I was very pleased to be invited to participate, last week, in the International Visitor Programme run by Dutch Culture, which aims to provide an opportunity to engage with policy makers, academics and cultural figures in the Netherlands.
The visit highlighted for me the value of a systematic approach to the development of contacts and networks through such a tailored programme which allowed fact-finding and exchange of information and views. It also introduced multiple perspectives and facilitated the development of what I hope will be an ongoing dialogue with colleagues in the Netherlands.
The timing of this particular visit was good, in that it coincided both with a formal evaluation of Dutch cultural diplomacy by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), for the Parliament, and with preparation for the next 4 year planning cycle. This made discussions with the MFA (and with representatives from the Ministry of Culture) particularly interesting at the levels both of high level policy and of practical questions related to budgetary pressures, responses to fast-changing world events and the intersection of foreign and domestic policy agendas.
The range of meetings organised by Dutch Culture excellently reflected the range of people involved in both the theory and practice of cultural relations. In addition to a fascinating meeting with those from the MFA who were involved in the evaluation of Dutch cultural diplomacy, Renilde Steeghs, the Ambassador of Cultural Cooperation at the MFA kindly hosted a workshop with around 15 of her colleagues where there was a real opportunity to exchange views (see photo above).
The Netherlands is characterised by its range of specialist organisations, all with fascinating expertise and insight. These highlighted a number of common interests:
- The need for knowledge, evidence and relevant statistics to inform policy development at every level (Boekman Foundation), and the potential of data science to contribute to this process;
- Responses to events and challenges to culture in conflict zones (Prince Claus Fund) – the understanding that while cultural relations are a long-term endeavour, there was also a need for short-term responses to crises, whether in the form of threats to heritage or the need to cope with large-scale challenges to social systems due, for example, to migration;
- The need for “cultural fluency” (intercultural skills) at every level for those engaged in international activity (KIT);
- The value of public debate and a focal point for the expression of free speech (De Balie);
- Nation branding in terms of values and recognition (MFA);
- Challenges facing perceptions of Europe and the EU (European Cultural Foundation and elsewhere); and
- Relationships between the theory and practice of cultural diplomacy – how universities can contribute to the policy process through research and the provision of learning opportunities (everywhere).
It was also valuable to hear more about Dutch Culture itself, and how a relatively new organisation was developing a positive role for itself.
One impression of the visit which has remained with me is that of the combination of specialist expertise with openness which seems to be a feature of the Netherlands. This seems to apply between organisations who operate at a similar level, but it also appears to work at all 3 levels of governance: national; regional and local. This makes for a complex policy environment, but one which is resilient and responsive to change. There are many lessons to be learned.