Friedbert Ottacher studied spatial planning and regional development at the Vienna University of Technology and Wageninngen University in the Netherlands. In his diploma thesis he dealt with the impacts of mountaineering tourism in Hunza, Northern Pakistan. This was the first time he came into contact with what was then called ‘development aid’. After that, things moved on in rapid succession: assignments in Palestine, project coordination at Care Austria, HORIZONT3000 and LIGHT FOR THE WORLD, lectureships at several universities, followed by sabbatical leave, self-employment, and publication of the book ‘Entwicklungszusammenarbeit im Umbruch’ (Development Cooperation in Transition). Today, he coordinates programmes in the field of rural development and the promotion of civil society in Uganda and Ethiopia for the Austrian relief organisation HORIZONT3000. As an independent consultant, he works as a university lecturer, speaker, seminar leader and author – although here, too, everything revolves around the topic of development cooperation (DC). Friedbert Ottacher comes from Carinthia and lives in a patchwork family of 5 in Vienna. He keeps fit by running and is 48 years old.
Where and how did you grow up?
I grew up in Spittal, a small town in Upper Carinthia, together with three siblings. My father was a forest officer and my mother was a housewife. My childhood was materially modest, heating was only provided in the kitchen, clothes were second-hand and holidays were rare. But there was a lot of freedom – except on Sunday mornings, when church attendance was compulsory. As a pupil, I often recited poems in church and at school celebrations – I enjoyed speaking in front of people even in those early days, and today it is part and parcel of my everyday professional life. I was also socialised in the Boy Scouts, where I came into contact with values like cohesion, togetherness and responsibility. These experiences have helped to shape me a lot.
Could you describe your professional background?
When I held the thick tome containing all of the fields of study offered in Austria in my hands, I proceeded according to negative selection, by ruling out everything that didn’t appeal to me. As a result of this process I was left with spatial planning – probably in many ways because I couldn’t imagine much about it.
The foundation for my professional work in development cooperation (DC) was laid by the decision to travel to Pakistan for my diploma thesis, where I lived with a family and researched the effects of mountaineering tourism on culture, land use and the local economy.
At the end of the 90s, it was still relatively easy to get a job in DC. I started my professional career with a post abroad in Palestine. There I was entrusted with the leadership of an Austrian non-governmental organisation. In retrospect, I was a sorcerer’s apprentice, managing staff, releasing budgets and negotiating projects with Palestinian ministers. With the outbreak of the second Intifada, I had to close the programme there, including dismissing all staff and vacating the office.
After my return to Austria, I gained practical experience as a programme coordinator with various Austrian aid organisations. Over the years, I have been involved in projects in Albania, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
In 2014, I studied development theories during a one-year sabbatical leave and co-authored the book ‘Entwicklungszusammenarbeit im Umbruch’ (Development Cooperation in Transition) with my long-time colleague, Thomas Vogel. During this year, I also worked intensively with public speaking. The globally active rhetoric association, ‘Toastmasters’, was a great inspiration for me. During this time I also worked as a funeral speaker in Vienna. That was my most exciting and instructive professional experience so far.
Today, I see myself as a bridge builder in DC and am very happy to pass on my knowledge. I try to do this in all of my roles – as a university lecturer, a seminar provider, a key note speaker or as an author.
Were there certain events or stations that were formative for your career?
A key experience was my time in Northern Pakistan. As an intern at the Aga Khan Foundation in the Hunza Valley, I had access to staff, decision makers and donors, as well as teachers, craftsmen and farmers. I lived with a family and felt right at home there. During this time, my desire to work internationally solidified. In my first job as an office manager in Palestine, I got to know the range of development cooperation – from small associations right up to the United Nations. The staging of the big organisations with their sprawling bureaucracy disturbed me deeply. This led me to the decision professionally to stay within the realm of civil society development cooperation.
Were there certain people who were formative for your career?
I was lucky enough to encounter three mentors during my studies and in my first years of work: firstly my economics professor, who taught me to question supposed truths; secondly my first boss, who entrusted me with a management position; and thirdly a now-retired colleague, who set an example for me on how to always remain optimistic despite frustrations and setbacks.
Has your environment supported you in your career?
Although my parents initially had little interest in my profession, they always supported me. Only when they read my book did they realise what I do.
What are your current activities?
At the moment it is a colourful mix of activities. In my part-time position, I am responsible for the HORIZONT3000 programmes in Uganda and Ethiopia. I recruit expatriates and prepare them for their assignments abroad. From project submission to reporting to the funding agencies, I oversee development projects that are implemented with local partners. I also travel regularly to East Africa in the process of fulfilling my duties.
Apart from these project trips, my work at HORIZONT3000 mainly takes place in the office. Self-employment brings me variety in my professional life. I feel at home on stage – be it as a university lecturer, speaker, seminar leader or moderator.
Does what you are currently doing fulfil you?
Absolutely. My current mix of activities is very varied and exciting! In the lived practice at HORIZONT3000, I constantly have my finger on the pulse and can therefore also pass on and convey experiences and knowledge in a credible way. The interplay between theory and practice is a perfect, indispensable complement for me, which is also very helpful for me in reflecting on my own role.
Do you think that you yourself have an influence on whether your activities are fulfilling?
On my ship, I am the captain. If I notice that the ship is listing, I have to steer against it. In my job at HORIZONT3000, I can shape a lot of things if I manage to convince financiers to invest in our projects. In self-employment, it is entirely up to me whether the activity is fulfilling or not. I decide what I do, how much time I invest or whether I try something new.
What or who inspires you in everyday life?
A network of confidants here in Austria and in the partner countries. I often exchange ideas with my confidants, communicating regularly and maintaining my network, which is how I come across new topics.
What or who gives you strength and energy in everyday life?
My partner with her clear values.
My 16-year-old son and our conversations.
The family and the time we spend together.
Running regularly to clear my head and feel my body.
There are ‘magic moments’ when everything seems to fit. Moments that fulfil, inspire and give strength. Moments that confirm that the effort is worthwhile and that what you do is meaningful and valuable. Have you already experienced such moments in relation to your own activities?
Yes, there are moments like that on project trips. In Ethiopia, we supported children with disabilities to enable them to attend school. Mostly it was about physiotherapy and remedial aids. One girl, Yewubnesh, had a particularly hard time. At the age of five, she could only shimmy along a bar, but still not walk. Three years later – by which time I was already on another mission – I happened to see her again on the street, playing ball with her peers. I recognised her immediately and I stopped right in my tracks, dumbfounded and open-mouthed. That was an unforgettable moment.
I also find magical moments of the more mundane kind in my freelance work. After each seminar, I ask the participants to give me open feedback on an attractively designed flipchart. The appreciation that one receives in its concentrated form in these minutes is magical.
Do you actively do something for it, so that such ‘magic’ moments can happen?
I engage with the country and its people and try to understand the reality of life for my colleagues in Uganda and Ethiopia as much as I possibly can. Over the years, friendships have developed that have allowed insights which would otherwise have remained hidden. But to allow the magic to happen, you need openness and impartiality – which I don’t always manage.
Are there moments when you doubt what you are doing?
These moments happen all the time. I started to have doubts when I had to deal with corruption in projects or when projects went differently to how they had been planned. In the meantime, my years of experience have helped me to deal with such setbacks professionally. In the past, I took such setbacks and disappointments personally, but now I am better able to distance myself.
Is there anything you would do differently in retrospect?
Do you want to contribute to society with your activities?
I see my contribution to society as very modest. Every volunteer firefighter and Red Cross helper does much more. What I would like to contribute is to present development issues that are difficult to communicate in such a way that they are understandable and relevant to an interested public. What I would like to do more intensively in the near future is to mentor young people who want to get involved in development cooperation or develop their skills further. Again and again, university graduates ask me how they can enter the field of development cooperation, and I would like to devote more time to enabling this transition in the future.
Is the recognition of other people or the public important to you?
It used to be important to me, as did building up a reputation among the Austrian professional public. But at this stage of my professional life I see it more calmly. It’s a nice recognition when people I don’t know spontaneously come up to me after a lecture and say: ‘That was exciting, I was able to take away a few things’. The greatest recognition however is the unspoken but visible one: for example, when I see how the reality of people’s lives has fundamentally improved because of our work.
How well can you live from what you do professionally?
I can’t live on my employee salary or my self-employed income alone. It only works when these incomes are combined.
Is there something that is particularly occupying you at the moment?
I am currently preoccupied with the political situation in our partner countries, and in particular the conflict in Ethiopia, which could escalate into a conflagration in the Horn of Africa at any time. The restrictions that civil society is increasingly facing in many countries are worrying. In recent years, the reins have been tightened and the work of non-governmental organisations has become more difficult, especially when they are involved in human rights issues. I am also trying to deal with all of this in our book ‘Entwicklungszusammenarbeit im Umbruch’ (Development Cooperation in Transition), which will be published in its third edition in 2021.
Is there something you would like to (increasingly) spend time on in the future?
I would like to get more involved with public speaking – in my old age I would like to become active again as a funeral orator – and perhaps as a tourist guide in Vienna.
What are you most grateful for in life?
For my family – my health – and for the privilege of being able to work in development cooperation.
This interview is part of the project ‘Magic Moments’ by Kunstverein Schichtwechsel, in which people are interviewed about their careers, activities and their magical as well as difficult moments.
Curated by Stefani Andersen and Laura Hilti, Kunstverein Schichtwechsel.
Supported by Kulturstiftung Liechtenstein and Stiftung Fürstl. Kommerzienrat Guido Feger.
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