From transferring expertise to co-creating change. The Dutch water sector needs a transformation

In this post co-published with ISS blog Bliss, Farhad Mukhtarov, Karen Vargas, Shahnoor Hasan, Jaap Evers, and Leon Hermans reflect on the panel discussion “Towards a Socially Inclusive Dutch Water Sector in the International Arena. How transformative is it?”

Meike van Ginneken (Dutch Special Envoy for Water) and Dennis van Peppen (Dutch Deputy Special Envoy for Water) during their visit of the “Water as Leverage” project in Cartagena, Colombia, 2023.
Photo credit: Laura Caicedo

“Partners for Water”, a programme managed by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (Rijsksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland or RVO) to support governments around the world with subsidies and expertise on water management, organised the event ‘Social Inclusion in Water Climate Adaptation – Making a Transformation‘ (12 September 2023, Utrecht, the Netherlands). The departure point for this event was a broadly shared realisation that Dutch water sector parties have too often handled in a top-down fashion in international projects, displaying an attitude that Professor Poldergeist qualified on the pages of this blog as “polder arrogance”. The workshop aimed to foster dialogue between academics and practitioners to promote social inclusivity in the designs and implementation of international water projects funded or delivered by Dutch actors, as an antidote to the above mentioned ‘arrogance’. As a group of long-term collaborators from Deltares, IHE Delft, and ISS/Erasmus University, we organised a session with in the RVO event to discuss the transformative potential of the idea of ‘social inclusivity’, and what stays in the way for it to materialise. We aimed at creating a safe space for open exchanges among diverse participants from government, advocacy groups, consultants, academia, and the private sector.

In this post, we summarise the major topics of discussion from the workshop and offer our take-aways. We first revisit the session to invite a broader audience into the discussions about the transformative journey of the Dutch Water Sector (DWS), and then offer our reflections about the event and beyond.

Reflexivity and humility require skills

During the RVO event, there were several plenaries, reflective exercises, and parallel sessions with panels on different subjects related to the international activities of the Dutch water. Some examples include a session on and by Dutch Water Authorities-operated “Blue Deal” programme, and another one the “Valuing Water Initiative” spearheaded by RVO. In our session, we initiated a fishbowl discussion with Laura Caicedo, a recent MA graduate from the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS/EUR), who discussed her research of an ongoing Water as Leverage project in Cartagena, Colombia, and Kim van Nieuwaal, a Dutch expert on water and climate adaptation involved in Climate Adaptation Services (CAS), who shared on his perspective on how the Dutch water governance expertise is transferred internationally. Water as Leverage (WaL), as represented on the RVO website, is a Dutch-founded public-private partnership mandated with tackling urban water-related challenges such as floods and declining water quality.

We asked Laura and Kim to start the conversation in a way that gave clues about what inclusivity in water projects could mean. We began by exploring the meaning of transformation in the DWS and the current state of ongoing effort, then explored the key actors in the effort to transform the projects towards more socially inclusive, and finished with a discussion of key challenges and ways of transcending them.

We were positively surprised to discover a reflective stance of all participants regarding the necessity to be aware of power relations, including one’s relative power over others, in achieving a genuine transformation in how projects run. This is especially pertinent in relationships with the recipients of the Dutch aid, technology or governance expertise. This self-awareness marks the initial step in recognizing actors’ positionality – how parties are situated in projects often define what can be shared and what not, how discussions take shape, and who is included or excluded from decision-making venues and processes.

For instance, Caicedo’s example of a less-than-fortunate choice of a venue for a meeting with stakeholders in Cartagena – a fancy water-front expo-center, demonstrated how thoughtless choices may have great adverse consequences. Caicedo’s research showed that informal settlers and members of fishing communities did not feel welcome in such a venue and did not show up. Willingness to be conscious of power relationships, including awareness of own power, also implies the challenge to be aware of power dynamics within one’s own team, to utilise and communicate knowledge differently, with more empathy, and acknowledge local wisdoms and expertise in ways that foster trust. Many of these actions require more than an attitude – they require new skills to critically listen, be mindful of own responses, and to cultivate reflexivity and curiosity in working with others. The discussion on how to build and train these skills will continue in two forthcoming events, which some of us will organise in June: a workshop at the International Institute of Social Studies devoted to the roles, skills and attitudes of foreign policy-makers in water diplomacy to be held on 18 June 2024, and a conference panel on “Third-Party Engagement in Water Diplomacy and Governance: the Case of South Caucasus” at the Third International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding in the Hague on 21 June 2024.

The fishbowl, a facilitation technique to encourage a discussion. Our kick off questions was: what transformation means for the DWS? Photo credit: Farhad Mukhtarov.

The transformation journey

This session builds on earlier dialogues and seminars on rethinking the DWS modus operandi internationally. Such discussions have been motivated by the evidence and growing consensus among academics and practitioners alike that the DWS parties often work through a one-sided transfer of knowledge and technology from the Netherlands to “recipient countries”, and suffer from the lack of meaningful dialogue in such projects despite continuous claims of proper participation, demand-driven project designs, and efforts for projects sustainability across time.

In 2018, the Center for Sustainable Development Studies from the University of Amsterdam UvA), Both ENDS – the Netherlands NGOs and civic advocacy group, and the Water Governance Group of IHE Delft organised the conference “Critical Perspectives on Governance by Sustainable Development Goals: Water, Food and Climate”, where discussions on delta dynamics and global challenges took place. This event was the first to engage explicitly and directly with the sensitive subject of unequal and non-inclusive features in water projects funded through the Netherlands Development Cooperation Funds. In 2019, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) organized a follow-up event with insightful discussions and a very good final report circulated to participants. In 2021, the Partners for Water program hosted the fourth edition of the WATERPROOF, an event on transforming development cooperation and making social impact with it. These events, well attended and taken notice of by decision-makers, marked an important shift in the discussions on the DWS and its record of transformation and social inclusivity.   

Unfortunately, despite these widespread discussions and initiatives by and on the DWS, a tangible structural shift has not yet occurred. Our session highlighted that while there are certainly more efforts on part of the DWS to identify diverse groups to work with and to be inclusive, practical changes on the ground are too slow. It seemed to us that scepticism persists regarding the actual impact of transformative practices, with a real concern that sociocultural and governance complexities in project contexts often get overlooked or underplayed to sustain a certain modus operandi of the DWS parties.

Translating instead of transferring

‘Sometimes the Dutch water sector looks at itself in the wrong way, or maybe too late… It is important to make changes in a way that clarifies how others can get involved. How to break the barriers and break yourself to be aware of your own positionality? How to transfer power to others?’

Anonymous participant (edited for clarity)

Examining the Dutch interventions internationally, the discussion touched on the need for senior decision-makers in concerned projects to be self-conscious about the power dynamics and difficulties in correcting, or at least couching, asymmetric power relationships in such projects. We agreed that the DWS parties would benefit from reflecting on their role, breaking the barriers to open and clear communication with their partners, and transfer some of their powers to others to the extent that is politically and administratively possible. This is easier said than done, but luckily some examples offer a possible way forward, such as the Reversing the Flow (RtF) initiative, a project that supports communities in vulnerable situations by strengthening their water security and contributing to more resilient communities. Especially remarkable is the funding mechanism within RtF since it allows some of the RVO funding to be given to NGOs in recipient countries surpassing Dutch private sector actors. Whether this works would need to be studied carefully as the project progresses.

The fishbowl session was led by Jaap Evers and Leon Hermans, and chaired by Shahnoor Hasan and Farhad Mukhtarov. Photo credit: Farhad Mukhtarov.

The self-reflective approach of RtF underscores the importance of understanding power dynamics before and during negotiations, fostering reflexive discussions on resource constraints, and acknowledging the limitations of asymmetrical negotiations and working relationships. Self-reflection first needs to take place internally, among various parties involved in projects, and only then be extended to cover partners in other countries. Earlier projects and some of the events we mentioned in this post (by Both ENDS, IHE Delft and RVO) indicate at the possibility of such a paradigm shift towards inclusiveness, provided continued effort and faith.

As an example, Wageningen University through the Centre for Development Innovation (CDI) had created manuals packing the conversation on social inclusivity into a series of editions for transformation. The consultancies tend to expand into diverse thematic areas and sometimes use policy buzzwords to signal to the funders their suitability of requested work without transforming way of operating in any significant way. The audience in our room conferred that there exists a gap between the scholarly work on transformations toward social inclusion and policy practice – both in the work of government-funded institutions and the private sector consultancies and engineering firms.

Addressing unresolved challenges, our discussion revealed the following barriers to social inclusivity of the DWS’s operations. First, we discussed project assessment terms that prioritise tangible outcomes over long-term and trust-based relationships with the partners. For instance, there is preference for a piece of embankment that is strengthened, a flood risk management report or a technology transferred. More intangible but crucial elements such as capacity, trust and joint development of problem diagnosis often deserve less attention as these take time, are easily disturbed and are difficult to quantify. If project outcomes and outputs are pre-determined and the managerial logic of projects push participants to focus on tangible “quick wins” deliverables regardless the context on the ground, it is not surprising that one faces little participation, dialogue, and achieved little social impact. Inclusion requires trust and sustained effort.

Secondly, we discussed gaps in socioeconomic class, especially among those who represent project beneficiaries on the ground in Indonesia, Bangladesh or Colombia and the beneficiaries of the projects. NGO representatives, government officials and water experts from recipient countries often have a very different lifestyle from the project beneficiaries, such as the slum dwellers, the urban poor, and the fishermen communities. Involving these beneficiaries in the discussions requires special project designs, e.g. the choice of a setting suitable for consultations with such groups, as the case with the meeting venue in Cartagena illustrated.

Finally, and relatedly to the previous two points, we discussed the time constraints of the projects that must be delivered within a particular time-frame and reflect a particular pre-determined “theory of change”. We urged a shift towards more bottom-up solutions and away from the mode of “transferring” knowledge, expertise or technology pre-baked in The Hague or Rotterdam. Instead, we need to foster open-ended dialogues based on respect, curiosity and critical listening, and project budgets, designs and deliverables need to reflect these values. Then transferring will become translating, and both the Netherlands and recipient countries could be seen as “co-authors” of such works – a true shift from transferring expertise to co-creating change.

Despite good intentions for inclusivity, practitioners keep facing challenges in translating them into practical and actionable strategies. The Dutch Water Sector’s role abroad demands adaptation to diverse contexts within which it operates, acknowledgement that one-size-fits-all solutions are inadequate, and that experimentation and learning are crucial for success. While the Dutch Water Sector is making strides in prioritising social inclusion in international projects, not all organizations are homogeneously transforming. Applauding these efforts, we remain curious about the implications of such shifts and we hope to facilitate this process through the workshops and the research we continue conducting together with our colleagues and students.  

Cite this blog post
Farhad Mukhtarov (2024, May 13). From transferring expertise to co-creating change. The Dutch water sector needs a transformation. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Farhad Mukhtarov

Dr. Farhad Mukhtarov is an Assistant Professor at International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore. He researches how knowledge is used in environmental politics and how environmental policy models travel across various boundaries. Most of Farhad's work is in the field of water governance in the Global South and, to a lesser extent, the Global North.

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2 Responses

  1. Farhad Mukhtarov says:

    Dear Tova,
    This is very true. However, research and practice shows that tackling individual biases is very difficult and possible only when people themselves want that. Think how difficult it is to have a conversation around racism or discrimination in the Netherlands…Decoloniality scholars have been looking for ways to cultivate humility and promote CONSTRUCTIVE conversations. One book I found useful for that is “Hospicing Modernity” — a lot of exercises and provocations there. Another thought, from behaviouralists this time, is that individual biases are very hard to deal with and hence an institutional or project design is needed for that: see this youtube clip. Start watching from minute 57. We need to think of organisational and project designs that encourage challenging deeply entrenched stereotypes.

  2. Tova R Crystal says:

    I think there is also a need for individual’s to address their own biases for true inclusion to happen. If people have not yet addressed their own underlying assumptions about other people, knowledge, and the stereotypes that exist, then efforts to be more socially inclusive will fall short of actually shifting and sharing power and expertise.

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