Open to All that is Different and Surprising

By Tobias Kühner

My time in development service began in the spring of 2008, when I went out to Ghana with DED for the first time. I worked in a project promoting "decentralisation and good governance", which was run in cooperation with GTZ and the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (Bank for Reconstruction). My task was to advise the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. The project was concerned with the operation and maintenance of social infrastructure - weekly markets in the first place, but social services, schools, and polyclinics as well. This was an exciting challenge, especially because I was not yet able to draw on years of professional experience. I had worked in a firm of architects, but the approaches and requirements in Germany were very different in comparison with the situation on the ground in Ghana. The biggest challenge was to restructure badly planned or oversized elements of infrastructure, which could not be maintained due to the lack of resources. Sharing experiences and ideas and working together in a team of professionals, who were doing the same kind of consultancy work in other parts of the country, was a great help to me at that time.

First of all, things turn out differently...

Tobias Kühner at a lecture on "Energy Efficiency" during his GIZ placement in Brazil

After that, I worked for two years in a German firm of consultants and completed short-term assignments in Laos, Mongolia, and Mozambique. Then I spent three years working for a manufacturing company in southern Germany. In 2015, I went out again as a professional development worker for GIZ – this time to work in Brazil in the field of energy efficiency and renewable energy. My job included advising a training institute about how to renovate its energy infrastructure. It soon became evident that there was a problem: The institute had not allocated any funds for the renovation work, neither in the current year’s budget, nor in that of the following year. An old Brazilian proverb came to mind: If life gives you lemons, make lemonade out of it. Where my work was concerned, this meant that instead of focusing on the renovation of buildings, I focused on training and raising the awareness of employees. And I identified ways in which energy could be saved without any financial investment. At the end of two years of work, the campus lacked the photovoltaic roof panels which had been planned originally. But it was possible to celebrate an energy saving of almost 25%, which meant significantly reduced electricity costs.

...and then different from what you expect

Both my overseas placements were characterised by having to adjust my activities as a consultant/adviser to fit the actual situation on the ground. In both cases, the original project goals had to be adjusted retrospectively or redefined at short notice. Fortunately, I had already been prepared for such eventualities before my first placement as a development service worker. In 1999, I did my civilian alternative service as a volunteer in a social work project in Brazil. Before I went out, I was encouraged to be flexible, whenever I found myself in unexpected situations, and to foster my capacity to put up with a lot of frustration. If you set off with a load of emotional baggage - wanting to make the world a better place; and wanting to implement all the plans that you made in your cosy little room at home - you are likely to be doomed to failure. You do better to also make use of the time abroad for personal development, and to be open to all that is new, different, and surprising. These insights, which I gained during my voluntary service all those years ago, were formative. And they form the basis on which my continuing interest in development cooperation is founded.

Still involved in development cooperation

When my contract with GIZ came to an end, I stayed in Brazil for personal reasons. I am currently working as a freelance consultant in development cooperation. And at the same time, I’m working at the local university on my doctoral thesis in the field of sustainable urban development. In both these fields of work and study, I benefit from my time in development service and draw on a rich and valuable treasure trove of experiences. Flexibility and adaptability are qualities that never go out of fashion. They are in great demand, especially in the current time of (corona) crisis, and not only in development cooperation.

Tobias Kühner, architect, urban planner 2008 - 2010: Ghana, DED 2015 - 2018: Brazil, GIZ.