A Turning Point in Development. Interview with René Grotenhuis

René Grotenhuis, President of SID Netherlands Chapter and Director of Cordaid, explains how the traditional development debate is changing in the context of globalization and how international networks like SID may become more important than previously. The challenge for the civil society today is to be further on in creating a new discourse that builds on a more global approach overcoming the traditional North-South and rich-poor divide. SID is in the position to lead part of this change facilitating new ideas and critical dialogues on what the topics are and how economic growth and technology progress can be accompanied by higher levels of justice and equality for all.

Interview with René Grotenhuis, President of SID Netherlands Chapter

by Angela Zarro, SID Secretariat

Q: SID was founded 50 years ago in a completely different political and cultural international context. What role do you see for organizations like SID, today, within the broader development community?

A: The traditional development debate is changing and making a shift towards a much wider debate in the context of globalization. Questions of global common goods are being increasingly put on the agenda, moving the debate beyond the traditional development and ODA discourse. In such a context of changing debate, I believe that international networks are becoming more important than previously. Especially SID could play an important role in terms of exchanging ideas and stimulating international change on where we are heading, what the emerging topics are, how we shall address globalization, how justice and equality can be strengthened.

Q: In your view which new interlocutors should be engaged by organizations like SID? Can public-private partnership be a valid alternative?

A: The question of public-private partnership is sometimes very confusing. What do we mean by public-private partnership? Is it with regards to governments and business? Or is it between government and civil society and/or research institutes? It is not always a very clear concept. Nonetheless, even with all the ambiguity that is attached to the concept, these partnerships are increasingly important and SID can play the† role of broker in national and international relations. This is because of its diverse constituency of people being engaged in development networks, in governments, policy making, sometimes in private sector. I don't believe that itís only up to governments to solve international development problems; neither is it only the private sector or the NGOs that need to find the solutions. It is at the level of global communities where global problems need to be addressed, by leveraging the synergy between the different actors involved.

Q: If it is not only up to governments and civil society organizations, to what institutions do you refer? Do you also mean people's participation and individual initiatives?

A: What we are witnessing in this globalized world is a huge migration of people and the way communication and the new technology are changing peopleís lives,† communities and societies. In order to make the shift in society and change cultural patterns and traditional powers, I think that civil society organizations of people are extremely important. If we look at history, the biggest change in our social patterns were not designed by governments. It was peoples movements whether they were labour movements, women's movements, or any other groups - committed to change the traditional patterns and power relations. That's why, I believe, also in the current context of social change, organizations of people can play a very critical role in order to accommodate these changes in the society.

Q: The civil society sector and the development cooperation system are going through a difficult moment. Beyond suffering from the effects of the financial crisis, their own identity and mission seem to be in crisis. Which are the key challenges today for the civil society/non profit sector?

A: I absolutely agree with you. Civil society is increasingly in crisis. The reason is that the traditional model of development, which has also underpinned the ODA system, is becoming more and more† obsolete. If you look at the new issues that are coming up - be they migration, energy, or climate - they are increasingly difficult to accommodate within the traditional development discourse. The traditional discourse is based on a distinction between North and South, rich countries in the North vs poor countries in the South, with transfer of knowledge, technology, money and people between the two. This traditional model is no longer feasible. This is partly due to changes in developing countries themselves where new elites are coming up and joining the world global rich elites. Furthermore, emerging economies, like China and India, are playing a role in a completely different way from the traditional OECD countries. All these aspects make the traditional model more and more out of date. The challenge for the civil society is to be further on in creating a new discourse which is not based anymore on that traditional north-south, rich-poor divide and that builds on a more global approach that is inclusive of issues such as water scarcity and raw material scarcity. Therefore in my view this crisis is a fundamental one because it is a paradigm crisis. It is much more than a financial crisis. Of course the financial crisis is aggravating the problem, it is making sharper where the problems are, but it is more than just a financial crisis. The Society is in the position to lead part of that change. In order to do so, it is necessary to engage with people in the South and create models from their experiences. People in the South are increasingly looking for new models, outside the traditional ODA models. The need for a new paradigm is not only a northern issue, rather it is also a southern issue. The Society can leverage big constituencies of researchers and intellectuals who could play a decisive role in shaping this new discourse.

Q: Regarding your appointment as president of SID Netherland chapter, which are your priorities/objectives for the next years?

A: As always you build on your predecessor. What Jos van Gennip, as longstanding president of SID Netherlands, has done has laid the foundation on which to build. He has preserved over the years the role of SID as a hub between researchers, scientists and policy makers in the global world and in the Netherlands. This is what I would like to build on and to continue to make SID a hub, by bringing into the Dutch discourse and debate the voices, the experiences and the research of the people from outside. Too often in the Netherlands we are in closed in an internal, domestic debate on development and globalization. SID Netherlands believes that, it is possible and important to enrich the Dutch debate by bringing in our lecture series and expert panels the voices and experiences from other countries, within and outside Europe (eg USA, China). This is precisely the key role of the Chapter. The other role is related to what I said earlier: because of its constituency in the Dutch society with policy makers and intellectuals working in the universities, SID can play a decisive role in this new upcoming debate around the new paradigm for development and for globalization.

Despite the changes we are facing, we must not forget that more that 1 billion people are still living below poverty line, that there is huge inequality in the world and that the traditional models are not any longer sustainable. This does not mean problems are vanished. The problems are still there. This means to realize that we need new approaches and new strategies to look at solutions. SID could play a role in designing such strategies.

Q: Is the debate or the interest in development still vibrant and strong within the public in the Netherlands? Have you noticed any change of the last years? My personal perception is that public awareness on development issues in the North-European countries is somehow higher than in Italy or in other European countries. What is your opinion?

A: Yes. There is actually a big change of interest. Since the last couple of years, people are less convinced that traditional ODA intervention and aid model are really generating solutions. There is much more critical discussion on development on whether we are really making the difference in our development programmes.

Under the new government in the Netherlands, a different approach to development cooperation can be noticed. There is an increase in looking at the Dutch so to speak - self interest: the discourse is less altruistic and more selfish in the sense that when it comes to the Dutch corporate sector the question is whether and how the Dutch society can benefit more from development programmes. In that sense we are on the wrong track with a shift of the orientation towards domestic problems. The financial crisis is playing a role; our governments is facing budget cuts on education, health, and in other sectors of society. It is increasingly being questioned why we are spending so much money in developing countries while at the same time at home we are not able to manage the care for the elderly or the education for kids. This is increasingly putting the development sector under pressure. Nevertheless, in the Netherlands people are still hugely committed to development. If you look at last year Haiti's earthquake or the flood in Pakistan, the general response from the public to support the needs has been positive and I believe there is still a large constituency for development cooperation. In other words, development programmes and projects are not taken for granted and the discussion around them is much more critical than previously. Are they really effective? Are we really benefitting those who we want to benefit? This is not only about the bureaucracy involved in development. Organizations like Cordaid, which I am director of, and development agencies, are under scrutiny for the effectiveness and efficiency of their work. So in that sense, it sometimes becomes a bit harsh. Essentially we can identify three sides: for a certain part of the public and the politics there is the tendency to shift from the international agenda to the domestic agenda; there is more debate on the effectiveness and efficiency of development actions; and at the same time there is also still large support for development cooperation for those who are obviously in need.

Q: Let's hope then that this situation will push the development community to critically review the system and the paradigm.

A: Yes. That's absolutely necessary. In order to be convincing in the future, we have to reinvent the discourse, to change the discourse, and to find new ways to promote it and to put it into practice.

René Grotenhuis is Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic development organization Cordaid and president of SID Netherlands Chapter. During the course of many years, Mr. Grotenhuis has acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field of development co-operation, initially as a policy officer and later as a member of the Executive Board of several Dutch development organizations (until 1998). Since his appointment as the Chief Executive Officer of Cordaid, he has become one of the key players in the field of development issues. At the moment he is also president of SHO. Mr. Grotenhuis studied theology at Utrecht University. He has experience in pastoral care and feels closely involved with the diaconal aspects of the Catholic church.



Photo: Gaborbasch/Flickr