Rotterdam flaunts prize district
What do Desmond Tutu, the credit crisis and shelters for the homeless in northern Rotterdam, the Netherlands have in common? Quite a lot, if it is up to the Club of Madrid.
The Club consists of former world leaders who have decided to dedicate their retirement years to promoting integration, democracy and world peace.
This week, the Club is in Rotterdam, where they will send teams of rapporteurs into the port city's districts to learn about local integration and participation projects. Because this city, so the Club of Madrid has been told, is the very cradle of integration and participation.
The organisation, which has former prime ministers and presidents from Ireland to Iran among its members, has set its sights on a new kind of society: a shared society, in which everyone feels at home. To this end, the Club has drawn up a list of ten criteria which such an ideal society would have to meet, and will closely monitor the state of global affairs.
One of the teams of world leaders, including the former president of Mozambique and a former prime minister of Spain, is dropped off in the Van Speijk neighbourhood in northern Rotterdam.
For years, the district was known for its poverty, violence and drug houses, but has recently been drastically cleaned up by the city council. The great helmsman behind this success is Harlow Brammerloo, the chair of the local authority. Mr Brammerloo proudly takes the delegation on a tour of ‘his' projects. First stop: the homeless shelter.
Holeless billiards table
Inside hangs a dense cloud of heavy tobacco smoke. The nationwide smoking ban has clearly passed the shelter by. A number of homeless people are sitting at the shabby tables, carefully observing the global leadership group. A community worker eloquently holds forth about the successful integration of the shelter.
Prize district minister resigns
Dutch Housing Minister Ella Vogelaar, responsible for revitalising slum districts such as those found in northern Rotterdam, has resigned.
In a bitter statement, she said that the leadership of her party, the social democratic PvdA, which forms a coalition government with the Christian democratic CDA and the Christian Union, had lost faith in her ability to perform.
Her approach to the slum districts in the main cities failed to yield tangible results. And she refused to speak the kind of bold language that many wanted her to regarding the integration of migrants in Dutch society. On top of which, Ms Vogelaar communicated badly with both parliament and the media.
The last straw was when Mrs Vogelaar made an about face on a very delicate issue: the big cities in the Netherlands want to compile data about problem youth of Antillean background. After two years of sensitive political and legal manoeuvring to get the registration started, Mrs Vogelaar suddenly announced, during a visit to the Antilles, that she would not implement the new policy. That decision sealed her fate.
It's homeless cleaning up the neighbourhood and the whole district celebrates Sinterklaas - the Dutch version of Santa Claus - at the shelter. Everything is done for the benefit of what has become an archetypical Dutch term: liveability.
Meanwhile, the former president of Mozambique walks around the billiards table, inspecting its corners:
"Where are the holes?" he wonders out loud. "I don't understand your billiard table."
Rich and poor
Once back outside, the group is being addressed by Ron, a worker of the local housing corporation. He appears to have been infected by Harlow Brammerloo's optimism and, against the backdrop of a burned-out building, is talking enthusiastically about how beautiful the district is going to be. It's great to be here!
However, a local resident begs to differ:
"They should take a look in the street back of here. It is such a mess there, really incredibly; they just simply dump everything in the street."
Another local resident - easily identified by her badge that reads ‘local resident' - clearly enjoys all the attention showered on her Rotterdam district.
"I am an American, and I moved to Rotterdam five years ago. I saw many homeless people on the streets, which at first scared me a little, also because I am living here with my kids. So I thought: I should go over and get to know them. So we decorated Christmas trees together and they brought chocolate milk. Oh, and they are really good at baking pancakes!"
"It is important that rich and poor don't need to be kept so far away apart, you can actually live next to each other."
The group is being addressed by Edmee Rambaldo, a 'conflict mediator'. She argues:
"Rotterdam is a city where many cultures coexist and when people don't know each other, there is bound to be prejudice. Mediation exists to prevent conflict. Conflicts are always rooted in prejudice, and mediation makes people go: Huh? They are just like me!"
"Who are the mediators?" the former African president wants to know, "and who pays them?" The mediator explains that the council pays for everything, and she is more than willing to share her expertise with people in Africa.
The world leaders can draw their conclusions. Rotterdam as a showcase of world peace. Once again, the Netherlands is in the global vanguard. Or maybe not? The former president says:
"In Mozambique, we have a long tradition of mediation. We have a tradition of citizens resolving their mutual problems, because we always had very few courts."
The 10 commitments of the Club of Madrid
1. Make governments responsible for social cohesion
2. Give minorities a voice in government
3. Monitor policies on their added value to social cohesion
4. A constitutional state that protects the individual
5. Address economic deprivation caused by discrimination
6. Spatial planning that promotes social interaction
7. Education that contributes to a 'shared society'
8. Stimulate a shared vision of society
9. Promote respect, understanding and appreciation for differences
10. Take steps against tensions and hostilities between communities
(source: Club of Madrid)
Martijn van Tol
Photo credit: Tom Pilzecker