If we want to internationalize redistribution, the term “internationalism” is pretty well suited. Sarah Ninette Kaliga, Managing Director of SODI explains: “Of course this is the case, even if we don’t actually use the term directly. It’s not without reason that the word ‘solidarity’ features in our name.”
Concepts are important to help us understand what SODI does and what it prefers not to do. “We don’t want to develop anyone so we don’t refer to ‘development aid’ when talking about our work. Those who come to us develop their own projects. Our work is focused on the situations in which these people find themselves and has nothing to do with our aspirations about how they should be or what they should do. In other words: We don’t know any better. But, we can work together.”
Cooperation means facilitating and supporting independent initiatives together with civil society initiatives and organizations to foster the potential of organizations to implement existing solutions independently. These are local projects, implemented with SODI’s support, which in the best case scenario enable continuity and success. Of course, some projects are more effective at achieving this than others.
Sometimes, as is the case with Mozambique, the projects involve an entire town twinning arrangement. This particular one has become something of a success story allowing people to work together and learn from one another. In the case of Mozambique this was the best and most promising way of developing something on equal footing, says Sarah Ninette Kaliga.
Today SODI has concluded or continues to support over 1,000 projects. Currently the organization is active in 12 countries. Considering that the association has only existed since 1990, that’s quite an achievement. Now would be the right time to give an overview of the organization’s history.
SODI’s roots, which proved to be both burden and opportunity at the same time, were in the Solidarity Committee of the German Democratic Republic. This was a legally independent organization under the control of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) which had the remit of coordinating the country’s development aid activities. This meant helping countries in the struggle against imperialism, pushing through foreign policy objectives, and fostering economic development wherever it was hoped that socialism could be established. Founded in 1960, the Committee was funded by voluntary citizens’ donations collected through the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB). Here, voluntary was a very elastic concept, since anyone who refused to cooperate was certainly made to feel the consequences.
After disputes with the Treuhandanstalt (trust agency responsible for the privatization of East German enterprises), in 1990 SODI was allowed to invest the 32 million Deutschmarks they had collected in donations into the Stiftung Nord-Süd-Brücken, created in 1994. This private non-profit foundation continues to exist to this day. By then, SODI e.V. had already been around for four years. As a founder, the association invested the available donations and on this basis began to consolidate what remained of the previous organization that had not dwindled away with the end of the GDR. Initially it did this without institutional funds but had financial support from donations and supporting members and a desire, working with as many partners as possible, to become actively involved in networks and use its ambivalent legacy to demonstrate active commitment in the spirit of solidarity. And so it proved possible to develop the foundation. The idea, the concept of solidarity and of internationalism, did not disappear with the GDR. Something was still alive. In fact, something quite substantial.
Today there are association members, supporting members, and local groups, and the association secures its own funding. SODI is a member of various coalitions and umbrella associations for development aid and participates in networks.
“We have reinvented ourselves and, at the same time, still managed to take a lot of what existed before and keep it going, open it up for discussion again, reorganize it, and develop an independent self-concept. Many countries where the former Solidarity Committee was also active have remained part of our remit: Vietnam, South Africa, Laos, and Mozambique. This is the part that represents continuity. But at the same time, we have developed a different, non-paternalistic understanding of cooperation”, says Sarah Ninette Kaliga. “It’s all about sustainability—social, economic, environmental. Above all, our objective is for people facing poverty and environmental destruction to be able to independently advocate for a fairer world. And this should be possible in the countries where they live, in cooperation with others, and ideally not just in the context of a short-lived project, but permanently.”
In addition to securing continuity of what already existed, SODI also took on new fields of work, in a world where, as the association says, “many people have no or only limited access to opportunities for political participation and to social, economic, and cultural resources”. One could also add that the world referred to is one where heroes are no longer that easy to find.
This is, after all, also part of the history of SODI: liberation movements and the names associated with these movements in some cases became authoritarian structures, or even worse heroes became rulers, and once-promising developments became countries devastated by civil war and poverty.
These cases are counterbalanced by “islands of hope” and ongoing projects. It is above all this continuity that is so difficult to achieve, which also has something to do with the need to repeatedly procure funds. These funds come from foundations, the German Ministry of Development, from donations from sponsoring members, and from various other individuals. The Stiftung Nord-Süd-Brücken is also frequently approached about new projects or the continuation of existing ones, particularly educational projects.
One of the most fascinating projects, partly because it is one of the most challenging due to the deep-rooted prejudices that have endured around the world for centuries and to which the Left are often also not immune, is entitled “Work and a Future for the Roma” and is being implemented in Serbia. It was not so long ago, recalls Sarah Ninette Kaliga, that the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung was invited to visit Belgrade to learn about the work of the Roma organizations based there.
This led to the idea of developing neighbourhood centres together with the Roma. Local lawyers, social workers, psychologists, the partner organization Roma Forum Serbia, SODI, and other partners developed practical strategies and implemented them, for instance in the Serbian city of Požarevac where approximately 7,500 Roma (around one-fifth of the city’s population) live in precarious conditions. Racist violence, discrimination by government institutions, poor or even entirely absent educational opportunities, barely any job opportunities, no official papers—for generations there seems to have been no way out of this vicious circle. The project therefore focuses on access to education, the search for employment, dealing with trauma, strengthening small businesses and entrepreneurship, and, of central importance, helping people acquire ID documents. Women particularly benefit from this type of support which does not present a preformed concept but rather takes up the ideas of the people who are at the heart of all this and helps them to implement those ideas.
The project is also due to be expanded to Albania and Kosovo in the near future, says Sarah Ninette Kaliga. “Roma are the biggest minority in Europe. And they are also the most discriminated against and the poorest group. There is very little interest in doing anything to address the situation. On the contrary, over recent years the Roma’s circumstances have actually deteriorated, as is demonstrated by the situation in countries such as Hungary.”
For two years now, SODI has supported a “tea project” in India developed in cooperation with the local partner organization CTRD. The project was initiated by the Adivasi who live in the Nilgiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu in southern India and whose living conditions are very challenging. The establishment of tea cooperatives and an independent tea factory for the production of certified organic green tea has provided 500 smallholders with economic security and a self-sufficient and dignified life.
Is this solidarity? Is this the modus operandi of internationalism? “If internationalism needs movements then it should be looking to those advocating for redistribution. This is what everything revolves around,” says Sarah Ninette Kaliga. “Our newest campaign will be called ‘An economy for everyone’. We don’t necessarily have to grow but we must progress our thinking, we must become more political. We have always been a little cautious in that respect. We should be talking more about justice and fighting for it. That’s what we would then call internationalism. Although I do also find the word ‘solidarity’, as it appears in our name, particularly attractive and apt."
This interview, conducted by Kathrin Gerlof, originally appeared in the Centre for International Dialogue and Cooperation's quarterly newsletter, maldekstra. Translation by Carla Welch.