Reconnection! The breakdown of international cooperation calls for a new perspective

This  article is a transcript of the first part of the speech delivered by Jos van Gennip on the occasion of his farewell address as chairman  of NCDO (Amsterdam, 4 February, 2012). Download full article



by Jos van Gennip


'There is reason for concern about the......growing power of non-governmental institutions in the area of international financial and economic relations...[and] we are facing a future of increasing complexity, which makes it virtually impossible to tackle the major issues separately', these are words, ladies and gentlemen, from 1991, when privatisation had not yet triumphed and the North-South dichotomy – i.e. we can help them over there develop and we have to – was still the norm. These words were spoken at the world conference of the Society for International Development (SID), held right here, by our first chairman, the late prince consort Claus, as quoted in this fine book by Frans Bieckmann. 

For over half a century, Dutch development cooperation efforts were exceptionally wide-ranging and powerful. In that period, Dutch taxpayers forked out over 110 billion euros for development cooperation. Private donations amounted to at least 10 billion euros in the same period. That public money was used to dredge faraway ports and balance books in developing countries. Old stamps and silver paper were donated to help build small hospitals and schools, but don’t call this pointless do-goodery. A claim heard during the most recent development cooperation debate in the Second Chamber of Dutch Parliament stating that India developed itself and did not need aid, and that aid has only set Africa back further, is certainly not shared by exporters in Mumbai and Chennai. Thanks to the ports aid built, they could start exporting their merchandise, aided further by the policy pursued by former Minister of Development Cooperation Eegje Schoo, and do-goodery would also not be the depreciatory qualification that single mother living in the chaos of Jakarta would have used in the mid-1960s, when she desperately sought a decent school for her son Barack, and finally found one in the form of, you guessed it, a modest centre in Menteng funded by silver paper and stamps from Holland. As a Senator and President, that boy would never tire of reiterating how crucial that care and those opportunities were to him in those years. Exceptions? Fifty years ago, Nobel Prize winner Gunnar Myrdal thought hundreds of millions of people in South East Asia would have starved to death by now. But India has meanwhile become a net exporter of food. And child mortality has been halved over that fifty-year period, while life expectancy has nearly doubled, and illiteracy is now an exception instead of the rule. Malthus' Theory of Population has been rebutted: unprecedented population growth proved to be compatible with unprecedented improvement to the quality of life after all, writes Charles Kenny in his book 'Getting better; why global development is succeeding'! Equally gripping is Van Dongen’s recent analysis of Dutch aid and cooperation in Indonesia. And I can go on: six of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa. And while images of poverty and oppression across Latin America are still fresh in our minds, they will fade under the light of the new reality of that continent, which is on track to halving poverty, and also on track to improving civil and political rights situations. Of course, it wasn’t aid alone that did that, people’s own efforts, investments, and free trade have also played a role. Economic progress, but also something else. When considering development as more than just growth of the Gross Domestic Product, and also include human development in all its dimensions in that concept, the overall picture is a lot more positive. This past half century therefore inspires more than just frustration. 

The dam is breaking

But now it is suddenly looking as if the dam is about to break. New doubts about the use of aid, international obligations altogether, are suddenly taking root. Thirty years ago, we spent 5 percent of our GDP on our responsibilities abroad. In today’s money, that would be 30 billion euros. But we are in actual fact spending as much as 10 billion euros less today.  After deduction of the peace dividend, we are still a lot less generous than we were 30 years ago.  As if there were no domestic needs in the early 1980s, no cutbacks, no unemployment, and no downturn on the housing market!

In 2006, 58 percent of our population supported a generous budget and our efforts to turn the Millennium Development Goals into a real success. But this started to change in 2010, and that change slowly gathered pace. 46 percent of the population now considers development cooperation the first candidate for cutbacks. What happened? Is this shift down to needs, scarcity, and cutbacks alone, or is this indeed a sign of the Dutch people ducking down behind the dikes and closing themselves off from the big bad world. What has happened here, while a conservative-liberal coalition in the UK is expanding its development cooperation efforts, and Sweden, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, and many other countries have opted to maintain, and in some case even increase, their development cooperation spending? What has happened, in particular, to people’s confidence in official development cooperation? Especially in light of the fact that individual philanthropy is not waning, but instead showing strong growth across the world and even in the Netherlands. This is a question echoed by every ambassador stationed in the Netherlands, every foreign correspondent. What went wrong in the relationship between the Netherlands and the rest of the world, while the Netherlands steadily comes first or second in the list of countries that takes the issue of poverty, inequality, oppression most seriously? 

I think this question has a two-pronged answer that goes a lot deeper than merely pointing at the tsunami of populism crushing international solidarity and a sense of global mutual dependency.

This is the transcript of the first part of the speech. Download full article


Jos van Gennip is former member of the Upper House of the Netherlands' Parliament and Chairman of the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Senate. He was director of the Scientific Bureau of the Netherlands Christian Democratic Party and has had a long political career within this party. He has held leading positions at various Dutch development NGOs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Development Cooperation. He is President of the SOCIRES Foundation, Centre for Society and Responsibility, and former president of SID Netherlans Chapter. He is former president of SID Netherlands Chapter, and former vice president of SID international governing Council.