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Learning About Development, in Germany

BERLIN—Abdallah Khair, a 33-year-old Jordanian, spent much of his time working on his master’s degree in the far off city of Cologne. But he finished his degree, which focused on water management, by writing a thesis on energy-efficient water treatment plants, using the coastal city of Aqaba in Jordan as a case study.

Now, Aqaba’s water utility company is negotiating with an international development bank to finance a conservation proposal Khair developed. “This project will help Jordan to reduce its energy bill and improve and sustain the water supply services,” he said.

Khair’s studies were part of an exchange program run by the German Academic Exchange Service and the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation, a state agency. The two organizations oversee master’s-degree programs that offer post-graduate exchange courses in economics, urban planning, education, water resource management and renewable energy that have attracted 1,700 applicants since the program’s inception in 2007. Around 80 percent of the program’s students are from the Arab region, according to a 2013 Enterprise survey.

With students learning and professors teaching in both Germany and abroad, the programs seek to boost economic and technological development in the Arab region, which as many people have pointed out, is plagued by slow growth, unemployment and a lack of entrepreneurship despite having the benefits of oil revenues and large markets.

“Germany has the technical knowledge, good engineers and good intentions in terms of development projects and experience in rebuilding a country after a war,” said Husam Al Dakak, 28-year-old Syrian who studied economics at Philipps-University Marburg, suggesting that his homeland might learn from the “German economic miracle” after World War II.

Now living in Berlin, Al Dakak is one of the 167 graduates who have benefited from the exchange program. He studied business administration at the University of Damascus before coming to Germany in 2011.

(DAAD/Michael Jordan)

The economics course is probably the most striking example of students learning more than they would if they had studied exclusively at home.

Economist Bernd Hayo, who teaches macroeconomics at the University of Marburg, said that many Arab higher-education institutions use American textbooks that tell Arab students very little about their national economies.

“Most universities in the Arab region would not even offer a specific course on Middle East economics,” said Hayo. “We provide courses on Arab economies focusing on issues such as oil production or population growth or specific questions related to public finances in these countries.”

Al Dakak said the program opened his eyes to a new way of seeing Middle Eastern economies, including the distribution of wealth in the region.

“In Syria, a dictator like Assad would not let you learn about the economics of the Arab region,” he said. “I learned for the first time the real facts: In Syria, there is oil and this goes to the Assad family. In the Arab region, governments use natural resources to repress.”

Arab students in Germany also gain valuable insights about teaching styles that are alternatives to what they are used to—including being open minded, thinking critically, and participating in class.

Students at Cologne University of Applied Science learn about water management by focusing on projects throughout the world, said Maha Halalsheh, a researcher at the Water and Environmental Research Center of the University of Jordan, an Amman institution that’s part of the German program.

But before the starting their courses, students also participate in intercultural communications workshops to help them understand the cultural differences between German and Arab education.

“This is the cultural aspects of cooperation,” said Maha.

Culture also impacts the substance of learning, not just the style. The master’s programs take a European approach to sustainability, unapologetically assuming natural resources are limited and must be conserved for future generations rather than viewing them a treasure trove ripe for extraction.

The exchange program’s renewable energy program focuses on controlling supply and demand with energy pricing, for example, said Matthias Weiter, a lecturer at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Students also study the scarcity of natural resources in the Arab region through practical work experiences.

A team of students, for example, analyzed Jordan’s largest wastewater treatment plant, As Samra, near the Jordanian capital of Amman, said Mandy Zuchold, a technical advisor at Jordan’s Environment Ministry who studied water resource management at Jordan University and Cologne University of Applied Science.

“We examined the project, a Jordanian-American public-private partnership, from all angles, not only from the technical, financial or legal side,” said Zuchold.

The exchange programs are among the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development’s attempts to improve Germany’s relationship with the Arab world.

“The key for success in development cooperation is to have good managers on both sides, Arab and German, so they have the ability to respond to each other and they can really control the project,” said Weiter, the lecturer at Humboldt, who oversaw the ministry’s Middle East unit from 2003 to 2007.

The exchange program has a budget of 21 million euros (about $28,000,000) through 2017, according to a German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation report, suggesting it will continue to yield development dividends. Students continue to recognize the added value of cultural cooperation in developing projects.

“The bilateral cooperation allows mutual benefits between both universities and countries,” said Lobna Mohammed, an engineer who graduated in 2013 with a master’s in urban planning from Ain Shams University in Cairo and the University of Stuttgart. “It will have a long-term strategic impact that will be more evident in near future.”

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