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GIZ in Syria: Fighting the good fight

Cheap production in Third World countries under atrocious working conditions. Easy waste disposal despite the risk of environmental fallout. Expanding into new markets regulated by inhumane regimes. It sometimes seems, entering the world of business will inevitably lead students on career paths that include unethical roadblocks. But it does not have to be about profit at all. In June, Fabian Wilhelm of GIZ introduced Hochschule Fresenius to his highly unique field of work: international development cooperation.

Afterwards, one could only attest that it had been a guest lecture unlike any other. The students and lecturers of the Master’s program in International Business Management (M.A.) in Cologne were left positively exhausted by the depiction of what can only be described as a highly difficult job portfolio. As Country Manager Syria for GIZ, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – whose name is never translated, even in English contexts –, Fabian Wilhelm is responsible for organizing development work for a country that in recent years has seen as much hardship and horror as few others in the world. To make matters more complicated, Wilhelm cannot set foot on Syrian soil, but is forced to function as mediator between GIZ headquarters in Germany, GIZ staff in Lebanon and Turkey, and Syrian partners.

While Syria is arguably not as dangerous as it was when the war was still waging worse and more widespread, other dangers make Syria difficult to work in. First, who to cooperate with? The autocratic Syrian government, still led by Bashar al-Assad, is highly suspicious of war crimes against its own people. However, the rather radical opposition includes terrorist forces. Yet, it is highly necessary to keep on supporting the Syrian people, says Wilhelm – and anything but a losing game. The short-term reward is simply measured in a different currency. As Wilhelm addresses a Syrian-born student in Arabic, one can see how much even she values what GIZ does for her mother country.

By nature, fighting for sustainable development is a long-term game, however. When visiting the website of GIZ, one does not have to look long before finding the seventeen colorful tiles that have come to represent the AGENDA 2030 and the sustainable development goals (SDG) put forward by the United Nations. By estimations, achieving the SDGs would cost 90 trillion dollars. “Not a sum that attracts companies or inspires any hopes regarding the return on investment. All the more important is the role of financial aid by NGOs, governments and institutions as well as the help of development agencies like GIZ to implement projects,” says Barbara Lier, Program Director of International Business Management (M.A.). GIZ is active in a wide range of fields, from economic development and employment promotion to green energy and education, their main commissioning entities being the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Federal Foreign Office and international institutions like the EU. As stated in its mission, GIZ is “dedicated to shaping a future worth living around the world” and “to deliver effective solutions that offer people better prospects and sustainably improve their living conditions”.

In Syria, sustainably improving living conditions can unfortunately only be a hope for the distant future. As Fabian Wilhelm states, GIZ’s efforts in Syria cannot be considered rebuilding, because that phase is still to come. Peace and a credible political transition towards a more democratic and inclusive state must come first. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) around Idlib is a step in the right direction, but even Fabian Wilhelm thinks that Syria will remain an unstable country for some time. What if military actors on the ground violate the conditions of the DMZ? What if jihadists and extremists push forward? No one knows what Syria will look like half a year from now. As a result, GIZ has to work closely with forecast scenarios, always anticipating multiple outcomes. The difficult organizational framework does not make the job easier, but GIZ will continue to make true on its promise to provide development services, proving that making the world a better place is indeed a rewarding career choice. As impressed as Master’s students and staff were by Fabian Wilhelm’s commitment, everyone agreed that GIZ and development work in general should take greater prominence in the curriculum of future semesters and discussions among the International Business School in general.