The tissue that brings people together


Tomorrow the Netherlands turns orange, once again. It is the colour of our Royal family, and on the King’s birthday everyone goes out to visit flea markets, open air concerts, parks, and bars to have fun and be Dutch.

The birthday of our King, Willem-Alexander is the day to experience solidarity and unity among the Dutch people. A day of friendship amongst ourselves, but also with our friends abroad, like those in Kenya. And those are many, as our countries enjoy a close and excellent relationship.

Is King’s Day (April 27) the only day that shows Dutch solidarity so clearly? No, in fact, just like in Kenya, people engage in community activities, often infused with a strong element of solidarity, every day.

The Royal family is present at a performance by André Rieu on Onze Lieve Vrouwenplein. [RVD, Mischa Schoemaker]

Civil society in the Netherlands is strong. It is the tissue that brings people together: the true expression of what we stand for and value most, what unites and divides us. But mostly, what infuses life into the many sports clubs, cultural centres, and debating centres. This strong form of self-organization gives colour to everyday life and brings people together, whatever their religion, political convictions, income, colour or different forms of gender. It is not a domain of the state, but the world of volunteers who join forces to create, help, and socialize.

Each year in March, particular inspiration is offered by the Royal Family who engage as flagbearers of volunteer projects. It shows what our Royal Family stands for: being part of society, making a contribution, respectfully help each other and join hands for the common good. It is this principle that makes the King’s birthday a national celebration of togetherness and equality.

Why am I sharing this with you? To tell you a little bit about this particular side of the Netherlands, but also to make the point that such intrinsic powers in society need space, clarity and structure to come to fruition. And that, of course, is where government comes in. What space does government give to such intrinsic powers? This is a fundamental question to which the constitution, defining the interaction between society, government and private sector, gives an answer.

The Royal family. [RVD, Mischa Schoemaker]

Kenya’ constitution is strong and progressive. However, the practical regulation of societal organizations remains scattered. The Public Benefits Organizations Act has not been operationalized since 2013, whereas clarity on freedoms, responsibilities, and financing could mobilize societal forces to make valuable contributions, to diversify, to innovate, to dialogue and compromise. Elements which a government would never be able to replace.

The Netherlands has recently finalized its strategic course for engaging in Kenya, with a vision to strengthen and deepen the mutually beneficial relationship between our countries, and to contribute to sustainable and inclusive development in Kenya. Civil society is an important actor in this journey. They bring the voices and needs of the people to the forefront, and hold duty-bearers accountable.

The royal family poses in the garden of Paleis Huis ten Bosch for the annual photo session on July 17, 2020. [RVD, Mischa Schoemaker]

In this, we pay particular attention to reducing inequalities and including those who are left behind. Let me take the example of young people. Informal age barriers and behavioural norms are often blocking youth engagement in politics and in economic activity. Age groups are becoming siloes, and moving from one silo to the other proves particularly difficult, leaving little to no space to engage and influence.

Civil society can help to break down barriers and facilitate dialogue, open up space to bring together older and younger people, people of different genders, ethnicities, and so forth. Living together requires understanding, which must be brewed inside society.

H.E. President William Ruto pledged to operationalize the country’s 2013 PBO Act and expand the space for collaboration between government and civil society. I hope the government will act accordingly, to give civil society space, allow for different opinions and ways of life, and letting cohesion be brewed from inside society. It is my hope that, like in The Netherlands, we will soon see celebration of all those contributions to Kenyan society, from whatever origin: for all to celebrate their pride of being Kenyan.

The writer, Maarten Brouwer, is the Netherlands Ambassador to Kenya