Joep Janssen and Ad Spijkers

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen of Infrastructure and Water Management and Hans de Boer, president of the Dutch employers’ organisation have arrived in Vietnam, along with a large delegation of Dutch companies and knowledge institutions.

The Dutch trade mission focuses on water and agriculture. Vietnam, just like the Netherlands, is a low-lying delta which has to adapt to climate change. Dutch companies and policy makers see trade opportunities in these geographical similarities between our countries: Vietnam needs an integrated approach in which water management and food security are central.

The southern Mekong delta has an important role to play in making Vietnam’s economy climate-proof: it is the largest producer of rice and fish in Vietnam. The better water management is regulated, the more mouths can be fed, both in Vietnam as well as in rice importing countries. The Mekong delta is under pressure and suffers from flooding, sinking and salinisation.

The alarm bells are ringing for the Mekong delta. As a result, the Vietnamese government and its bilateral and multilateral partners open their wallets.

Photo: Anne Lin, Unsplash

Standing on each other’s shoulders

Dutch companies are aiming for large assignments to help Vietnam growing its resilience to these water and climate challenges. Vietnamese experts can build upon lessons learned in Dutch water management projects like ‘Room for the River’. Dutch experts can learn from Vietnamese farmers how to cultivate waterlogged and salinised areas. This way we can stand on each other’s shoulders and work together towards innovative water management approaches, sustainable shrimp farming and setting up farmers’ cooperatives and agri-hubs.

These examples are based on the 2013 Mekong Delta Plan, jointly developed by Vietnamese and Dutch experts. The idea behind this delta plan was to initiate new projects (for Dutch companies). But unfortunately, there was a lack of Vietnamese and Dutch funding. So, the World Bank was asked to invest in the proposed projects.

That’s smart, because this way the Dutch water and food sector influence multilateral investment agendas. Though, Dutch experts should realise that not just governments and multilateral institutions are influential. Local leaders from various sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, construction and infrastructure can bring about real change. If we reach out to them and align our innovations with their investment plans, we can stand on each other’s shoulders. Together we can reach so much further.

Become a servant leader of the people

This requires a different merchant spirit, one that is less short-sighted and that builds upon local knowledge and experiences. With our hydraulic engineering tradition in mind, we tend to behave like missionaries: sending our technical innovations to the world and expect them to be picked up quickly. This approach is no longer appropriate, now that competition with other countries has intensified and local knowledge and capacities in partner countries have increased.

The strength of the Dutch experience is in seeking compromises through inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogues (Dutch: ‘poldering’). We have a good reputation in the areas of water management and agriculture. We are internationally seen as a leader, but are also considered to be somewhat arrogant as we only talk in successes, while we could learn more from our mistakes. So, let’s show a better understanding of local history, planning culture and customs. Let’s be servant leaders rather than missionaries.

Look through the eyes of the Vietnamese

That means we need to listen better to local communities. They know the water challenges in their environment best and have been adapting to them for generations. If we are able to align our innovations with the knowledge and needs of local people, we can develop projects that really make a difference in the lives of the Vietnamese.

The ongoing Dutch trade mission to Vietnam provides an excellent opportunity to show Vietnam that we are both leading and serving. That we are a central player in developing and implementing future-proof water management planning, and that we are also able to meet the needs of local communities with specific Dutch projects.

We hope that Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and his team will write a new chapter of cooperation between the two countries, with an intelligent plot on servant leadership in water management and agriculture. This would enable sustainable development in Vietnam’s Mekong delta.


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