'Listening closely to what people want to achieve is crucial'

Jeroen Kelderhuis, Head Civil Society & Education Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, shares his impressions on the Orange Knowledge Programme (OKP) midterm review and what COVID-19 means for international cooperation programmes.
Posted by Nuffic

“See, this is what I miss: talking face-to-face with someone, exchanging thoughts on - in this case - the Orange Knowledge Programme. It has a different energy to it than talking to each other online.” After months of working from home, it’s a pleasure to meet Jeroen Kelderhuis in person in a café next to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. He is responsible for the Civil Society and Education Division of the ministry.

After 20 years of working at Dutch embassies abroad, Jeroen Kelderhuis is back on ‘home base’ since August 2019. He already knew the Orange Knowledge Programme from the many missions abroad, now he is responsible for the department that mostly funds it. Taking the summer slow to reflect on his first year, we invited him to share his impressions of the programme, on the insights the midterm review has brought and what COVID-19 means for international cooperation programmes like the Orange Knowledge Programme.

Education - the starting point

“I know from my own experience that policy made in The Hague is not always compatible with the local context, and not enough aligned with what’s needed from that perspective. I see it as our main job to be out there talking, and even more so, listening to people to what it is they need, and what it is they want to achieve. Because, that’s where it all starts. And then lift that to a level where policy can be set in place to make a sustainable change”, explains Jeroen Kelderhuis.

"When talking to people in one of Nuffic's gender sensitivity projects, I realised there is a lot more possible than you think; as long as you are willing to actually listen"

Thanks to Minister Kaag education (SDG 4 quality education, ed.) is back on the agenda in our ministry’s development cooperation policy. “Education is the starting point for development, and plays a pivotal role in contributing to all other SDG’s. Hence we support primary, secondary and tertiary education - from technical and vocational to higher education. We link it to employability to enable especially young people to develop skills and competences they need for the job market”, adds Kelderhuis.

Midterm review

The Orange Knowledge Programme was already launched before Minister Kaag’s term started. “Some adaptations were made once her policy note was presented, but now that we have the results back from the programme’s midterm review we can actually gauge more precisely how it contributes, and finetune it for the last part of the programme. Central question is if the Orange Knowledge Programme fits well enough in the long term country strategy that we have defined for each of the development cooperation countries in our policy.”

In February 2020 Jeroen Kelderhuis visited a number of OKP funded initiatives in Bangladesh. “One of my observations was that not all of these OKP projects aligned with the country’s latest strategic plan. The relation has shifted more from development cooperation to trade. At the same time, in our development cooperation policy we aim for leaving no one behind. So with education, where can we put a focus? For instance, on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in the garment sector. What I realised when talking to people in one of the gender sensitivity projects Nuffic selected, is that there is a lot more possible than you think; as long as you are willing to actually listen carefully to what they need, and find their way for it”.

Reality check

“You could say that it has always been in our DNA as a country to be ambitious when it comes to development cooperation: we want to make change happen on many societal levels, in a sustainable way, in a considerable number of countries, offering opportunities for all. And, in case of the OKP in a relatively short amount of time (OKP is a 5 year programme, ed.). To me that’s pretty ambitious. Take institutional collaboration projects - a great driver for change in a sustainable way - but it takes time to set things in motion together: is it realistic to achieve that in just a few years?”

"I have a lot of respect for how knowledge institutions in the Orange Knowledge Programme and Nuffic found ways to conclude courses online and develop new ways to train people remotely"

“The risk is that all our efforts become too diffuse to reach the impact we set ourselves as a goal. So now our credo is ‘less, better and more flexible’. This means we put more focus: we defined 3 focus regions (Sahel, Horn of Africa and MENA region). And, we zoom in more on the local context to better determine our strategic plans, and the impact we want to make. Then we decide which programme suits best, and coordinate collaboration where possible, within our programmes, but also with other initiatives in that country. So, making choices is a necessity, because we can’t do it all.”

What’s the beauty of the programme?

“Providing people with an education is life changing for them, and their environment, but it’s also of great value to us. Everywhere I went I met people that have studied in the Netherlands. They know our culture, our values, our added value and the way we work. They are ambassadors to our country, and are willing to make the extra mile for the Netherlands. That’s tremendous! I strongly believe our alumni relations can be ameliorated, also by our embassies. These people form a strong network of collaboration opportunities on various levels: as governments, in science, in business, in development cooperation. They are our local knowledge base as to where we can be of added value. So, my invitation to all of them is to stay in touch with the Dutch!”

“When meeting the projects’ people like I did in Bangladesh I saw this great ambition for change, and an openness in collaborating together to achieve it. I see the enormous potential education has to be the driver for that change”.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic hampering and even paralysing societies, it also brought to light the agility and creativity of people. I have a lot of respect for the way knowledge institutions in the Orange Knowledge Programme and Nuffic have coped with the changes they faced. And found ways to repatriate scholarship holders back home, conclude courses online, develop new ways to train people remotely, and set up online meetings to stay in contact with project partners. Now that digitalisation has proven to be indispensable for that, we will also have to rethink how it will influence international collaboration as a whole, and what it entails for our programmes. Connecting and listening to people will always be my mission, and yes I definitely value personal contact, but I’m confident that we will find ways to be and stay in touch for cooperation”.