In Africa, the relationship between the Dutch business community and Dutch embassies seems to be out of synch. In fact, some Dutch businesspeople are dissatisfied. This became clear at Thursday's seminar organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Netherlands-African Business Council (NABC) in The Hague.
Africa is booming. That's a given. The continent's economy grows faster than so-called "advanced economies", and doesn't suffer from the same crises that befall the Western world. Meanwhile, the Netherlands currently occupies 15 embassies across the continent, the newest having opened last week in South Sudan. But according to some of the businesspeople in attendance, current relations between the Dutch-African business community and Dutch embassies are not smooth enough.
Adjusting for the commercial sector
Siebren van der Zwaag is displeased with how a number of Dutch embassies in Africa are not clear which business partners are deployed at development sites. "There's no transparency," says the director of dairy development company The Friesian. "I have no idea how their money is spent. And why not make use of Dutch expertise and knowledge?"
Van der Zwaag adds: "In theory, embassies apply new business structures but, in reality, a lot is done in the old-fashioned way, for example via NGOs."
According to NABC's managing director Bob van der Bijl, the NGO sector is still very close to embassies and the ministry, but there is a transition taking place. "There will be a stronger link with the business world. At NABC, we will definitely look into the matter," he says.
Van der Bijl believes a lack of transparency may be due to ignorance. "Embassies might not think enough about the possibilities and qualities within the commercial sector," he says. "The government spends millions of euros in a diversity of interesting projects in Africa, so it can be frustrating for companies that are not included in drawing up and effectuating the plans."
A ministry spokesperson told RNW that possible communication problems between businesses and embassies have been discussed, and that the ministry works hard to better its own and its embassies' transparency. Thursday's seminar was seen as an example of this improvement. So is the ministry's investment in economic diplomacy, namely by training its employees to maintain contacts within the industry.
A ministry in transition
Earlier this year, the Dutch development ministry revealed its plans for the next four years. Whereas its budget was previously committed to providing aid, the ministry now expects to focus on project investments.
Contributions will still fall under the same framework, which is divided into the themes of food security; water; sexual and reproductive rights; justice and safety. Whether it involves knowledge-sharing or actual financial cooperation, companies and entrepreneurs can turn to the ministry for such help – at least in theory.
A project executor is selected according to the needs of each specific programme, claims the ministry. “This can be a multilateral institution like the World Bank, the local government itself, a research institute or the business community,” said the spokesperson in a written response to RNW’s questions.
The ministry admits to still being in transition from development aid to development cooperation, which implies the need for a change of mindset as well as a change in execution. Moreover, while Dutch businesses play an important role, they are not the central target of the embassies’ deployment.
No silver platters
Despite the complaints, not all Dutch businesses in Africa seem to share the problems.
A marketer at the steel industrial hall company Remco Afrique says she has no problems when it comes to cooperating with embassies. According to Angélique Mbundu: "The trick is to ask targeted, specific questions. Nothing is handed on a silver platter; as a company, you have to know exactly what you want."
Dutch companies or entrepreneurs experiencing frustrations, if not downright difficulties, might just have to wait until the embassies can adjust their vision for the commercial sector.