‘The Vietnamese and the Dutch are very much alike in many ways’

The economy, development and sustainability have been the watchwords of Elsbeth Akkerman’s international career. The job of ambassador to Vietnam, a country with a fast-growing economy and all the challenges this brings, was cut out for her. In which specific areas do Vietnam and the Netherlands share common ground?

Elsbeth Akkerman
©Kick Smeets

What has surprised you about Vietnam?
‘A positive surprise for me was people’s enterprise and their capacity to adjust. For many years Vietnam was under colonial rule, and was then torn by years of conflict. But it has since made incredible progress. The economy is growing fast, and everyone does their part. The Vietnamese people are outgoing. They are doers, but think first before they act. In that respect, the Vietnamese and the Dutch are much alike.’

In what other ways are the two delta countries alike?
‘Both countries are being confronted by the consequences of climate change, like extreme weather events and rising sea-levels. They both need to take a sensible approach to water management, while working towards sustainable agriculture. We share both knowledge and experience on these issues – not just between government authorities, but also between companies and knowledge institutions. Vietnam lies at the heart of Southeast Asia. If Rotterdam is the gateway to Europe, Vietnam is the gateway to the ASEAN region. In our recent online trade mission to five countries in this region, Vietnam attracted a great deal of interest. The Netherlands and Vietnam occupy a similar position in the international trade network, a position which they are boosting with numerous exchanges of expertise and experience.’

What’s to be gained from working with Dutch people?
‘Dutch people doing business in Vietnam aren’t only interested in earning money, but are also concerned with conditions of employment and environmental impact. Every year, when the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) presents its Sustainability Awards, Dutch entrepreneurs are among those in the spotlight. We’re proud of that. The embassy only supports entrepreneurs who take their social responsibility seriously. Sustainable business should be the new business as usual, certainly if the international community is to achieve the ambitions set out in the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.’

What challenges are Vietnam and the Netherlands working on together?
‘Too much water, too little water, contaminated water: Vietnam faces many challenges relating to water and sustainable agriculture – one of its major economic sectors. Good examples of cooperation are the plan devised by Dutch companies and universities for water management in the Mekong Delta and the agriculture transformation programme agreed by the Dutch and Vietnamese prime ministers in 2019. Rice is now cultivated in much of the Mekong Delta – its most profitable product, but also the least sustainable. We’re now working together to answer questions about plans, crops, technologies and economies of scale. People in Vietnam use a lot of plastic, and it’s the main polluter of both soil and water. Ocean Clean Up recently sent experts to Vietnam to install an Interceptor in the River Mekong to remove waste from the river so that it can be recycled. This is a good example of sustainable, circular work.’  

The Dutch are well-known for their expertise in water management and agriculture. What are the less well-known fields in which the Netherlands plays a leading role?
‘The Netherlands is a densely-populated country. The Dutch have found smart solutions to improve quality of life in their cities – in relation to mobility and air quality, for example. The Netherlands is also a meaningful partner on subjects like equal treatment and fundamental freedoms. Economic growth and human rights are two sides of the same coin. Sustainable development is not possible until you give people the opportunity to exchange views in all openness.’

What can the embassy do?
‘We connect Vietnamese companies with interesting Dutch partners, and vice versa. Entrepreneurs can come to us for information, support or network partners. We also work closely with the Dutch Business Association in Vietnam and the Vietnamese embassy in The Hague. We have several Vietnamese members of staff at the embassy who have studied in the Netherlands and know our country well. Many Vietnamese people studied at Dutch universities, and many partnerships have been set up with educational institutions, for example Wageningen University and Research, Delft University of Technology, and Saxion and HAS Universities of Applied Sciences. The Dutch are incredibly good at the multi-stakeholder approach, with government authorities, the business community, knowledge institutions and civil society working together on solutions. It isn’t easy, but it generates support. That’s why it’s called the Dutch Diamond approach.’

What are you doing for women, for example?
‘Women are the driving force in Vietnamese society and Vietnam’s economy. They are real multi-taskers. Work, family, household – many tasks fall on women’s shoulders, and they are seriously undervalued, in terms of wages, rights and conditions of employment. The Netherlands is committed to equal rights for and equal treatment of women. For this reason, we support initiatives in the field of female entrepreneurship, and were very pleased that Queen Máxima, in her capacity as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate, addressed the Women’s Leadership Summit during the 37e ASEAN summit.’

Finally: what are you proud of?  
‘For the third year in succession, we’ve succeeded in bringing the World Press Photo exhibition to Hanoi. That’s more difficult than it sounds, even in normal circumstances, but the coronavirus pandemic made it more complicated. The exhibition shows the strength of the media, and how you can broach sensitive issues through art.’

Curriculum Vitae

Employment

2018 – present
Ambassador to Vietnam

2014 – 2018
Deputy permanent representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) / Head of the economic affairs section at the permanent representation in Geneva

2014
Deputy director of the International Trade Policy and Economic Governance Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Transferred from the Ministry of Economic Affairs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2014

2005 – 2014
Member of the management team at the International Affairs Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (later the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation)

2001 – 2005
Unit manager for international public cooperation at Senter/Agency for International Business and Cooperation

1997 – 2001
Project adviser, Eastern European Cooperation Programme/Pre-accession Programme

Joined the Ministry of Economic Affairs in 1997

Education

1997   
Degree in public administration, University of Twente

1992   
Secondary school leaving certificate