The Netherlands for aid, trade and innovation

3 min reading time

Development cooperation is something we do not just for others, but also for ourselves. The more stability there is in the world, the greater the likelihood that we can preserve peace in the Netherlands. If Dutch companies are able to sell their water, foodstuffs and health-related products in developing countries, there are economic benefits for everyone. Development cooperation is all about joining forces with a return on investment for everyone - both here and there, in terms of economic and social development.

I believe on the one hand in simultaneously ensuring financial profits and social impact and, on the other, in linking activities between industrialized nations and developing countries. The Netherlands has much to offer the world. We are good at aid, good at trade, and we are also trendsetters when it comes to combining the two. Prompted in part by the inspiring policy memorandum by Lilianne Ploumen, the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, in 2012. For many years, we have been involved in ‘aid and trade’ public-private partnerships. But for me, there is one aspect missing - ‘innovation’. I would like to see the Netherlands improve its profile in terms of aid, trade and innovation.

“The Netherlands has much to offer the world. We are good at aid, good at trade, and we are also trendsetters when it comes to combining the two”

Dutch Diamond collaboration quadrangle

The Netherlands is one of Europe’s leading innovators. We score high in relation to scientific knowledge, have a world-class business sector and a government with strong innovation policies. The close collaboration between these innovation partners in the ‘Triple Helix’ means we have a particularly good innovation ecosystem. In developing countries, there is an additional stakeholder for innovation: the NGOs. Collaboration in the context of this quadrangle is referred to as the ‘Dutch Diamond’ - in Greek, this means ‘invincible’. And this is an export product, especially for developing countries, because good collaboration between the various parties is often absent there.

Focus on technical innovations that fit in with the local context

Innovating in developing countries is about technical innovations, social innovations, business models for scaling, transition management, and therefore also about building an ecosystem with a range of parties. The Netherlands has a leading position internationally in a number of sectors, thanks to its unique, high-quality and distinctive products that have been sustainably developed (the top sectors). We are also innovative in developing countries. However, I do not believe there is sufficient focus on technical innovations or on the development of new products and services that are in keeping with the local context of people on the lowest incomes.

The power of innovation lies in collaboration

That local context in Africa and Asia is not the same as that in Europe. Different products and business models are needed in order to serve consumers. In many cases, it is not enough to take products from the Netherlands to, say, Africa and market them there. However, a large number of development cooperation tenders do not go beyond this: only existing products and existing technologies may be used on projects, and no new applied technological development is allowed. This is not financed by the organization in question. At the same time, it is often the case that only efforts on the part of the business community are supported, and not (or only a small proportion) those of applied knowledge institutes. This is in spite of the fact that the power of innovation lies in collaboration, and that should be our export product.

“Applied technological development is needed in order to realize innovations with potential”

New technology in a new context

A good example is that of the RITU project in Bangladesh, with which TNO is involved. In addition to campaigns aimed at getting women to use sanitary towels, we are using TNO’s existing knowledge of nanotechnology and Rodenburg Biopolymers BV’s experience to develop affordable biological degradable sanitary towels. Bengali manufacturers of plastic and sanitary towels are greatly interested in this new technology for making these degradable plastics and can see opportunities for other products as well. Applied technological development is needed in order realize innovations with potential. The Netherlands must commit itself more strongly here. I see opportunities in all kinds of fields: in decentralized refrigeration for fruit and vegetables, sensors for babies’ health, the upgrading of local bio waste to new formulas for nutrition, and so on. These are solutions that we do not need in the Netherlands, and are therefore not on our radar. However, they are solutions for which we have the knowledge and technology and which we can deliver on a custom-made basis, appropriate to the context in developing countries. An independent innovation institute can ensure that the business community, the government, knowledge institutes and NGOs operate as effectively as possible, locally and internationally, so that the Dutch Diamond can shine, creating a viable innovation ecosystem. A system that can be used again in the future for other new developments.

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