Interview with Prof. Dr. agr. Brigitte Petersen, Spokeswoman of the Model Region Reconstruction and Resilience Initiative
Prof. Brigitte Petersen has been honorary chairwoman of the board of the European service cooperative EQAsce, based in Bonn, since 2015. Since 2012, she has been deputy chairwoman of the Bonn.realis e.V. cluster. She has been teaching at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University of Bonn since 1985 on the field of action of crisis, risk and quality management in value chains in the agricultural and food industry.
EQAsce: On April 26th, you announced the official launch of the Reconstruction and Resilience Initiative – WiR for short (taken from the German words) – at the European Commission’s regional office in Bonn. What is the motivation behind the launch of this cross-state initiative?
Prof. Dr. Petersen:The consequences of the flood disaster in July 2021 are still omnipresent for more than 100,000 people and almost 15,000 companies in the Rhineland area. Particularly for the affected winegrowers, horticulturists, grassland and arable farmers, but also for companies in the food trade and gastronomy, reconstruction is proceeding far too slow. Many fear for their existence!
This is not the only reason why those affected, private aid networks and municipalities in these flood regions have joined forces with their parallel initiatives to form the first WiR campaign of this kind in Germany.
It is important for all of us to accelerate the reconstruction with a common concept. To this end, it is necessary to create transparency and to combine our various competences and existing entrepreneurial forces in a meaningful way. We expect this to improve the visibility of the complexity of the necessary measures and the long overdue establishment of a business-driven steering committee with the appropriate personnel. But we also want other regions in Germany and Europe – that are in a similar situation – to quickly participate in our digital innovations and our approach in the three WiR joint projects.
EQAsce: What is special about the model region between northern Rhineland-Palatinate and southern North Rhine-Westphalia?
Prof. Dr. Petersen: In the past months, the people here experienced and processed several threatening and traumatic events simultaneously: Losses and destruction in the flood night (July 15th to July 16th 2021), the ongoing Corona pandemic, and the unexpected outbreak of war in Ukraine with all its consequences. Nevertheless, most of them have developed an admirable solidarity and strength to stick to their reconstruction plans, wishes and hopes for the future of their unique cultural landscape and habitats and not to resign. This strength can also be described as the resilience that we are concerned about in the Rhineland initiative. The Rheinish “we”-feeling is reflected in the initiative’s WiR logo. It is intended to be synonymous with a joint effort by active affected companies, private voluntary aid networks and public agencies in the reconstruction effort. In addition, WiR can draw on innovations from existing, stable networks in the model region, such as the Cluster Bonn.realis or LEADER initiatives launched last year.
EQAsce: How is the still rocky road of reconstruction designed and financed?
Prof. Dr. Petersen: It is definitely not the lack of money for reconstruction or the lack of federal programs for forward-looking sustainable development of the affected flood regions. It is other constraints that prevent needed measures from beeing implemented. For example, the restrictions in the regulations on what can be financed from reconstruction funds. In addition, there is a lack of organizational structures for an unprecedentedly complex reconstruction effort. For example, the urgently needed additional personnel in public administration cannot be paid out of federal and state reconstruction funds. What is needed most at present are funding opportunities for skilled workers as well as experts to advise and rebuild businesses and restore agricultural land values. After all, economic power and tourism can only be brought back to the Ahr-region and the Eifel-region if a joint effort succeeds in simultaneously rehabilitating winegrowing as well as agricultural and forestry businesses, food crafts and gastronomy. The vision of regional value-added partnerships with joint marketing also needs money to bring people together and to develop short- and long-term concepts for this. A lack of human resources initially affected both the responsible ministries, the subordinate agencies and those responsible for development in the districts. This problem, which can hardly be solved by the public sector alone, was openly addressed by the two representatives of the state ministries, Thomas Lennertz from the MHKBG in Düsseldorf and Henning Schwarting from the MDL in Mainz, at our panel discussion on April 26th. No ministry at the state or federal level was prepared last July, in the face of the historic flood disaster, to digitize administrative processes from application to approval in the shortest possible time or to train existing staff. There was also a lack of human resources to speed up coordination processes at the EU federal and state levels. These are the main reasons why, after almost ten months, most of the reconstruction funds have not yet been approved and disbursed.
The WiR initiative intends to make reconstruction more of a joint task between public administration and regional business than it has been in the past. At the same time, WiR is an experiment in crisis-proof and sustainable organizational development for a new public-private partnership structure. Cooperatives are the ideal form of enterprise on the part of the business community. Christoph Kempkes, Chairman of the Board of Raiffeisen Waren-Zentrale Rhein-Main eG, and I explained this in more detail during the panel discussion. As an autonomously operating company, we are able to mobilize specialists, experts, equipment, donations and volunteer helpers in the shortest possible time through our networks. In this way, we provide the “rapid intervention force” needed in post-disaster reconstruction.
EQAsce: How can the core fundamental principles of cooperatives act as a catalyst in reconstruction?
Prof. Dr. Petersen: “What one cannot do alone, many can!” – our two cooperative enterprises are based on this guiding principle (by Raiffeisen). The core values of solidarity and cohesion make it possible to successfully implement the principles of self-help and personal responsibility. The farms experienced this last year when they quickly compensated for their crop losses due to the floods. If they were insured with Vereinigte Hagel, which is also a cooperative, the damage was quickly assessed by experts and they were compensated in the shortest possible time. After all, cooperatives always put the well-being and advancement of their members above profit maximization. In addition, being rooted in the region strengthens rural areas. Low insolvency rates, democratic voting processes and a focus on the common good characterize cooperatives as an anchor of trust.
Based on this impulse, the European Service Cooperative EQAsce not only set up a situation center for a specialized task force to restore agricultural land values just a few days after the flood. Now, since April 26th, it has also been the office for the Model Region WiR initiative.
As spokesperson for the initiative, it is currently my task to prepare the constitution of the steering committee made up of the partners of the three WiR projects. Together with the operational steering committee, we will then ensure the mixed financing of the interlinked projects from various funding programs of the EU, the federal government, the states, foundations and private donations.