AOb Netherlands: Building sustainable partnerships

published 2 December 2021 updated 16 December 2021

The Dutch education union AOb engages in development cooperation to support and strengthen other unions, which in turn enables a better defense of the rights of members and increased access to quality education.

1. When and how did your organisation decide to get involved in international cooperation?

It was not a single decision to get involved. Small activities, that simply started from meeting with colleagues from other countries, and from a growing engagement in Education International (EI) predecessor, in EI, EI Europe – the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), have step by step led to a greater engagement on the international level, including in development cooperation. What helped in that period, was the positive and encouraging attitude of our government towards development cooperation and especially of education in DC. There were large funds available for projects.

Our first policy paper on international work dates from October 1997.

Is there a mechanism in your union to allocate some of the union's funds to international cooperation?

Yes, the discussion to have a solidarity fund based on the agreed norm of 0,7% started not long after 1997. It led to an internal decision, and later to a formal agreement with our confederation, where the funds of the affiliates are managed. It was signed in 2005 and came into force on 1st January 2006. It is under discussion from time to time, but still in place. We do not, however, transfer the whole of the 0,7 per cent of our membership fees to this formal solidarity fund as the criteria say that it can only be used for projects. Contributing for urgent actions through EI after a disaster or a violent act against a union, or participating in the Global Campaign for Education, or shorter and smaller activities with unions wouldn’t meet such criteria. Therefore, we keep a small fund in our own hands for quick actions or activities that do not meet criteria for projects.

2. What are your union's priorities in international cooperation work?

The main priority is that our actions have to contribute to trade union strengthening (or in specific cases, survival), which in turn should contribute to a better defense of the rights of members and to an improved quality of education.

The way a union wants to strengthen itself, is (as far as possible, sometimes there are external funds with criteria that could limit possibilities) up to them. We try to aim for sustainable solutions, for unions to be able to better stand up for themselves in the end.

We do not have a list of priority countries (and certainly do not follow every change in target countries that our Ministry of FE comes up with) but we always keep room for countries with which the Netherlands have a historical relationship, either because they were once part of the Dutch Kingdom or because we have many teachers with roots in these countries.

3. What do international cooperation projects bring to your union?

How do you reinvest international cooperation work in your union?

Is your union's international cooperation work something that your union members care about?

For those involved, it brings fresh ways of working, new approaches and ways of looking at things. And great friendships too. The international cooperation work leads, even with little steps, to strengthening the trade union movement as a whole, which is also important for us.

From time to time, through our confederation, we do surveys among a selected group of members (not selected by us but by the system they use), and ask what their opinion is about our DC work and, in general, of international cooperation. The result is always positive, also when it comes to investing in the solidarity fund. Only when asking if they want to get active themselves, it remains a bit silent. That is understandable given the workload that most of us have. But members do want to take up subjects related to DC in their classroom work, and our education packages find their way into many schools.

Our union communication policies, unfortunately, do not provide for large dissemination of information or stories of what we do and what it brings to us.

4. Do you have any concrete examples of success stories from a cooperation project?

An example is a project by TUS Serbia that we supported to prepare more women for leadership roles. In the preparation phase we found out that there was – contrary to what we (including TUS itself!) expected- no lack of women in local and regional boards, but they were never the real decision makers. We used that in the design of the project and included many local (female) experts to train the participants. It led to a strong network, to more female candidates for decision making positions and, not much later, to the election of the first female president of the union.

And I can refer to this report for successes for unions engaging in child labour projects: to provide their members with means of keeping children in school and out of work, the unions had supported them in improving the quality of education. Unions provided training, bargained with (local) authorities on better provisions, organized support from communities and more. It brought them in the end a lot of new lobbying and organising skills, a better image, a new role in social dialogue and many new members.

5. What is the most difficult thing about international cooperation work?

It is sometimes a real challenge for partners to meet all required conditions for projects as project criteria often start from typically western points of view and ways of working (such as asking for a very concrete and sometimes long-term planning that does not work in countries where the political, social, economic context is unstable, loads of administration, high-level reporting requirements, etc.). And it is also a challenge that people (sometimes your own colleagues, but certainly donors) expect immediate results. That is maybe possible when you build a road, however in education, real project results take some time before you see them. And they are not always straightforward.

6. What advice would you give to a trade union wanting to get involved in international cooperation?

Start small and get to know your partner very well before taking bigger steps. Build trust first – it will really benefit later work.