3 - 2003
Mostly re-affirmation, little disagreement
Development strategies at the Ecumenical Kirchentag
by Barbara Riek
In the 1970s, North-South relations were a major topic at church conventions in Germany. Today other themes have come to the fore. In the meantime, those involved in development issues have acquired a great deal of expertise, and some serve as consultants to politicians in this field. And there is no lack of original awareness-raising campaigns and continuing work through Fair Trade Shops.
In the three editions of the "Ecumenical Kirchentag News", development issues are mentioned only once. But it would be incorrect to assume that the Kirchentag neglected such matters. There were numerous presentations on justice for the world, mostly with good or acceptable attendance. Innumerable "one world" groups and organisations offered their programmes at stalls in the "Market of Possibilities", where the crowds in the aisles, frequent lively conversations and cotton bags stuffed with informational materials testified to the public's unbroken interest in North-South issues.
Nevertheless, development strategies were not headline-makers at this Kirchentag. This is not surprising, since this was the first ecumenical Kirchentag. It was appropriate that many presentations and conversations centered on questions like ending the divisions between the confessions, or toning down their effects.
The lack of prominence of development issues is also due to the fact that those who were concerned with them in past years have differentiated and specialised their pursuit of these issues. And the critique of "globalisation" seems to be common ground for only a limited group of active and interested persons and is not clear-cut enough really to mobilise others.
The whole spectrum of development activism was represented at the Kirchentag:
- partnership groups which see themselves as apolitical, who have at heart the well-being of children in one of the southern countries;
- the various fair trade organisations, seeking to assure producers in the South a decent income and at the same time contribute to changing unjust structures in Germany and Europe;
- action groups and information centres which study particular themes and educate and lobby about them;
- a great many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) contributing to more just societies through aid to the South and/or lobbying of political and economic powers;
- and finally, groups which do not believe the existing system of society can be reformed.
Titles of presentations such as "The New IMF and World Bank Prescriptions under Scrutiny" or "Just Global Agricultural Trade Policies", prepared and offered by people from the church development agencies (Church Development Service [EED], Bread for the World, Misereor), make it clear that development NGOs are no longer merely analysing the situation in developing countries and North-South relations. They want to work together, and with partners in the South, to try out and propose steps toward change.
The development agencies present themselves as self-confident members of civil society, who know how to play their role as critics of, but increasingly also as consultants to, politicians or international financial institutions, and to gain a hearing. Conversations at the Kirchentag were not only about, but also with, the World Bank, IMF or the German federal government. These events were worthwhile fora which gave both church agencies and an interested audience the opportunity to get involved in the discussion and sound out possibilities to wield influence.
But looking for ways to intervene was not enough for many who attended the Kirchentag. They were not satisfied to inform themselves about developments good and bad. They were more anxious to learn what they themselves should do, or not do, and take responsibility for it in a global context. Thus at many events, the question of changing one's own patterns of consumption came up. At a presentation by the "Clean Clothes Campaign", people asked how they should go about buying clothes or sports shoes. Many were disappointed that there are no alternatives to commercial sources in this area.
A presentation on ethical investment sometimes took on the character of user advice. There were experts on the podium who could give detailed information about responsible investment opportunities, and this was just what people were looking for.
Presentations on problems of globalisation were well attended. Three, four and even five speeches on highly complex themes were accepted by a well-disciplined and interested audience. However, not enough use was made of the opportunities in discussion with those of other viewpoints, from fine-tuning or changing one's own position to gaining practice in dealing with representatives of neo-liberal economics.
Among the almost 200,000 who participated throughout were 5,400 people from 90 different countries. Many had been invited as speakers. A few merely functioned as supporters of the presenters' positions, but most managed to contribute substantially to the quality of discussions. Patriarch Michel Sabbah from Jerusalem not only presented objective insights into the demands and desires of the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict, but also made it clear how the policies of the West look from a Middle Eastern perspective: "If you really want to protect your friend, you don't surround him with enemies, but with friends."
For many organisations, local churches and groups, the first Ecumenical Kirchentag opened up possibilities for future cooperation, but also made them more clearly aware of differences. For many it provided a space in which to practise cooperation. It was different for church agencies like EED, Bread for the World or Misereor, for many development action groups and for the church youth associations. What they could do at the Kirchentag was what they have been doing all along, for over 30 years: carrying out important actions and campaigns together, and jointly bringing their common concerns before politicians and the public.
This does not so much mean that the ablest cooperators were at work here, or that issues of division between confessions were especially wisely dealt with. It owes much more to the simple recognition that those who separately have little power must get together in order to be heard at all. But the experience was positive that confessional divisions can be overcome by acting together. There is no alternative to the ecumenical way.
Barbara Riek is director of the Department for Developemnt Education and Publication of the EED. This article, here slightly abridged, appeared in June 2003 in Der Überblick. Zeitschrift für ökumenische Begegnung und Zusammenarbeit (Overview: a Journal of Ecumenical Encounter and Cooperation).