Flipping the perspective on the Dutch Delta Approach
Shahnoor Hasan, PhD fellow at IHE Delft, shares her experience and talk at the seminar on the Dutch Approach in international delta, organised by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). She offers an original and critical perspective by flipping the usual delta representations and focusing on the practices of the people who make the Dutch Approach travelling around the world.
In my research, I developed an understanding of the Dutch Delta Approach by identifying the people engaged in its transfer to Vietnam and Bangladesh, (also to Indonesia and USA), and through learning about their experiences. I listened to, recorded and analyzed accounts of their efforts, struggles, disappointments, and successes. I came to know about how they made the transfer of the Delta Approach possible, what and who helped them, or not; subject matters that they tend not to openly discuss in public. To adopt such a perspective I had to invest in building relations of friendship and trust with the people whom I talked to and/or interviewed. As a consequence of the (semi-)ethnographic way of exploration, I have come to develop an attachment to the Dutch Delta Approach that is both professional and emotional, and empathy for the people who worked for making its transfer happen.
On that particular morning of the seminar, I was excited to participate in an event organized for people involved in the transfer of the Dutch Approach to jointly learn from each other’s experiences. I was particularly happy to realize that this was a follow-up to the critical conversations on the Dutch Delta Approach that took place more than a year ago at a panel at the UvA Conference ‘Critical Perspectives on governance by SDGs‘ (organized by Both ENDS, the UvA GPIO group and the Water Governance Chair Group of IHE Delft).
To engage with the audience at the seminar that represented mostly Dutch government officials and expert consultants, I did what I often do when I talk about the transfer of the Dutch Delta Approach. That is, to play a pictorial game that I developed by simply changing the orientations of satellite images of the delta in the Netherlands, and the deltas in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Myanmar, the countries where the Dutch government actively transfers its delta knowledge and expertise. A significant number of the people in the audience have been associated with at least one or all four of the deltas through their work. In the game, the audience (without having any clue about the changed orientations) had to identify a delta within a few seconds of time. The results of the game at the seminar was similar to that of at some other previous events: the audience could not recognize the deltas in their rotated orientations. Apart from using the game as a strategy of ice-breaking with audiences in workshops, seminars or conferences, I play this game to make a point at the onset of my presentation. With the results of this simple game about ‘knowing reality’, I share with my audience that we often mistake the usual representation of reality for the only possible one, or for reality itself. Hence, we stop asking the question of why a reality is represented in a certain way.
With the point made, I drew the attention of the audience to one of the dominant narratives on the transfer of the Dutch Delta Approach. This is a narrative that emphasizes the common problems in different deltas around the world to then suggest for a common, “must-have” policy solution: the Dutch Delta Approach. The narrative explains the transfer of this Dutch expertise as something that happens almost spontaneously because of its intrinsic qualities and because of a demand for it from other countries. In the narrative, the excellence and uniqueness of Dutch delta knowledge justify the efforts and money that go into the transfer. In some cases, the leading Dutch water and delta ambassadors do put efforts into talking about Dutch water and delta expertise abroad in more grounded and contextualized ways. Nevertheless, the common delta problems – common Dutch solutions remains the dominant narrative to support efforts to export Dutch delta knowledge to other places.
I then continued the presentation by proposing another way of telling the story of the transfer of the Dutch Approach, reversing the orientation of the representation as it were. Rather than telling the transfer of Dutch Delta knowledge from a vantage point of success and from an identification of those originating the transfer, I suggest that it is interesting to tell the story through focusing on the efforts of the people involved in the transfer. This suggestion builds on the insights from my analysis based on interactions with people who have been engaged in making the transfer of the Dutch Delta Approach happen to Vietnam and Bangladesh. I am convinced that taking their experiences seriously is important towards initiating an open and critical dialogue to create better understanding of the role and the impact of the ‘Dutch Approach’ and discuss ways forward – the objectives of the seminar. Specifically, four major insights from my work can contribute to such an open and critical dialogue.
First, the Dutch Delta Approach does not travel on its own, nor can it be explained by its inherent qualities. In the cases of the development of the Mekong Delta Plan and the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, Vietnamese and Bangladeshi demand for the Dutch Approach did not happen spontaneously. Rather, the transfer of the Dutch Approach happened through a tremendous amount of work done by the people involved.
Second, the transfer of the Dutch Approach does not happen in a historical, (geo-)political or economic void, but in an arena that is importantly built on relations. The transfer happens between friends: the Netherlands and Vietnam; the Netherlands and Bangladesh, and the Netherlands with other countries like Indonesia or United States; and also between Dutch and non-Dutch experts. A lot of the work that went into the development and implementation of the two Delta Plans involved the careful nurturing of old and new friendships between the Dutch and their Vietnamese or Bangladeshi partners. Indeed, the work that goes into forging or maintenance of diplomatic and trade relations, as well as into the active cherishing of professional collaborations and joint curiosities lies at the heart of efforts to make the transfer of Dutch knowledge into a success. This relates to the following point.
When looked at the Dutch Approach through the efforts of the engaged people, it becomes evident that the types of expertise and work that transferring of the Dutch Approach require are at best remotely related to the contents of the Dutch Delta Approach. The nature of the work that the Dutch and their Vietnamese and Bangladeshi experts did is as much diplomatic and political as it is technical.
Next, transferring of the Dutch Approach is a process of which the final outcome is not known beforehand: the outcomes are often negotiated and contingent. The effect is that multiple versions of something that can be broadly referred to as a delta plan emerge. In other words, that what was transferred as the Dutch Approach to Vietnam and Bangladesh was not fixed, but emerged partly through the process of transfer itself. The Mekong Delta Plan emerged as a provocative and agenda setting plan that talks about the wellbeing of the delta and its people, while also providing legitimate grounds for calling established Vietnamese development triple rice policy priorities for the delta into question. In the case of Bangladesh, the Plan has developed as a macroeconomic and donor investment oriented plan for the entire country. The plan connects delta planning with a prioritized development goal of the Bangladeshi government – that is to make Bangladesh a middle income country by 2021.
Lastly, outside of the Netherlands people living in deltas have their own ways of knowing their deltas, managing them, and living with them or not. The narrative in which the Dutch Approach figures as a must have policy option for sustainable delta management makes it difficult to recognize the knowledge and expertise that other deltaic countries have. This way of representing the Dutch Approach also makes it difficult to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of the Dutch, Vietnamese and Bangladeshi experts in co-creating delta plans that are perhaps more Vietnamese or Bangladeshi than Dutch.
To conclude, RVO initiative to promote an open and critical dialogue is indeed laudable and welcoming especially when a growing body of critical research emerges on the export of knowledge and expertise in Dutch development cooperation programs. This dialogue would become fruitful if we – those who are engaged to the transfer of the Dutch Approach – can co-learn from the perspectives of the Dutch who possesses the delta planning expertise, and those who receive and avail this expertise. This is important because Delta Plans outside of the Netherlands emerge as a co-learning process. We, therefore, should put efforts to make the proposed dialogue open, modest and symmetrical in terms of developing an understanding of the Delta Approach through recognizing social and cultural contexts and knowledge on deltas different than the Dutch.
To learn more about Shahnoor’s research on the transfer of the Dutch Delta Approach to Vietnam and Bangladesh you can read:
Hasan, Shahnoor, Jaap Evers, Arjen Zegwaard, and Margreet Zwarteveen. “Making waves in the Mekong Delta: recognizing the work and the actors behind the transfer of Dutch Delta planning expertise.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management (2019): 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2019.1592745
Hasan, Shahnoor, Jaap Evers, and Margreet Zwarteveen. “The transfer of Dutch Delta Planning expertise to Bangladesh: A process of policy translation.” Environmental Science & Policy 104 (2020): 161-173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2019.11.001