Amsterdam redefines town twinning as aid

Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen personally oversees the city's development aid programme.
By Jos Verlaan

Many places in the Netherlands and the world have 'twin' or 'sister cities' in other countries. Amsterdam has decided to take the concept in a new direction: its city services are now involved in development aid in 13 countries.

Call it the city as an export product. Forty different departments of the city of Amsterdam have been exporting their expertise to the Dutch capital's twin cities in 13 different countries. They help out with public transport, housing, fire fighting, health care or even citizen participation. It adds up to an investment of over 10 million euros in the past four years alone.

The programme is part of the city's development aid policy. Amsterdam has had one for a while, but in the eighties it involved mostly politically motivated projects in countries like Nicaragua or Mozambique. Since 2001 Amsterdam has started concentrating on the countries of origin of its main immigrant populations – Turkey, Morocco, Ghana, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles – and the capitals of new EU member states such as Budapest and Sofia.


In most places in the Netherlands and the world the concept of 'twinned cities' or 'sister cities' is limited mostly to the occasional courtesy visit to and fro. Rotterdam is active abroad, but mostly to promote its port. The Hague presents itself worldwide as the 'city of peace and justice', and Utrecht has a budget for citizens' development projects abroad.

"But only Amsterdam has a comprehensive approach targeting the countries of origin of its immigrant populations," says Erik-Jan Hertogs of the association of Dutch municipalities (VNG). "It is quite unique."

"We wanted to put a stop to the proliferation of town twinning agreements, and give some structure and verifiable content to our cooperation agreements," says Gerard Pieters of Amsterdam's bureau for international relations.


With a budget of only 734,000 euros - 1 euro per inhabitant of Amsterdam - supplemented with state and European subsidies, Amsterdam realised money alone was not going to make the difference. "We don't have a lot of money to give away," says Pieters, "but what we do have is knowledge and expertise and a commitment to stay involved for the long term."

Housing in Suriname

A former director of Amsterdam's public transport company GVB went to Ghana to help start up a new government bus company there. Ghana was given a subsidy by the Dutch government for the project on the condition that the buses were bought from the Netherlands and a Dutch manager and technical director were hired. The company now has bus lines in thirteen cities in Ghana, and its staff has grown from 500 to almost 3,000.

These days 178 Amsterdam city employees are involved in projects in 13 countries. One such project is a housing programme in Suriname, a former Dutch colony in the Caribbean.

Pieters: "Amsterdam was already involved in building social housing in Suriname. But when the capital Paramaribo wanted to build a satellite city, Richelieu, it turned out they also needed their own development company. Suriname has a housing shortage of 30,000 to 40,000 units. So in 2006 a former Amsterdam alderman, Duco Stadig, drew up a plan for a development company, taking into account the particularities of Suriname, and Amsterdam's urban planning agency designed the urban development plan. Construction work began at the end of last year."

Earthquake aid

On the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and Sint Maarten, Amsterdam city officials have been teaching integrity courses to government officials and the police. Sint Maarten, which like Curaçao is set to become an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is given help with setting up an administration, modeled on what the boroughs in Amsterdam have. They are also taught what protocols to observe when foreign dignitaries visit.

In Izmit, Turkey, Amsterdam helped set up a social workshop after the 1999 earthquake. (Social workshops are protected work environments for the mentally handicapped.) "They didn't know the concept. With European subsidies and some help from the town of Deventer we were able to get a social workshop off the ground, and it is now self-sufficient," says Pieters.

Last week the city council was given an evaluation of the past seven years of Amsterdam's development programme. The new policy, which is directly under the responsibility of mayor Job Cohen (Labour), has support across the political board, from the left-wing Socialist Party to the right-wing liberal party VVD.

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