The Netherlands is one of the twenty largest Economies in the World and is a leading global knowledge economy. Holland has a longstanding history of invention, moving around the oceans of the world, trading with other countries. In times of global, social and economic challenges, the Dutch are keen to find creative ways to keep innovation and entrepreneurship growing.
In that aspect the Dutch and the Lebanese have many points in common, which includes this entrepreneurs resilience as well a Historical Maritime Trade orientation.
Also, surrounded by larger countries, both the Dutch and the Lebanese know how to position themselves as mediators and flexible vectors of innovation.
Kamsyn met with H.E Mrs Hester Somsen former Ambassador of the Netherlands in Lebanon (2013- Jan 2017) on the occasion of the End of her term in Lebanon for an exclusive talk about her experience in Beirut and the projects she successfully led with the Dutch Embassy Team on various topics such as Economy, Education, Refugees, Innovation, Security and Trade.
H.E Somsen studied Political Science at the University of Amsterdam (Doctorandus in International Relations) she started her diplomatic career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1997. Fluent in many languages she also speaks a bit of Arabic and possesses a deep understanding of the Middle East Affairs. She also enjoys hiking and skiing both disciplines where balance and endurance; vision, flexibility and strength are much needed qualities.
Her extensive experience includes working on subjects related to former Yugoslavia, parliamentary relations, EU Integration and focus on political and cultural affairs in Tanzania where she was posted to the Dutch Embassy there in 2006.
Returning to the Netherlands in 2009 H.E Somsen was the Head of Crisis Management and Peacekeeping Operations Division in the Security Policy Department dealing with all aspects of the peacekeeping and crisis management operations in which the Dutch participate: missions in Uruzgan, Kunduz Afghanistan, the contribution to Operation Unified Protector, the anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and the deployments of Patriots to Turkey, to the civilian missions on the Balkans and in the Middle-East.
Now that her mission in Lebanon has come to an end, she will return to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands as the Director for Security Policy. In that capacity she will be responsible for a range of files from Counter-terrorism, Cyber, NATO, EU and OSCE policies in the field of Security, the peacekeeping and crisis management operations in which the Dutch participate to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destructions and conventional arms control.
As we entered her office overlooking Charles Malek Avenue in Ashrafieh, a lovely creative sense of Dutch Minimalistic Design filled the air.
The Netherlands traditionally has a very dynamic Diplomacy. Today it’s active on recent challenges such as handling the impact of the Brexit in the EU, as well as in peacekeeping and crisis management in Africa, Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Middle East. In that aspect, why is Lebanon an important country for the Netherlands ?
Lebanon is unique in a sense of its rich cultural & religious diversity. Despite all challenges they have faced, the Lebanese have found a way to live together. Maybe the model is not perfect yet, however considering the actual climate in the rest of the region, Lebanon is still an oasis that we value from a Human point of view.
Also, because of the crisis in Syria and the weight of refugees Lebanon has to support, it’s only natural for us to stand alongside Lebanon in the current context.
On the security aspect, with all the terrorism threats it’s essential for us to collaborate with Lebanese authorities to help maintain stability & safety in our respective countries.
What are the key projects on which the Netherlands stands alongside Lebanon today ?
In August 2013, the refugee crisis hit Lebanon hard and the number of Syrian refugees were increasing rapidly. It was still under 1 million and Humanitarian Aid was already being provided by the Netherlands, however it was focused mainly on the Syrian refugees with only a smaller part to their host communities.
As I visited multiple regions across Lebanon such as Bar Elias, Nabatiyeh and the Akkar, it was the occasion to assess the generosity of the Lebanese villages towards the refugees. As the existing infrastructure like water & electricity was already limited it was a big effort for host communities to keep accommodating the refugees influx.
Therefore, I witnessed this cry for help as one of my interlocutors explained it to me with this metaphor: “if you are in the water holding a baby over your head to keep it safe, and if you receive no help yourself, it’s only a matter of time before you drown, thus compromising the survival of both the baby and yourself”.
My deputy and I took it upon us to convey this message to The Hague our capital, and pleaded for the increase of our support. The Humanitarian aid increased and we worked also to boost our support to the Lebanese infrastructure too.
We started with programs for the Municipalities with increasing amounts of 2,5 million euros, then 15 million euros and now 20 millions euros on top of that to also benefit Lebanese residents and provide them with this sense of security, economic opportunity and belonging.
The Program has diverse applications and acts like an umbrella for Municipalities on various topics such as: Electricity, Waste and many others.
This Program is divided in tangible support with all types of engineering improvements of course and also intangible support with the help of the Union of Dutch Municipalities that focuses on the capacity-building needs of Lebanese Municipalities such as: maintenance, sustainable policies, know-how sharing & consulting.
On the Education chapter we also work to assist Lebanese schools that have opened up to welcome Syrian pupils in their programs. We provide support to the Lebanese Ministry of Education to have enough teachers and also improve infrastructure of the schools so that the Lebanese parents also see such initiatives are beneficial to them too.
Of course, we are all hoping for the quick & safe return in dignity of the Syrian refugees but in the mean time we need to make sure they receive access to Education. Refugees with skills and education will be in a better position to rebuild their country than those without. The Lebanese students will benefit from better education as well.
For example, we are starting a program on support for the vocational educational training institutes for Agriculture where as the Netherlands we have a big added-value we can provide. We also support the agricultural sector in other areas. Lebanon in the region is privileged to have important water resources that are essential to develop the agricultural sector and increase it’s production.
So our role is to share new techniques and seeds for apples or potatoes for example to make sure that Lebanese farmers keep producing at certain standards required by the international markets & remain competitive.
In the Education & Innovation sector we also are working on this program to provide Lebanese & Syrians that left the academic circuit, tools that can benefit them in their work such as learning to Code & Process Data but also being on time, working in a team and living-up to their promises.
This program is in partnership with the UNICEF, International companies and local organizations who work together in a developed ecosystem on Data Processing Projects with Nikon, Canon etc.
With the innovation Labs we are helping build across the country, we aim to give underprivileged talents their chance in society so they can learn a new skill and make a living from it.
Of course as The Netherlands we are not the only ones funding such projects and there are a lot of other donors. We try to coordinate as much as we can with actors in Innovation and Education such as the Germans, EU and US.
Because of the climate in the region we are working together to re-ignite economic growth so to attract international investors who identify interesting new opportunities.
During your stay in Beirut, you approached Design as a powerful cultural tool with a positive social impact. How did you have this idea and why do you think it has received such an enthusiastic welcome by the Lebanese people ?
Design is one of the sectors The Netherlands is internationally famous for, especially practical Design with a twist. This allows to simplify daily life while keeping a joyful aspect to it. This combination is also very much appreciated in Lebanon, as the Lebanese are in general very innovative and open to beautiful and pragmatic solutions.
That’s how we partnered with the Beirut Design Week. Dutch designers visited Lebanon before and were excited to set-up this Dutch Exhibition during the Beirut Design Week. It grew over the years and attracted a lot of positive feedback from the Lebanese people.
I’m hoping this project will enter now in a new exchange phase for more collaborations with Lebanese student designers & design schools. In the Netherlands the collaboration between private & public sectors on such matters is very important.
There is room for mutual benefits between Dutch Companies’ research departments and Lebanese Designers who wish to partner to address oriental markets while giving a local touch to their creations.
This is also because Lebanese are known internationally to be the taste-makers of the Middle East. Today Design is also seen as a tool for social changes and a way to pro-actively come up with solutions.
Lebanon is often considered as an interesting country in a diplomatic career, what would be your best memories in Beirut so far ?
Having the post of Ambassador in Lebanon is definitely helpful to gather more insight on what’s happening in the region as a whole. That’s thanks to how the Lebanese see the problems and their willingness to explain the different challenges to foreigners.
On a personal level, the hospitality and openness of the Lebanese have always made me feel welcome. Also Nature in Lebanon is wonderful, I would hope there would be plans to take care of such beautiful environments. On the weekends I had the chance to go for hikes in the Mountains with Lebanese and Dutch friends to discover breath-taking sceneries as well as genuinely interact with the locals.
I’m happy to see there’s increasing interest for the Lebanese rural initiatives and “Maisons d’Hôtes” situated on mountain trails equipped with bed & breakfast facilities. Of course the delightful Lebanese Cuisine and Boutique Wineries add to the charm of working in Lebanon.
What are the most promising sectors of the Netherlands economy today and in the near future ?
The Creative Industries, Water, Agriculture & Chemical related sectors are all prosperous & expanding. The quality of Education is also excellent : Engineering, Business etc..
So the Netherlands holds a leadership role in those fields worldwide as well as in High-Tech, Horticulture & Starting Materials, Logistics, Life Sciences & Health. Our country is seen as the gateway to Europe and I hope that in the future Lebanon can play this role in the Middle East.
The current events in Syria are of course dramatic, but hopefully the future will allow to rebuild Peace. Lebanon can be an important partner thanks to the harbours of Beirut and Tripoli.
On another note, the Dutch & the Lebanese have in common this passion for food. Recently for example, a “sajeria” with traditional Lebanese preparations opened in Amsterdam and has made the buzz.
According to Minister of Foreign Affairs H.E Bert Koenders, « There are no quick fixes for today’s challenges: we will have to work long and hard, at international level, to find permanent solutions to the sources of conflict around us. » The Minister made these remarks in his 2016 policy agenda, adding, « This will require dynamic and flexible diplomacy, choices and innovative use of resources, as well as collaboration in old and new coalitions ».
In the field of innovative use of resources, how can e-diplomacy platforms and Social Media tools help build more visibility & influence in the Digital World ?
E-diplomacy & social media are a tool for lowering barriers in institutions like an Embassy. Because there used to be a persisting image of Ambassadors that needed to be above 60 years old, with grey hair, like a distant wise old man figure.
However, my experience here has been that if you are more approachable you get a clearer idea of the realities. Based on that you can then start working on specific programs with adequate elements of society. This is why Social Media are a powerful tool to start conversations and reach interested audiences with positive messages and get valuable feedback.
It’s a field where we can choose to be accessible and open about our policies while listening to different opinions and link-up different partners. Also, if sometimes there are harder topics that are discussed, it can allow for more understanding through a strategy of continuous trust building.
Video Documentary “Mission in Beirut”:
Persevering Human Rights is constant challenge worldwide & specially in the MENA region. Human rights are the basis for open and free societies. What are your priorities in Human Rights Policies ?
Indeed, Human rights are also the basis for more prosperous societies. For Lebanon specifically we chose gender issues and particularly Women’s Rights. As the eminent Lebanese thinker and statesman Charles Malek who contributed to writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once said: “the fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world”.
During my time in Beirut I was happy to meet many inspiring & dynamic Lebanese women, However it’s deplorable that they are not more represented in fields such as politics and corporate leadership positions. Such a concern is not just from a philosophical point of view. Research has proven that if women are more involved in decision-making processes, then the revenues are higher, the team spirit is stronger and the distribution is more homogenous.
On the subject of the recently created Ministry for Women Affairs in the Lebanese Government and the fact that the Minister is a man, I believe that sometimes it’s important that men also lead society in reforms giving a larger role to women.
On the participation of women in government, a representation of at least a third would be considered a positive start.
For example, we sponsored LADE (Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections) and another organization MAHARAT to monitor percentage of women candidates in municipal elections, and to monitor how much time is allocated to women in media. The results were relatively low. A media advisory board is going to be set up to mentor female leaders and introduce rising women opinion makers in the media.
As an active woman, in parallel to your busy schedule, how do you keep a balance between work and a personal life ?
Physical exercise is essential like: run, hike or ski but also connecting with nature whatever the weather. The open air and greenery helps me relax, I also appreciate to be surrounded with family and friends. So it’s a matter of finding balance.
For example my husband Bard who’s a dentist couldn’t work in Lebanon. So we had to organize ourselves in way he kept working in the Netherlands and visited very often. This set-up is also common practice with a lot of Lebanese who work abroad and have families in Lebanon.
Today, I’m very happy to go back to the Netherlands and live together again in the same house, cook together..
What message you would like to share with today’s Lebanese Youth ?
Keep working towards your dreams and be confident to take matters in your own hands despite the challenges. Being engaged citizens helps you shape your society better. There are brilliant minds here and I’m sad to see such talent leaving. I can understand the obstacles they face, however I have confidence Lebanon has a bright future in front of it as long as all it’s citizens work together to build that future.