Amma Asante (her given name refers to the Akan day name of Saturday) moved at the age of 6 from the town of Juaben, in the Ashanti Region in Ghana, to the borough of Amsterdam-Zuidoost. This life-changing event was prompted when her father, a then undocumented Ghanaian immigrant in the Netherlands, was granted a general pardon and family reunification was set in motion. 38 years on, she got sworn into the Dutch House of Representatives on behalf of the Dutch Labour Party. In this interview, the 45-year-old political scientist talks about the added value of development aid, education in sub-Saharan Africa and the rise of right-wing politics.
What was it like to move to the Netherlands back in 1978 following your family’s reunification?
“I clearly recall seeing and stepping into a plane for the first time ever. Some hours after, I was standing in my plastic shoes in a 15-cm thick snow layer at the main international airport of the Netherlands. On that moment, I realised that walking outside on my bare feet wouldn’t be obvious in the forthcoming years. A little later, my new home made of solid bricks with concrete walls stood in stark contrast with my grandmother’s mud-hut...
Logically, this rupture also comprised an emotional element – I had lost my cousins that were my closest playmates. During the first three months I was saddened and angry at my father and didn’t dare to leave our residential building.
At a given time, my parents literally lifted me, put me in the passage of the building and told me that they wouldn’t let me in unless I started socialising – they did this several times. Gradually, I started joining the neighbourhood children. At first, I couldn’t understand the language they spoke but I slowly started acquiring the basic skills and eventually made my first Dutch friend.
I personally believe that my parent’s approach in this matter made me the person I am today – I possess the Ghanaian peacemaking and unifying virtues, but when needed, I’m undoubtedly able to stand up and be counted”.
You were the spokesperson for higher education for the Labour Party. What occurrences in your own scholastic career have made a profound impression on you?
“In the final year of primary school in Amsterdam, I was strongly advised to move onto a secondary school for intermediate general secondary education. My teachers realised that I had much more in store, though they weren’t impressed by my hyperactive learning behaviour and given my cultural and socioeconomic background they encouraged me to follow this educational path – in their reasoning this would have meant that I would have finished at a faster pace and thus able to financially support my home front.
My parents decided to intervene when a friend and countryman -who has always played a decisive role in our lives- informed them that under Dutch law, primary schools are to revise their advice upwards based on the result of the Dutch primary school final year assessment. This occurrence put me in a split between my parents and my teachers – on the one hand I was faced with my teachers that insisted that I wouldn’t be able to cope, while on the other hand my parents indicated that I should pursue this and be my best version. For a period of time, this incident made me rather insecure”...
In an opinion piece some years back, you indicated that your decision to study political sciences was propelled by the belief that development aid was the redeeming word. A few years later, you came to the realisation that without a planned approach, development cooperation is a futile exercise. What is the rationale behind this?
“I specialise in international relations – my ultimate goal was to become the president of Ghana and put my skills into practice. During my studies, I was driven by the idea that the needs of the deprived could only be met if the socio-economic systems in which they operated were altered. As such, once in my final year I took an intensive Spanish language course and hereafter I relocated to Bolivia. By means of a UNICEF-project I carried out research focusing on homeless children in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city. The results of this study proved again and again that the social-economic conditions of a country shall firstly be reviewed, else all efforts in the field of developmental cooperation would ultimately be in vain.
Once back in the Netherlands, I redefined my paradigm and decided to temporarily put my international ambitions aside. Instead, I carried on in the field of youth work and started deepening my knowledge of the developmental aid dilemma – I delved myself into relevant treaties, agreements and conventions. Repeatedly, I kept running into the little influence that developing nations have in their own economic ruling. Paradoxically, several aiding treaties made by the West are based on economic self-protection.
Years later and having gained more experience, I’m convinced that in order to be of added value, development cooperation should reinforce free trade whilst also investing in a country’s economic infrastructure. Likewise, it should foster the utilisation of a nation’s inexhaustible knowledge that is available in its diaspora”.
A 2010 UNESCO Report showed that attendance in tertiary education had grown faster in sub-Saharan Africa than any other region. Is it at all realistic to look for similarities between the output of higher education in the Netherlands and Ghana?
“As a matter of fact, there is a striking likeness between these two countries. Both the Netherlands and Ghana are subject to a labour market in which a portion of highly-educated and talented youngsters is struggling to find a job. In the Netherlands, official and unofficial research has shown that some recruiters in certain branches are generally looking for clones of themselves. In that respect, the Labour Party is a strong supporter of not only job creation but also anonymous job applications. While we certainly acknowledge the downsides of this strategy, we’re convinced that this system might be the only way to encourage dialogue and collaboration between parties in the Netherlands who normally would not, or rarely, interact”.
In its World Report 2017, Human Rights Watch issued words of alert in terms of what this organisation called ‘the dangerous rise of populism worldwide’. To what extent does this reflect the current political arena in the Netherlands?
“I can testify that the absorption capacity in the Netherlands has changed in the last 4 decades – segregation plays an important role in this.
A while back, on the way to do groceries in the borough where I was raised, my daughter wind the car window down and asked me: ‘mom, are we in Ghana? Everyone around here is black’...
As a social-democrat, I’m a supporter of regulated immigration. In this context a dividing line has to be set between political and economic migrants – while developed nations should make an attempt to accommodate the first group within their bearing strengths, we shall promote free trade and invest in the economic infrastructure in the rest of the developing countries. Against that, political migrants must be made aware that a permanent residence goes hand in hand with properly learning the national language and adopting an open and participatory approach in the broadest sense of the word.
On balance, it’s a utopian dream to proclaim in the 21st century that a country’s national interests are independent of the interests of the rest of the world. We will not solve the many issues in our country and the rest world by entrenching ourselves behind nationalism. Instead, we need to move slowly but surely towards a global agenda – that is an equitable national and global distribution of knowledge, power and income”.
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