Knowledge is the missing link in the Dutch aid and trade agenda

On the eve of the national elections set to take place on 17 March in the Netherlands, developmental issues are being debated and diverging solutions proposed by political parties running in the elections. A recent debate organized by SAIL on the role of knowledge in aid and trade relations indicated that even though not receiving much attention in pre-election debates, knowledge produced by Dutch knowledge institutes is considered vital in sustaining aid and trade relations between the Netherlands and its counterparts in the Global South, writes Linda Johnson.

On 12 February, in anticipation of the upcoming national elections, a debate was organized by SAIL, a platform for knowledge institutes such as the ISS that promotes international education and research for inclusive sustainable development in the Global South. The debate was intended to bring attention to the missing link of ‘knowledge’ in international relations and the role that knowledge institutes situated in the Netherlands wish to play in the post-election policy landscape.  SAIL feels strongly that international relations all too frequently are not sufficiently informed by knowledge produced by Dutch knowledge institutes. This means that a key source of knowledge and a wealth of connections between the Netherlands and the Global South remain largely untapped and underutilised.

Five members of parliament (MP) participated in the debate: Kirsten van den Hul (PvdA), Dennis Wiersma (VVD), Jan Paternotte (D66), Mustafa Amhaouch (CDA), and Tom van den Nieuwenhuijzen (GL). Thea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian studies at ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Marhijn Visser of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) provided introductory and closing remarks on the theme. Over 200 participants followed the debate online. Marcia Luyten, a well-known Dutch publicist, led the discussions.

The debate was interesting because it made clear that there is a strong willingness on the part of politicians to engage with knowledge institutes with a view to shape future policy.

Partnerships that last

It is hard to overstate the case for ensuring that Dutch knowledge institutes become a key piece in the shaping and implementing of policy in relation to aid and trade with partners in the Global South. Ever since the early 1950s, the SAIL member institutes have been building and maintaining durable partnerships with countries in the Global South. Partnerships have been built at the level of individuals, many of whom were (partly) funded by the Dutch government to study toward a Master’s or a PhD degree in the Netherlands, and at the level of knowledge institutes by means of countless interventions and collaborations designed from the outset to co-create (academic) capacity in the Global South, and more recently to ensure global knowledge circulation to ensure mutual learning.

The tried and tested partnerships between knowledge institutes are key to this process. The combined expertise of staff of these institutes ensures that the specifics of the local needs are the basis for the work done. These individuals and teams know how best the needs of all parties can be met in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. Many of these partnerships date back decades. Trust has been established, friendships have flourished, and knowledge easily flows back and forth to the benefit of all participants in the process. It works so well that it seems effortless and herein lies the potential for mishap by oversight… It is indeed in many ways effortless, as it is born of years of investment in a process of mutual learning.

This is the time to make sure that the judicious investment of decades is not overlooked as policy is set and budgets allocated after the elections.  Political debates leading up to the elections have not yet shown much attention to such partnerships. However, at the SAIL debate  there was strong consensus across the political spectrum on the importance of the role of knowledge institutes as a linking pin, which led me to think that if the time was taken to explore these partnerships’ role in aid and trade relations, they would become evident to the new cabinet.

For example, at the debate, all five parliamentarians agreed that knowledge is vital for healthy trade and development. Kirsten van den Hul, for example, stated that “knowledge collaboration is essential to development.” The big problem, she said, is that “knowledge is unevenly distributed.” Dennis Wiersma: “A level playing field is important for trade”. Mustafa Amhaouch: “There is clearly nowhere near a level playing field at present […] It is a societal responsibility to share knowledge.” Jan Paternotte: ‘’The Dutch trade agenda should be linked to the knowledge agenda.”

This makes clear that the role of knowledge – and the institutes that produce it – is seen as important. But we need to take the discussion further once the elections have taken place. Two important points made during the debate were that knowledge institutes can help protect human rights in fragile states whilst also benefitting the Netherlands through strong alumni networks.

Knowledge institutes are vital in fragile states

Something that received particular attention in the debate was the role of knowledge institutes in fragile states, where the Netherlands is active. Knowledge institutes in fragile states are key in upholding a vision of a positive society and in speaking out for human rights. The Netherlands needs to keep on supporting relationships between Dutch institutes and their counterparts in fragile states. Fragility is increasing. The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the cracks in the starkest possible way as the richer nations hoard vaccines. GL, PvdA and D66 spoke out strongly in favour of the need to finance COVAX (the WHO programme designed to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines) generously.

Sustaining aid relations through alumni networks

The word “alumni” also popped up frequently in the debate. The Netherlands has built up a huge network of alumni across the world, many of whom have moved into positions of influence in their home countries. All of the parties represented and the Federation of Industry and Employers concluded that these alumni were a key resource in building an equitable, sustainable, win-win agenda for Dutch aid, trade and knowledge policy in the wake of the upcoming elections.

Focusing on the alumni of knowledge institutes means moving beyond capacity building to viewing and engaging these alumni as potential change agents in their own countries. This will also benefit the Netherlands by ensuring that these warm, trust-based relationships can be the basis for both political and economic collaboration in the future.

A reason for cautious optimism?

There is much to be gained by enhancing the role of knowledge institutes in future collaboration and there is support for this approach across the political spectrum. Could this be a reason for optimism? Watch the political space and join in the debate, whether or not you have a Dutch vote to cast….

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.

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