The red pencil is a beloved tool of Germany’s Ministry of Finance. It has enabled Finance Minister Christian Linder to stick to the controversial debt brake (an economic policy enshrined in law for managing federal expenditure) during his federal budget planning. To many aid and development groups, however, it symbolizes the global crises of tomorrow because that red pencil has been used to slash almost €2 billion from Official Development Assistance (ODA) in the current German budget for 2024. 

ODA is funding governments of wealthy nations provide to developing countries and is an essential tool for assisting those living on the frontlines of climate disasters and humanitarian crises. It goes towards improving access to water, healthcare, and high-quality education, protecting biodiversity, and combating the climate emergency.

In the face of these cuts, 25 NGOs took to the streets at Berlin's central train station on June 3 to protest with a giant red pencil of their own, symbolizing the disastrous worldwide effects that these ODA cuts would have. Germany is the second-largest donor to foreign aid after the US.

Lindner’s austerity politics suggest that either his ministry is unaware of these implications or that one of Germany’s flagship initiatives — development cooperation — no longer plays a central role. In 2024, the budgets of the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) were already significantly cut by almost €930 million (or 8% less compared to 2023) and those of the Foreign Office (AA) by nearly €800 million  (18% less compared to 2023), along with reductions of €200 million in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action’s budget within the International Climate Initiative (ICI) – a total reduction of financing for international cooperation of almost €2 billion for 2024 compared to 2023.

“These savings will do more harm than good in the long run,” Florian Westphal, CEO of Save the Children Germany, one of the organizers of the red pencil campaign, said at the event. Their concern? Many long-term development projects may cease to be funded.

Indeed, these cuts have been widely criticized by development groups who have argued that they tarnish Germany’s image as a reliable partner to the Global South — the latter a concern shared by the BMZ. 

Tobias Hauschild, Head of Social Justice at OXFAM Germany, speaks at the #LuftNachOben protest on Washingtonplatz in Berlin.
Image: Mauro Bedoni / Save the Children

Development cooperation is not merely a humanitarian end for Western countries; Germany also uses it to promote its geopolitical positions and interests. “We can’t shape international agendas if we cut development aid,” Stephan Klingebiel, head of Inter- and Transnational Cooperation at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), told Reuters when the first round of cuts was announced. 

With the funds drying up, Germany’s ability to ally itself closer with countries of economic interest, given its status as an export powerhouse, is now at risk. Additionally, there is a growing sense that donor countries’ expectations are patronizing. This is especially true for Germany, which has a brutal colonial history, for instance, on the African continent.

In 2018, former president of the Bundestag and chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Norbert Lammert, was rebuked during a Namibia visit by President Hage Geingob when he tried to lecture him about Chinese influence in the country. “It seems it’s more of a European problem than our problem,” interrupted Geingob, admonishing Lammert’s eurocentrist bloc mentality. More demanding than asking, he continued: “Can you stop treating us like that?” He added that Namibians knew “how to handle our own country; don’t be sorry for us.”

In a maladroit move for Christian Lindner during his visit to Accra’s university in Ghana last year, he asked students in the lecture hall who could imagine working in Germany. No one raised their hand. And finally, the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, summed up many African decision-makers’ attitudes towards German diplomats: “When we talk to the Chinese, we get an airport. When we talk to the Germans, we get lectures.”

This often derives from Germany’s limited view of “losing” regional partners to countries like China or Russia. However, many African countries are increasingly moving away from this binary logic. We have seen the consequences of making development humanitarian aid dependent on the favor or disfavor of other states: at the end of January, the German Foreign Office suspended payments to the Palestinian relief agency UNRWA. The reason was allegations that about 1,200 of its employees had ties to Hamas or Islamic Jihad. To this day, there is no evidence to support these claims, a conclusion reached by a UN report. In fact, UNRWA was deemed “indispensable and irreplaceable” in Gaza and is the only local entity with the logistical infrastructure and contacts to ensure that the current famine could be at least eased. With 16 states cutting their funding, UNRWA lost $450 million and was pushed to the brink of collapse, until payments were resumed almost three months later. 

Yet, development cooperation is supposed to be about responsibility. The BMZ guidelines are aligned with the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including global equalization of living conditions, combating climate catastrophe and the causes of forced migration, and ending hunger. However, Tobias Hauschild from the international development organization Oxfam in Germany, who also spoke at Berlin’s main train station, sees this concept of responsibility increasingly constricted.

“Finance Minister Lindner’s plans for cuts are a rejection of solidarity,” as well as a rejection of international responsibility, he said, pointing to the growing global challenges such as the joint fight against pandemics and the climate emergency. “If we look at the coalition agreement, there is a lot about adhering to international commitments,” which is — so he said — undermined by the cuts.

On the other hand, German politicians have been talking for years about the need for Germany to “take on more responsibility in the world.” However, this often refers to the turning point after Russia invaded Ukraine, which is evident in the budget of the Ministry of Defense. While other ministries had to make cuts, military spending increased by €1.8 billion in 2024, and its minister, Boris Pistorius, has asked for an additional €6 billion in 2025.

Being a major player in foreign aid, there are concerns that Germany’s ODA cuts could have a signaling effect. Indeed, this is a trend that has already begun. Other European countries have cut their ODA budgets as well. In the UK, ODA has steadily declined since 2019, after the government reduced spending in aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI) following the pandemic. An impact analysis from 2023 warned that these cuts could mean almost 200,000 more people would face unsafe abortions across the African continent. Shortly after Germany decreased their ODA budget, France followed suit and erased €800 million from its ODA budget — a 13% cut.

How You Can Help

Today’s cuts are tomorrow’s crises. You can join us by downloading the Global Citizen app and taking action to help ensure leaders hear the voices of Global Citizens around the world. Together, we can urge Finance Minister Christian Lindner to abandon these short-sighted cuts and invest in a safe future for all. Tell him that cutting BMZ’s budget jeopardizes not just our ethical duty but also our economic interests. Send a tweet now


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