and female empowerment. I was interested in how we would be able to tackle this in development cooperation from a very technical point of view, so I wanted to improve my knowledge of health and behavioural approaches. I had different jobs at GIZ, working around issues on how to reach young people, women and other specific target groups. Then I moved on to a broader perspective on how to manage a health system and the different and important components that you take into consideration from both a health system’s perspective and a preventive point of view. This opened collaborations with colleagues from the education and human rights sector and created a broad cooperative approach in the field of health preventive measures and in my career.
Besides strengthening my technical know-how and expertise, I was interested in shaping and designing approaches and programs myself. This is how I got interested in also studying for a Master of Science in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, so I had an additional degree to professionalise my experience, which I had gathered over time in the field of development cooperation. I later gained more experience by becoming the manager of a project or program with responsibilities that go beyond the technical know-how and include skills such as project management and leadership of colleagues and staff.
You also spent some time in the headquarters of GIZ in Germany but afterwards returned to working on projects in the field. What do you like about being on-site?
I want to combine working in a headquarter or in a political context with moving to a national context because I think shifting perspectives is important for advancing one’s career. For many years, I worked in the headquarters but also spent some years at the WHO’s regional office for Europe. I had the opportunity to work in the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), which is a key commissioning party of GIZ. I also got insights into political processes like G7 or G20 and the European Union. I worked with the African Union and was in charge of our office there. I realised that if you want to move agendas forward, it is important to bring different ideas, perspectives, people, and organisations together so that you move together in the same direction.
What I can do here in Togo now, after my previous assignment, is to see how we can implement these ambitious policies at a level where the population benefits and the country moves forward in its development goals and programs. All perspectives, be it at the global level or regional or with the European Union, are different contributions that shape the systemic approach which is necessary to make things work in international cooperation.
Could you tell us more about your current task at GIZ in Togo? What does your day-to-day work look like?
Usually, I arrive at the office between 7:00 and 7:30 am. The first thing I do is greet everybody. Then I usually already have a pile of dossiers on my desk, which I have to check and sign for approval, be it in spending, recruiting or mobilising. I also represent GIZ – if, for example, the German embassy or the government of Togo has a request for an event, then I attend as the representative for GIZ. I am a typical manager who has to make sure that things work, and that the quality of our work in Togo conforms to GIZ standards. I also have to deal with difficult questions, like security for example. We have around 280 colleagues currently working for GIZ who are either recruited here in Togo or sent from abroad for specific assignments. In this region of the world, we also experience security challenges due to extremist movements which we only recently saw in the north of this usually very peaceful country.
How did you end up specifically in Togo?
In my career, I am always actively looking for new challenges. As I mentioned, I was working as the GIZ representative to the African Union for the last five years which gave me a very interesting perspective on the African continent with its 54 Member States. After this experience, I wanted to get closer again to working at the country level. I thought it would be a very interesting shift in perspective from looking at the whole continent to a rather small, but nevertheless important country. I wanted to find out what is important for a small country which is opening up to regional trade and is important for stabilisation in the region. I see this again as an interesting learning experience and I hope with my continental and global experience, I can contribute my bit to shaping our partnership with Togo. Germany has a long-standing, also colonial, history with Togo and I am personally interested in reflecting on what working together in a ‘post-colonialist’ way can mean.
How important would you say being open to new positions and changing positions and taking on new opportunities is for a professional career?
Well, I would say this is one of the prerequisites if you want to work in international cooperation. You need to be open-minded and have a basic understanding and respect for differences. Diversity is very important for us, and we appreciate our gender, religious or cultural diversity. Each colleague brings their own perspective and new dimensions. If one is not used to working in a very intercultural, interdisciplinary, and international environment, it is probably a very steep learning experience.
Which other skills or qualities does a person need who wants to work in the sector?
There are certain areas in which it is very hard for us to find people. The area of digitalisation is an example. Obviously, this topic is important for our work in international cooperation. We are always looking for new talents with new ideas when it comes to new ways of working, which includes the digital space, but we are also on the lookout for very specific expertise, in the area of trade, or renewable energy for example. We also need colleagues who come in with a broad set of interdisciplinary tools, for example, organisational development, because we are working with organisations for change. Therefore, it’s important to know how you can shape processes and that’s also expertise that is very valuable for our work. In general, I would say social and communication skills, as well as intercultural skills, are also very important. Additionally, you need a certain attitude of humbleness to understand that this is an important way of working but not from the top-down from the Global North to the Global South.
It’s probably also important to bring psychological skills in order to deal with suffering that you may see in some countries or being exposed to situations where people are facing illnesses or inequality. How do you deal with situations which might have an impact on your mental health?
First of all, it is a matter of mindset because suffering and mental health challenges exist all around the world. In Germany and Europe, we also see increasing inequality. I would say this is not specific to international cooperation but rather a general question of how somebody deals with difficult situations. I am a positive person. I usually believe that something will work out in a good way, even if there are many obstacles and sometimes failures. Therefore, you need resilience in order to have the capacity to be patient, not to expect quick results but to accept that everything takes its time. Obviously, sometimes you face difficult situations, and you ask yourself why the world is as it is and not fairer and more equal, but then I always think that we can make an important contribution with our work. I focus on individual persons who really benefited from our contribution. There are many good examples of this. Talking to them or telling their story and showing the change that we’ve seen over the years gives me a lot of energy to continue and to see things from a positive side.
Can you tell us about your most positive experience or greatest success over the years?
I experience very positive moments when I work together with many different people, for example, organising something jointly like a big conference and everything goes well in terms of there being an excellent exchange. For me, this means having the feeling that you have a very good dialogue at the personal level, and you reach your objectives not only from a professional but also from a personal point of view which is connecting different cultures in different contexts in the way that creates partnership and friendship across the barriers of cultures or countries. I think this is what really gives me a lot of energy and the conviction that we really make a difference. So, for me, it’s joint events and conferences.
I’m also very proud of the 2021 Annual Report by the GIZ African Union Office, which I prepared together with my team the last year. We focused on the topic of diversity and collected different stories about our contributions. I am very happy about this product which showcases a bit of the work that we did at the level of the African Union.
It’s great to hear about your positive experiences, yet progress in the field is quite slow sometimes. What would you say are the biggest obstacles to reaching a greater level of equality in the world?
Firstly, we always have to put into perspective that development cooperation is only one piece of the larger cake which consists of international trade, policies around security, and many other aspects. Looking at successes and failures, you always need to consider the larger context. I would say that in international cooperation for sustainable development, one great success is that we as an international community can agree on the most important goals and global challenges to address jointly like climate change or gender inequality. I think our contribution as GIZ is to develop practical solutions in different contexts which help overcome these challenges. I see it as a joint endeavour of an international community. It is always an effort to remind everybody that we have these international commitments because in daily business or in the news, we are sometimes overwhelmed by all the challenges that this world faces. International cooperation is very important and it’s a contribution. But you always have to put it into perspective.
One of the greatest challenges is that the whole context is very complex. Talking about global challenges and how we best address them we realise that there are so many factors that need to be taken into consideration. Nowadays, you realise that this is too complex for some and there’s a tendency to go back to simple and linear solutions. But I think the complexity shows that you have to address topics from a different perspective; you need a systemic approach. I hope that we will be able to contribute to this in the years to come: translate policy ambition into practical solutions for different contexts, motivate the most important actors to join us, and mobilise resources to address inequality.
Regarding the difficulties in the sector, what do you think is important to achieve actual collaboration and avoid perpetuating colonial dependencies?
As GIZ, our task is to translate policy ambitions into practical approaches. It is the German government that has a political dialogue with the partner government and decides on priorities of collaboration. Based on these priorities, we are commissioned to follow up with partners, and in this case, it’s the government of Togo. We follow up with different ministries, such as the ministry of health or agriculture, and ask them about their priorities. We build on political consensus and assist in translating it into practice: What contributions from the German side and the GIZ are the best matches for the question or intended change? Usually, one has a national strategy or an actor wanting to develop such a strategy, and then it’s our task to find the best contribution that could be expertise in a certain field of the topic e.g., trade or agricultural production and market access. Then we assist in designing a strategy for the national government which involves different partners from the private sector, civil society, or academia. The ambition is that this is a very solution-oriented approach to looking into a challenge and trying to find the best match. It is a participatory approach of working together with GIZ as a service provider for both, the partner government or organisation and the commissioning party, the German government.
A new and very interesting development is that the European Union and Germany, as an important member state, have decided to support joint programming with other European Union Member States present in Togo. So, we will align our contribution with the European Union, France, and other EU member states, making it a bit easier for the partners to reduce complexity and have one coordinated strategy or ‘Team Europe’ approach.
“The students of today are the problem solvers and solution finders of tomorrow.”
You describe a very collaborative spirit. Does this always work out or were there situations where you experienced non-matching expectations or times when your assistance didn’t feel welcome?
With people, some situations are easier than others. Trying to also establish dialogue in situations in which it is not so easy is part of the job, as well. What is sometimes challenging is having the European-coordinated approach but different activities from China or new actors. We are still learning how best to work together with other actors who are not classical collaboration partners. It’s always good to ask the partner side to explain where they would like to see the German contributions and where they would like to see contribution from other parties.
Do you have any reading recommendations about international cooperation for sustainable development?
It’s not directly about international cooperation but something I read recently that made me think a lot about our cooperation with Africa is the book ‘Afrotopia’ written by Felwine Sarr. He is an economist philosopher originally from Senegal who’s currently teaching at ETH Zurich. He is critical of what he calls a Eurocentric approach and socialisation of Africa. He critically reflects on the need for Africa to identify its own values again and, based on these values, develop its vision of where it would like to go. It needs thinkers, philosophers, creators, and so on. I found it quite enriching in terms of critical self-reflection on how we should evolve our collaboration in the future. The book does not give a final recommendation on the way forward, but it gives a lot of food for thought on the European way of international cooperation and the stereotypes that might exist regarding Africa.
Do you have any other general piece of advice that you would like to give to aspiring students who are interested in the field that you’re working in?
I wouldn’t want to be the advice giver but what I would say is that it’s important to be your authentic self. Find what interests you and what could be a profession that would give you fulfilment in life because the professional career takes up a lot of time in your daily schedule and in your life in general. I would recommend looking into something that best matches your own interests and really gives personal satisfaction to you rather than just looking for career options. Be your authentic self!
Then I would recommend being open-minded and curious and thinking about the future. What we need today and tomorrow are new and innovative ways of solving challenges. The students of today are the problem solvers and solution finders of tomorrow. Be a future thinker! I deem every contribution to make a difference.