by Kevin Cottrell
We arrived in Amsterdam just a few days ago, and I already feel that a very high bar has been set for other cities on my visit. Aside from falling in love with the Netherlands, the experience in the past few days has been powerful and meaningful. Our hosts have been wonderful, and the Dutch we have met have been warm, funny and quite tolerant of our inquisitiveness and American clannishness.
The visit so far has tested many of the fundamentals we learned about the E.U. and its structure. Perhaps even more powerful though are the lessons on globalization and its impact on local communities. Here in Amsterdam, the E.U. is only a piece of the story.
This lovely setting has provided an extraordinary backdrop in which to explore the community impacts of migration, faith and civil society, war and security, food and agriculture security and climate change. These are not solely issues facing the Netherlands, but as I have said several times on this visit, solutions here are likely to be meaningful to the rest of Europe, the U.S., and the world.
Our first full day wasted no time jumping into the issue of immigration and integration of Moroccan and Turkish people into Dutch society. The Dutch face a growing problem of a divided society- one of limited social networks or common economic opportunities combined with a great religious and philosophical divide.
Our meeting with Muslim community leaders gave us insight into the issues that separate society, particularly on jobs and employment, principles of faith, and of course language. Through meetings with a Polder Youth Mosque and with Muslim women’s support organization Nysa for Nysa (pictured right), we saw an emerging opportunity for the Muslim communities to build new networks to assist each other and help integrate into this Western society. The surprising lack of integration seems to be one of the most pressing issues here. Our Dutch colleagues confirmed this with us at nearly every juncture.
Flowing out of this situation comes the political repercussions of the philosophical difference, particularly in the area of civil society. There has now emerged a conservative trend in politics that is clearly anti-Muslim and anti-immigration. Furthermore, there appears to be growing dissent and tension in communities in the Netherlands that are populated by Muslim fundamentalists. The conflicts are real and sometimes violent. These pockets of dissent are feared as a breeding ground for anti-western sentiment and organizations that pose a possible security threat. Consequently, movements to repress freedom of expression, particularly on religious matters, is a central debate as policymakers weigh the future of a long-standing but rarely enforced blasphemy law. Needless to say, the thought-leaders, artists, filmmakers, and journalists, among others, are worried about diminished freedom of expression- a cornerstone of a civil society.
Our first day ended with an opportunity to look at metropolitan issues within the City of Amsterdam, where we focused on the impacts of legalized prostitution, organized crime, and human trafficking. City officials unveiled a major initiative to regain control of activity in the famous Red Light District (pictured below) that has come to be dominated by organized crime.
Efforts entail a formal permitting or licensing of sex workers, city acquisition of real estate assets once controlled by organized crime families (including the windows and brothels), and a neighborhood revitalization of the core Red Light District area to include sidewalks, storefronts and signage. A tour of the area included a visit to a city-acquired building, improvements now under way, and a discussion of future development options.
For instance, in some areas, the plan is to convert the ‘window areas,’ where prostitutes used to stand to solicit customers, into other uses. For the past year, the city has promoted the windows to fashion designers who now display their designs on mannequins. Officials assert their efforts are not to end prostitution, however, the sense in the district is that the times are changing; best evidenced by the runway fashions and the mannequins in the windows (pictured below).
Day two provided another opportunity to delve into more issues of governance as well as the global/local paradox. We ventured out to The Hague, the capital of the Netherlands that is home to institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC). Our session at the ICC was enlightening. We learned about the Courts’ history, member countries, and their scope of work as the legal venue for prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Cases before the Court are predominantly focused on African civil unrest- including Darfur, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic and the Congo. We had the opportunity to sit in on the tribunal and listen to some of the proceedings in the case again Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president/war lord. The tribunal requested to use the ICC as a preferred venue for a fair and safe hearing of the case against Taylor. The experience gave all of us a perspective on the larger security issues in the developing world, as well as insight into the international rule of law.
From the ICC, we moved on to the the Dutch Parliament (pictured right) for briefings on Afghanistan with members of the Dutch Liberal Party. The Dutch have a small force on the ground in Afghanistan. It comes as no surprise that the conversation shifted to issues of migration, particularly the movement of people from south to north, and the larger security issues facing the Netherlands as a result. Perhaps eager to address the issues among the American Fellows, our dialogue moved to the larger issues of religion, ethnicity, race and language in building and strengthening Western society. I believe that many of us appreciated the unique dynamics facing the Dutch, and a eagerness for them to forge solutions. Indeed, their success at integration will have positive ramifications for communities throughout the world. Our day closed with a trip to the town of Noordwijk where we met with Mayor Harry Groen (who incidentally is appointed by the Queen of the Netherlands). The Mayor briefed us on a major public works effort to reclaim the beachfront on this North Atlantic town that is reminiscent of Cape Cod (pictured left, Mayor Groen second from right). With rising sea levels, the Netherlands uses some extraordinary public works projects to both reclaim land and integrate water resource management. The beachfront property is now protected by a man-made dike with expanded dunes and natural habitat. The project also now serves as a model for other coastal communities concerned about sea water intrusion and massive flooding.
The land reclamation topic continued into our third day with a visit to a farm outside of Amsterdam. The farm is what is known as a polder- land reclaimed when water is pumped out of a lake or wetland. Neatly organized, and well maintained, we had first-hand experience on the current global market concerns for food today, as well as organic production, regulations on pesticides and genetically modified foods, and biodiversity efforts in E.U. member countries.
From a community leadership perspective, I was most intrigued by opportunities for nongovernmental organizations and civic engagement initiatives around some of the most challenging issues we examined. Without question though, the universal lesson in this experience is that today local leaders are increasingly faced with issues that are global in scope. Isolationism is a luxury we can no longer afford. We must develop and accelerate our informational and professional networks well beyond our traditional comfort zones. This will help us to share information and monitor trends from other trusted sources. Through productive dialogue, innovations may well ensue. We can only hope.
We were lucky enough to have a little bit of downtime in Amsterdam. It was our first substantial break from meetings or travel in nearly 10 days. I most enjoyed strolling along the canals (pictured right), enjoying the sunny day, and stopping in to the cafes and bookstores and imagining a day in the life of this amazing city.
We departed early Monday morning for Turkey, where we will start in the capital of Ankara and end in Istanbul. It should provide a great alternate perspective to Belgium and the Netherlands.
Kevin Cottrell is Executive Director of the Southern California Leadership Network, blogging from his fellowship with the German Marshall Fund in Europe.