Cracks in the bastion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Development Policy29 Jul 2009Thea Hilhorst

When I was at a meeting in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs some time ago, my eye was caught by a small box in the corner of the meeting room. An all too familiar box, of which we have several in our kitchen at home. They have poisonous grains inside, and are used (usually invain) to get rid of mice. It was quite endearing to realize that the rodents manage to enter this Ministry! Not quite the inpenetrable bastion it seems to be.

Two weeks ago I was again in the Ministry, this time to attend a reception at the occasion of the retirement of Rob Visser. Rob Visser is quite a monumental person who has made it his mission to bridge the world of policy makers and academics in the field of development. He is one of the inspirators of the development cooperation academes, or the “IS academies” as they are called. These are research programmes that are sponsored by the Ministry and aim to create an ongoing dialogue between research, policy and practice. The different thematic academies have provided space for dozens of young practitioners who like to do academic work, yet want this to be applicable in practise.

People like Rob Visser are rare and badly needed. Compared to other countries, our Ministry is a very closed institution where most people concentrate their career solely in its office in The Hague and its Embassies across the world. In the UK, for example, it is a normal career route for a person to work for some years for an NGO, move to a thinktank, engage for a while with the MFA and happily move back to the academe again. These job hoppers become the natural troubadours that carry news, values and ideas from one place to the next. Dialogue does not need to be organized but comes about naturally. In the Netherlands, we need people like Rob to enhance such a dialogue. Not an easy job in an institution that is characterized by its inward-looking culture. And not without success. I have rarely seen so many academics in the Ministry as during this reception. Like the patient rodents, he obviously has managed to find some cracks in the bastion. Well done, Rob, and enjoy your retirement!