Putting Dutch values and norms to the test

13th February 2004, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende launched a website — Zestienmiljoenmensen.nl — on Thursday 12 February to support local initiatives to inject values and norms back into Dutch society. Cormac Mac Ruairi puts it to the test to see if it is worth it

At first glance, the website set up to support local initiatives to inject values and norms back into Dutch society is simply not worth it.

The look and feel of the webite christened "16 million people" (zestienmiljoenmensen.nl) — a reference to the population of the Netherlands — is awful.

The colours used — orange, yellow, black and white — are gaudy and the layout is haphazard. The graphics are so childish that it is difficult to accept that the site was designed by the government’s information service RVD rather than a child.

This is a pity, because the Dutch-language site is a key element of the prime minister’s crusade to make the Netherlands a nicer place to live in.

Many people are fed up with the crime, rude and violent neighbours and dirt on their streets. When he first raised the issue of norms and values in 2002, the idea struck a nerve with the public.

Many agreed with him that people needed to re-learn to be respectful to others, behave better and get involved in improving the local community.

Critics, in contrast, accused Balkenende of still living in the 1950s; that he was still living in a time when the Netherlands was a smaller, provincial backwater and dominated by strict Christian norms.

He was also accused of failing to explain what he meant by norms and values.

When he originally took up the cause in 2002, he spoke about norms and values and this led to accusations he was pushing Christian norms and beliefs at the expense of universal values. After a while, the government shifted the emphasis to values and norms.

It is interesting, therefore, that the first of two opinion polls on the site refers to the old bugbear of sex and violence on television. It is even more interesting that when asked whether a decoder should be required to view films containing sex and violence, some 70 percent of the 11,527 voters said no.

A second poll asks whether everyone should be obliged to occasionally undertake volunteer work. Not surprisingly, 58 percent of the 11,791 respondents said no, while the rest agreed volunteer work should be compulsory.

The website gives a better account of itself once you look deeper inside.

There are five main sections of the site: practical initiatives, the opinion polls, the views of famous and ordinary members of society about values and norms, a calendar of events and a section on the government's policy.

So what sort of values and norms are we talking about?

The Morgenstond district in The Hague has set up a "neighbourhood intervention service" to combat nuisance and crime in the area.

"The idea behind the training is that locals themselves can prevent problems from arising, or solve problems when they occur, by highlighting what is happening and bringing in the right people to deal with the situation. Or by speaking to fellow-residents about their behaviour," the website says.

To mark the launch of the website, Balkenende awarded certificates on 12 February to locals who completed the training course in Morgenstond.

Staff at De Klimop primary school in The Hague imported an idea called the Peaceful School from the US when they noticed the "relationship between pupils, teachers and parents was declining," the website says.

The initiative involves pupils, teachers and parents following a course in conflict resolution and mediation.

"Since January 2004, 20 pupils have been trained as mediators. They help to solve disputes between other pupils during break periods. The most important principles they learn is to listen well to each other, to respect the other person’s views and not to judge," says De Klimop director Fer Verhaaf.

In Enschede, Winterswijk and Groenlo public housing residents who behave well and keep their surroundings clean receive a EUR 10 gift certificate from their housing association under the "Gold Serv

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