Sparrow or Eagle? The Denkfabrik for Culture, Education and Development

“We were lost at the beginning,” is written on an index card that the Denkfabrik Lebanon pinned on the facilitator’s wall. A sentence that appears to reflect the emotional state of most this morning; laughter is heard in the little groups that have gathered about the facilitator. “We had the toughest job there is ahead of us,” smirked one man, “to think!”

It is the first day of the workshop of the Alumni Denkfabrik, a project launched by the Goethe-Institut in the spring of 2012.

The Alumni Denkfabrik is a network of local initiatives, in which the Germany alumni of the Goethe-Institut, GIZ, DAAD and other German organizations join with specialists to identify development problems, discuss possible solutions and draw up tangible project proposals. The participants came from 14 different countries: from Belarus, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Lebanon, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bolivia, Peru, Cameroon, Kenya and South Africa. Ten countries formed national working groups, four countries in Southeast Asia united to form a regional Denkfabrik.

In working groups, the alumni first chose focus topics for a conference. Their participants then drew up solution proposals and from them produced project ideas for development and educational cooperation.

The groups communicated via the Alumniportal Deutschland (, an Internet platform with theme-based forums and interactive educational programmes.



photo gallery of the themed workshop

The workshop in Berlin, at which the national working groups presented the results of their thought and development processes, was the actual touchstone for the project initiators at the Goethe-Institut: would the Denkfabrik help the alumni to develop a closer relationship to Germany? Would the initiatives be able to work with the deliberately broader themes and methods? Would the Denkfabrik prove to be a suitable instrument for generating project ideas for international development and educational work?
One of the project objectives, “Mapping the participants,” whereby the 26 participants were to form a map of the Alumni Denkfabriks, was reached right away during the prelude event. The only reference point was a red dot in the middle depicting Berlin. “There’s a church steeple outside the window. So I knew where east was,” Wissam Hojaiban from Lebanon explained his choice of positions. “I simply followed the crowd,” admitted Hamdi Echkaou from Morocco.

In the next positioning game, “Whoever thinks that culture plays a major role in the development of their country, go stand in the right corner,” instead of explaining his reasons, Ledrolen Rojo Manriquez told an anecdote: “In the Philippines, a bird was to be chosen that best represents the country. A heated debate ensued: some thought a sparrow was suitable, others wanted an eagle.”  

After 45 minutes the ice was broken and the workshop participants began sharing with colleagues from other countries. The talked about their professional similarities, as well as their preferences for the same Bundesliga football club, their enthusiasm for German romanticism, their interest in the structure of the German Civil Code all those minor details that are crucial for establishing relationships.

This exchange was continued in the next day’s session. “I do what I do because...” With this question, the facilitator invited the participants to form groups of two and talk about their personal motives, professional goals and aspirations, while recognizing what they had in common going beyond the professional analogies: a similar cultural understanding, value system or political experiences.

In this way, a relaxed and easy atmosphere uncommon at international conferences developed, which made the group discussions of topics, approaches and the results of the national projects very lively. As different as the topics of the projects were, which ranged from waste avoidance awareness to securing the power supply in mountainous regions to the reform of art academy curricula (see the separate report on the same website for more information), were also the methodical implementation. Some national groups had focused more on the strategic implementation, others on the intellectual investigation of specific development problems. “The method is the aim,” some stated, while others presented the results in slide shows: benches made of recycled plastic waste, solar panels on roofs, and workshops for art students.

The South African group was the last to present the results of their Denkfabrik, which tied in on an existing large-scale theatre education project called “Drama for Life.” They also went into a criticism of the funding organization, which often got too involved in the project design and specified provisions that took neither local customs nor traditions and structural impediments into consideration. In not a few cases, their influence on the content failed to meet the needs of the target group.

This was a criticism that hit home as the Denkfabrik organizers also had this grievance in mind while they were developing the concept of the Alumni Denkfabrik: the 11 national Denkfabriks were not only conceived to devise solution strategies for development and educational policy problems, but also to conceive actual projects that could be proposed for funding by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Foreign Office or other public departments. The aim was to balance the slope between project funders and makers, in order to strengthen both the project initiators’ proactiveness and sense of responsibility and the trust of the funders that their money was being used wisely. 

On the second day, participants agreed on the project proposals and methods, which they wished to present to the backers who had arrived at the conference that morning for this purpose. Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz, state secretary at the BMZ, Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, and Jan Schwaab, head of Global Knowledge Cooperation and Alumni at the GIZ, listened to the participants’ presentations of their project work.
At the end of the workshop the organizers firmly decided to continue the Denkfabrik and use its methods to devise further projects in development and educational cooperation.

The index card “We were lost at the beginning” on the facilitators’ wall had long been replaced by another: “Need to support the Alumni Network.”


Merle Hilbk