Encouraging the conditions for development in Benin

To Tjoelker-Kleve is the Netherlands' Ambassador to Benin, Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. We spoke to her on the eve of an official visit to the Netherlands by Patrice Talon, President of Benin, in October 2022. 

To Tjoelker-Kleve is the Netherlands' Ambassador to Benin, Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Her main base is in Benin. The West African Republic of Benin has a population of around 13 million, and an area of some 115,000 km2. Ambassador Tjoelker-Kleve firmly believes that capacity building and knowledge collaboration programmes backed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such as the Orange Knowledge Programme, can help strengthen economies and societies in developing countries. She spoke to Nuffic on the eve of an official visit to the Netherlands by Patrice Talon, President of Benin, in October 2022.

Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world and its society is characterized by a wide range of inequalities. How significant are initiatives such as the Orange Knowledge Programme for Benin?

Capacity development is a main priority for Benin. The Benin government has an action plan which puts education and capacity building under the economic development pillar. This is because it sees education and capacity development as pre-conditions for economic growth.

Is it unusual that Benin positions education under the economic pillar?

I have previously worked in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guatemala, and Bolivia and in all those countries, education was seen as part of the social, human capital, pillar: not the economic one. I think it is very significant that Benin puts education under the economic pillar.

What prompted this move?

The current Benin government is quite liberal. It sees the role of the state as creating the economic conditions for enterprises to grow. In Benin there are key focus areas: infrastructure (roads and the Port of Cotonou), electricity (for the people and factories), and the professionalisation of education, especially technical education. Benin has a clear Action Plan wherein these priorities are noted to be improved to enable business to flourish.

It is almost as if education is seen as an infrastructure utility...

Perhaps. I see it as a basic human right. Education is not only a utility: it is certainly good for the economy, development, and helps diminish inequality. But it's also a right for people to be educated, especially for girls and women.

Can the Netherlands play a role in Benin's future?

In October, Mr Patrice Talon, the President of Benin, will visit the Netherlands to meet with Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He also wants to see how capacity building is organised in the Netherlands, how Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is organised and how Dutch expertise can potentially strengthen Benin's education and economy.

What challenges do you see in Benin?

In Benin poverty has everything to do with education. For young people in particular the challenge is to be able to get a grip on their futures, through education.

How can the Dutch help young people in Benin?

There are some good examples where we have worked together with Benin's national educational institutions to strengthen their capacity. Three Benin university-based organisations: the Institut National de L'Eau, for water, the Institut National Médico-sanitaire (INMeS) for health and the Institut National de Sécurité Alimentaire (ISA) for food security were supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through Nuffic. This programme was developed together with the national institutions within the local education system. That style of approach is fundamental, in my view.

Are these successful initiatives?

These organisations have grown to become reference authorities not only in Benin, but in wider West Africa. Other institutional collaborations, within OKP and other Nuffic programmes, have been able to strengthen the capacity of Abomey Calavi University to manage its own educational system for the long term.

Is the relationship between the Netherlands and Benin's educational institutions new?

Certainly not. Benin's universities have collaborated since the 1990s with Dutch Universities such as Delft, Maastricht, and Wageningen. There is even a road called the Wageningenweg at the Abomey Calavi University!

How does the Orange Knowledge Programme contribute to improving education in Benin and the wider Sahel region?

Agriculture schools are improving in quality thanks to programmes such as the one Nuffic has with 10 technical agriculture schools in Benin. The graduates from those schools are much better equipped to face their world. There is the risk of radicalisation spilling over from troubles in the region north of Benin. You therefore need to offer alternatives for young people, and in that sense Nuffic is very effective.

Why is that?

It is obviously a good thing if the quality of education improves thanks to the Orange Knowledge Programme and similar programmes. But initiatives such as the OKP are also meaningful for "future building".

Are there themes which are relevant in Benin which the Netherlands can help with?

Within the Orange Knowledge Programme we work with two themes which are all relevant in Benin: food security (from nutrition to production and transformation) and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

How is the latter relevant in Benin?

Benin is in fact very progressive in terms of sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, even though their laws are progressive, it is very important that people in health institutions are well-trained to implement all services of reproduction health which are governed by these laws. It is also relevant, for example, that discussions concerning sexual harassment can take place at universities through initiatives such as the project on sexual education by Rutgers at the Abomey Calavi University.

Is that theme particularly relevant?

Both OKP themes are very relevant for Benin. OKP is part of a multi-actor effort between NGOs, universities, and others to help back the government of Benin for the future.

What can be the wider benefits of these programmes for young people in Benin?

In the Netherlands we have restricted our field of operations to the themes mentioned earlier, but young people today look for opportunities in whatever sector suits them. It is very important to build young people's confidence. Capacities such as, for example, public speaking, the ability to defend a project, management skills. OKP projects in particular allow room not only for the technical part of education, but for learning these useful "life skills" as well.

Agriculture and water are areas in which the Netherlands has a particularly high level of knowledge. Is this part of the reason the President of Benin Patrice Talon will be visiting the Netherlands?

Indeed, it is not a coincidence. Agriculture, water -- including the Port of Rotterdam -- and healthcare are three areas in which the Netherlands is particularly strong. The President will first meet Prime Minister Mark Rutte to discuss several crucial issues. He then wishes to see technical training in action in the Netherlands. The President wishes to specifically see the range of technical training and education for the variety of jobs in the Port of Rotterdam, and how that is structured.

What are the current capacity development themes which you consider most urgent to address for Benin and West Africa as a whole?

Climate change. Water management. Food security. We have seen terrible floods repeatedly in the north of Benin and in Niger. We need to help with techniques which support resilience against climate change in agriculture and water management. These are two themes which are critical for the future. And the third one is power over your own body and life. Therefore, empowerment and sexual and reproductive rights and health are essential, especially for young people.

As a final question, what could be improved between the partnerships between the educational institutions in Benin and those in the Netherlands?

Equality, I think. In 2022 Dutch institutes cannot arrive at the table wagging their fingers in disapproval. They should listen first, exchange and then build together. Things have very much improved in recent years. However, this is something European institutions must always be very careful about.

Photo by Optimus NIC through To Tjoelker-Kleve