This year’s European Social Services Conference (ESSC) entitled ‘The future is local’ takes place in The Hague from 20-22 June. The ESSC, ESN’s annual flagship event, will play host to speaker Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb who will share how Rotterdam’s citizen engagement promotes social inclusion and poverty reduction. ESN interviewed him about how he fosters a ‘we-community’.

Aboutaleb, now in his 2nd term as Mayor of Rotterdam – a city of 174 nationalities, has embarked on an ambitious National Programme to tackle poverty south of Rotterdam’s river Maas.

South Rotterdam Programme

Southern Rotterdam, with a predominantly migrant population, has long struggled with the loss of harbour and shipbuilding jobs leading to long-term unemployment and a high risk of poverty. The project, ‘National Programme Rotterdam South’, targets talent development amongst younger people, tailoring their education to local employers and combining this with a long-term strategy of urban regeneration and social inclusion to confront an issue that has left 16% of the population welfare-dependent.

Keys to integration

As a major logistic and economic centre, Rotterdam, commonly dubbed ‘The Gateway to Europe’, is well versed in the need for social inclusion and cultural integration when combatting poverty.

Aboutaleb, mayor since 2009, is no stranger to the need for integration. As a Dutchman of Moroccan origin he sees the potential for engaging all members of society more than most. ‘Integration will only succeed if people are themselves responsible for making it happen’, he says. His 2016 outlook for integration entails three strands: respect for fundamental values of the democratic rule of law, active participation by citizens and the subsequent co-creation with local partners. At civic integration ceremonies he announces ‘this is your own, free choice…if you disagree, you are free to leave’. This open stance provides every citizen knowledge of what integration means and requires.

We-community

In accordance with core values of freedom of expression and religion, gender equality and a rejection of discrimination, co-creation of local initiatives can be designed with a ‘we-community’ in mind.

The Mayor compares the process of collaboration between citizens and representatives to two roads merging – each requires space. With this space, though, comes responsibility. Aboutaleb wants new arrivals to do their utmost to integrate into society, by finding a job, enrolling in education and learning the language. He, in turn, offers a ‘government listening to the feelings of local residents, sounding out discontent and employing the right measures when a neighbourhood needs a break’.

Importance of trust

Under Aboutaleb’s stewardship the aim is not to take the initiative away from others but to mould and support it. He sees working locally as imperative if trust is to be inspired. ‘Trust is crucial for our development in every sense of the word…not [just] for building cohesive societies but …also as a determinant of economic development’, he says.

With this trust, the City of Rotterdam is aiming to build strong social networks in every neighbourhood. ‘A society built on trust is a strong and wealthy society’, he adds.

Trust has been fomented by a social return policy which require all projects funded over €15,000 to allocate between 5% and 50% of their budget to disadvantaged groups.

Aboutaleb himself participates in the spirit of co-creation, ‘through our “neighbourhood rules” initiative…every four weeks, the chief constable and I visit a neighbourhood and talk with the residents about issues of security in the area. Together, we determine the main issues, which then become leading priorities for the police and the city’.

Returning to the roadway analogy, Aboutaleb reiterates that ‘building cohesive societies is a two-way street’ and his and the city’s initiatives to promote a ‘we-feeling’ demonstrate that they are more than willing to meet their citizens halfway.

The ESSC will be an opportunity to hear more about Mayor Aboutaleb’s distinct approach to integration and will act as something of a progress report for Rotterdam’s burgeoning ‘we-society’.

For the full interview please go to the European Social Services Conference website

This article was written by Christian Fitzhugh