Global Citizenship: An Interview with Simon Böhler

Simon Böhler and the wiew over Prizren, a beautiful city in the South of Kosovo, close to the border to Albania

Simon Böhler and the wiew over Prizren, a beautiful city in the South of Kosovo, close to the border of Albania

Tell us about yourself: where are you from, what made you passionate about development, what is your area of concentration?

My name is Simon Böhler, I grew up in a small town in the Black Forest, a mountainous region in southern Germany close to the border to France and Switzerland. I became interested in learning more about “development“ after I spent eight month in Latin America traveling with a tent and stove and volunteering with a grassroots organization in Pisco, Peru. Pisco had been hit by an earthquake a couple of month earlier, and when I arrived the city center was still covered with rubble. It was amazing to see that a group of highly motivated young people can make a real difference under such circumstances. But it also made me think a lot about the tremendous challenge of truly involving local citizens and creating sustainability in an organization that mainly depends on international volunteers and donor money.

Before I came to DC, I worked for the German development agency (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH) fostering high level dialog on development policies. After graduating from the University of Konstanz, I cycled from Germany to India to raise funds for an Indian NGO focused on education for disadvantaged youth. Cycling 150 days and 5600 miles through snowy mountains, dust-dry deserts, dark-green forests, and windy coast lines really changed my perception of what is a good and just life (what I think is a pretty decisive issue in “development”). As we were travelling on a very low budget, equipped with just a tent and a stove, we were very much dependent on the help and hospitality of people on the road – and the way we were treated and welcomed by people taught me a lot about true kindness, trust, and friendship crossing all social, religious and ethnic groups. (Editor’s note: If you want to read more about this he had his own blog, available here. It was originally in German but also has a google translate option. Check it out!)

A Fulbright grant allowed me to join the IDS program, where I am now concentrating on local governance and sub-national administration in fragile contexts. As citizens and public institutions interact in the most immediate and unfiltered way on the local level, I am convinced that more responsive, efficient and effective local public institutions can have a tremendous impact on the prospects for development. Building on my background in public administration, I am particularly interested in learning more about organizational reform processes (e.g. how to reform the administration of a municipality), public sector reforms (e.g. decentralization reforms in different sectors) and essentially how patterns of local governance in the context of weak state structures can be enhanced in such way that they empower citizens to pursue the life they want to live (hat tip to Amartya Sen).

On the road to India: Cycling through the Iranian desert

On the road to India: Cycling through the Iranian desert

Is it difficult pursuing a degree in a language that is not your native tongue? If not the language do you think there are other cultural differences that give you a different perspective in classes?

Well, I am not sure if it is really difficult but it is definitely more difficult than studying in your mother tongue. However, as it seems to me that most of the development discourse happens in English (although not necessarily in English-speaking countries), I almost always have problems discussing these issues in my mother tongue (which is a dialect close to Swiss-German). If we look at the IDS program, many of us grew up in diverse circumstances in different countries and I feel that this diversity makes a big difference in our learning environment. Especially if I compare Germany (or Europe) and the U.S., I often encounter a different understanding of the normative roles of the state and the private sector, what are basic public services and who should finance them – which dramatically impacts development policies and technical advice.

Where did you intern this summer, how did you find this position, and what did you do?

Over the summer, I was interning with the the German development agency GIZ (offical name: “Deutsche Gesellschaft für International Zusammenarbeit“), in their office in Pristina, Kosovo. Kosovo has seen a comprehensive decentralization reform process over the past few years, which transferred numerous responsibilities for the provision of public services from the central level to the municipal level. I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on decentralization in Kosovo and it was clear to me that I had to deepen my understanding of the challenges on the ground by interning with an organization directly working on these issues. So I researched a couple of projects and contacted the respective project leaders. My supervisor at the GIZ immediately showed interest and offered me a position as a junior researcher.

Simon and an official of the municipality of Drenas, one of the partner institutions of the project

Simon and an official of the municipality of Drenas, one of the partner institutions of the project

I worked in a project titled, “Modernization of Municipal Service“, which seeks to support the decentralization process in Kosovo by strengthening the capacity of municipalities and publicly owned enterprises in providing responsive and effective public services on the local level. We worked closely with four partner municipalities and a publicly owned regional waste company in facilitating organizational reform processes (e.g. establishing basic monitoring procedures within the municipalities), enhancing communication and trust between different actors (e.g. between different municipal departments), and providing technical advise (e.g. how to calculate an adequate waste fee; harmonization of legal framework). During my time in Pristina, I prepared a study on accountability measures in the waste sector, conducted interviews with stakeholders on the national and local level, and I worked closely with the regional waste company to facilitate the development of internal monitoring procedures. My takeaway message from this field experience is that there is no blueprint to solve challenges – one has to come up with creative solutions that include all relevant stakeholders and take into account the actual distribution of political power – and most importantly be patient.

Will this experience change the coursework you take this year, or the types of professional opportunities you pursue in the future?

My experience over the summer reinforced what I already planned to pursue. Working on local governance, especially with a focus on public institutions and decentralization processes, can be a relatively technical endeavor and requires me to acquire a well-balanced understanding of the highly interlinked financial, political and administrative dimensions of local governance structures.  Classes I plan to take cover topics such as public finance systems, governmental revenues and expenditures, management of local governments. Beyond this, I want to focus on the development of my own methodological skills. From my understanding, it can be relatively challenging and difficult to acquire these skills on your own and outside of school. So rather than taking too much classes that focus on knowledge and skills I am able to acquire on my own, I try to take as much classes as possible focusing on research and analytical methods – basically content that is difficult to acquire on your own.

What do you wish was different, either about the organization you work with, or the situations you are seeing on the ground?

Kosovo is regarded as a unique case in the history of statebuilding, receiving more financial assistance per capita than any other state in history. This being said and given the fact, that the international community is active in Kosovo since 1999, I excepted a well-grounded system of donor coordination in place. However, I was surprised to learn that within the focus of my project on the waste management sector, there is only limited coordination between different donors. In contrast, USAID, JICA, UNDP, SDC and GIZ all develop and implement individual and non-harmonized strategies with coordination limited to “informing“ other actors about these plans. This does not sound like incredible insight and we have discussed that hundreds of times in numerous classes at GW – but experiencing the lack of donor coordination and cooperation first hand is a devastating feeling.

Tell us something positive, either about the work you are doing or the things you are learning and seeing there in Kosovo?

Two issues immediately come to my my mind:

First of all, it was great to see that development work can actually make a meaningful difference. Although the impacts of our project were often not tangible and measurable, it clearly made a positive difference to the partner institutions. I was especially impressed by the approach the GIZ took, which was not so much focused on delivering tangible and measurable outputs at the expense of local ownership (e.g. in form of a municipal action plans that are entirely drafted by international consultants rather than by municipal officials). Rather, the project emphasized on the facilitation of a meaningful and locally owned reform process with small but sustainable reform steps. While this approach did not always produce immediate and highly visible results, it appears to be a more sustainable approach in the long run.

Simon and an official of the municipality of Drenas, one of the partner institutions of the project

Simon and Milaim, his roommate, with a traditional Albanian hat

Secondly, I have experienced incredible hospitality in Kosovo. I arrived in Pristina with a phone number of an Kosovo-Albanian friend of a friend, assuming that he might be able to help me find a place to stay. When I was sitting in the cab from the airport, I gave him a call. Although I had never seen him before, he and his roommates immediately welcomed me in their apartment – and it soon became clear that I found a new home for my entire stay. After preparing myself to stay in a hostel or expat housing for three months, I ended up sharing a flat with four Kosovo Albanians friends. Most of them were from Mitrovica, a city in northern Kosovo which is divided in two: the Serbian community lives in the Northern part, the Albanian majority lives south of the river Ibar, the de facto line of division. While in Pristina it is easy to forget that there is a (ethnic) conflict at all, Mitrovica reminds you why the international community had to intervene and still is present on the ground with 5,000 soldiers. The opportunity to become a part of the life of four young Kosovo-Albanians in Pristina helped me to develop an understanding of the attitude and soul of the Kosovo-Albanian people that goes far beyond what I could have learned from living in the expat community. I spend my free time with them drinking countless coffees in the streets of Pristina,  discussing political developments, and being a guest at their family homes. This may sound cheesy, but I arrived as a stranger and left as a friend.