Living through an economic power’s peak and collapse, and the rebuilding of a shattered nation from scratch, the Dutch Consulate General has witnessed the whole spectrum of prosperity and ruins.
Catching the bug
“I lived in Morocco between the age of 10-15, and that’s where I caught the virus of wanting to live internationally,” says Wilfred. Perhaps not the worst virus to catch in Africa nowadays.
Wilfred was infected for life and began a career in diplomacy after university, traveling through Norway, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and now Hong Kong. Among these stations, his time in Indonesia and Afghanistan stand out. These were times of remarkable change, and Wilfred was on site to witness it all.
What goes up must come down
Indonesia and the Netherlands have shared an interesting relationship, their fates intertwined ever since Indonesia’s colonization by, and subsequent independence from, the Dutch. The Netherlands still has one of its largest embassies in the Jakarta, on par with its embassies in Berlin, Beijing, and Washington. It is one of Indonesia’s important trade partners, with business going both ways. As Wilfred describes it, the relationship between the former coloniser and colony today is “very intense.” He says, “We’ve had our crises over the years, but we’re doing well now.”
Wilfred was in Indonesia in 1995-98 as Commercial Officer for the Netherlands Embassy, and those were some pretty “intense” years. During the beginning of his tenure, Indonesia was still a main economic power in Asia. Right up until late-summer 1997, Indonesia achieved increasing growth rates in GDP, with a trade surplus upwards of 900 million USD. “We had missions after missions of companies wanting to invest and export,” remembered Wilfred, “It was really booming time – yet in 97 things started cracking.
Much too familiar to those who were in Asia at the time, 1997 marked the abrupt end to Asia’s economic ascension when the Asian Financial Crisis hit, reaching rock bottom in 1998. Wilfred was there to witness this, “In the spring of 98, the currency dropped 60-70% in one weekend, everyone who had dollars went to the bank and got a huge amount of local currency. The prices did not adjust quickly enough, so in that window people would go and buy in madness.“ Economic turmoil was soon followed by political upheaval when Suharto resigned as president of Indonesia in May after three decades in office. “I had a whole spectrum, from economic boom, to economic success, to economic crisis, and to political crisis,” comments Wilfred, “A very interesting window of development.”
Phoenix from the ashes
In Indonesia, Wilfred saw an economic miracle rapidly collapse, but in Afghanistan, he saw a nation revive from the ashes. After a few years back in the Netherlands to allow his children to grow up there, Wilfred found himself abroad once again. As head of the South Asia Division of the Ministry between 2002-2006, Wilfred would travel intermittently to Afghanistan. “It was one of my most rewarding, and also, interesting posts.” Wilfred fondly recalls, “Because I got an opportunity to participate in the post-conflict reconstruction of a nation.”
After the Taliban was ousted and the Dutch and much of the western world arrived in 2001, Afghanistan faced the daunting task of rebuilding a nation. As Wilfred describes it, in one breath, “2% of the population had access to health, girls were not going to school, boys were only taught the Koran, the ministries were not there, there were 26 currencies in the country, no one levied income tax at the borders, and the country was divided between 10-15 warlords, each with their own system.” Daunting, indeed.
“We had missions after missions of companies wanting to invest and wanting free trade,” remembered Wilfred, “It was really a booming time – yet in ’97 things started cracking
The international community worked in close cooperation with the Afghan government to establish security, socio-economic development and rebuild its state institutions. “We were always very keen not to enforce things on the Afghans, but to do it with them,” Wilfred emphasised, “Because its their country, their future, their development.”
Because of the tense situation in Afghanistan, private sectors were very hesitant to move into the country under reconstruction, leaving its economic development stagnant. Wilfred helped in convincing companies to invest. Not only investors from western countries, but also Afghans who had money and companies abroad. “We were trying to get them to come back and help develop their country,” shared Wilfred.
In 2006, Wilfred left and joined the personnel department but was soon called back to Afghanistan in a temporary capacity. It was not easy for his family knowing he would be there for four straight months. He said, “For a family behind, its difficult to live into that situation if you’ve not been there. Because all you see on tv are bombs going off, fighting going on, Al Qaeda this, Al Qaeda that.” In fact, Wilfred was quite comfortable in the situation. He had been there before and knew what the physical security would be like, including armored cars, and contracted security on the Dutch compound. “I always felt very safe as they were quite professional,” commented Wilfred. “Sometimes in the evening we could go to a restaurant if it was all checked. We even did some picnics in the mountains.”
First row seats
Now stationed in Hong Kong, Wilfred is bound to witness another historic place in time as Hong Kong faces political reform. Wilfred has shared that interest in Hong Kong’s situation persists back home, and it is a no-brainer that Netherlands favour democracy. He does say, though, “How you set the election system up, is for any constituency or any country to decide themselves,” adding, “We think the people of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong government, and the Central Government should frame the best option for Hong Kong.”