Opinion column: Hearts and Minds - Why international education matters more than you think


It is election time in the Netherlands. Normally not nearly as exciting as, for example, the recent US elections, but nonetheless, an important period in which no less than 37 political parties compete for the favor of the voters on the basis of party programs. In these programs, the political parties and their leadership present ideas on the future of the Netherlands, its challenges and opportunities, and what they intend to do about it.

Opinion column by André Dellevoet, MSc/MA

When it comes to foreign affairs and development cooperation, these programs often mention what the Netherlands is going to do on a wide range of international topics such as climate change, migration, security and defence. Most of the time, the choices reflect the way domestic politics is done; like financial managers, they decide where the budget will be spent, a bit more of this and a bit less of that. What I find lacking is a truly strategic vision, beyond the age old mantra’s of “contributing to maintaining international law and order” or “adhering to the targets set by the Paris accord”.

One of the areas where such strategic vision is sorely needed is the role of international education. In a recent online debate, organized by SAIL, with some of the spokespersons of the political parties on this topic, one could hear the same management thinking about Dutch expertise as a critical bridge between aid & trade and questions like; should we stimulate this more or, on the contrary, invest in education and local expertise in the developing countries themselves?

I would like to offer a wider, more strategic objective for international education and widespread use of Dutch (and European) expertise.

What we are witnessing is the unravelling of multilateral cooperation and increasing threats to the international order, from which the Netherlands has benefitted so much since World War 2. Tensions are rising. Europe is caught between two global rivals, the US and China, that are more and more at odds with each other. Europe is directly challenged by rogue states in both the Southern and Eastern flank. In such an environment, it is very difficult to reach consensus on any major international issue such as human rights, climate change, refugees, terrorism or COVID-19 for that matter.  Yet, we all know that these complex, international issues can only be solved if nations join hands and stand together.

Neither the Netherlands nor the EU as whole, has the will or ability to unilaterally enforce solutions. We must therefore turn to the power of persuasion; show by example that positive change can be achieved, practical solutions can be found and lives can be improved. In other words; win the hearts and minds of students and trainees in developing countries who will be the future leaders. A massive task, given the hundreds of millions in the developing world that are eager to acquire such knowledge.

Sounds too idealistic? Perhaps. But I believe we should take pride and confidence in the indisputable fact that most of Europe and the Netherlands find themselves every year at the top of the World Happiness Index. I guess we are doing something right.

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