Interview with Bob Hiensch, the former Ambassador of The Netherlands to India

We, at Franzen/Partners, had the privilege to interview Bob Hiensch in September 2011. We first met him in February 2010 in the opening ceremony of one of our Change Management Programs for over 180 MBA students. We strongly felt that the students must grasp the trade relationship between the two countries that has existed for over 400 years and who better than the Netherlands former ambassador Bob Hiensch, to address the students on this topic.

As he addressed the students, he touched upon the bilateral relations between India and the Netherlands dating back several centuries’ right up to the first voyage by Cornelius Houtman across the Indian Ocean in 1595-96.  He also talked of the widely celebrated 400th anniversary of the inauguration of the Asian connection of the Netherlands with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company V.O.C. in the year 1602.

Now the former ambassador himself is an enriched personality who has many a ‘change’ experiences to share. We ourselves were curious to understand how Bob perceives ‘change’ in the context of relations with India given his professional perspective. So here, we present to you snippets from our interaction with Bob Hiensch.

Background

Hiensch 1Bob, now 63, graduated in political science in The Netherlands and specialized in international relations. He had a strong desire to travel the world representing his country and so he worked for the Dutch government in Congo, Hong Kong, Paris and twice -for a total of 10 years- in New York. Then in 2003 his work took him as former ambassador to Israel followed by his current position in Incredible India. He is also accredited to the neighboring countries of Nepal and Bhutan.

He describes his profession as an enriching one and his travels have left indelible impressions on him.  Israel to him ‘is an extremely intriguing country because of its religion and long history’.  India is completely different from what he has seen before and he finds it very interesting and fascinating. former Ambassador Hiensch feels that the perception of India in The Netherlands is not very clear.

‘It takes time, conviction and patience to let the Dutch understand the way India works and also see the beauty of this country’.

Understanding change

When we asked Bob to define ‘change’ the way he sees it, he said he would rather use the word ‘improve’. 

He enjoys change and currently there is much to improve.

There are huge budgets cuts that need to be levied across European countries. The Dutch Ministry of foreign affairs has to reduce costs by a total of € 74 million and of this € 59 million has to be cut by embassies and consulates. This essentially means the closing of some embassies as well as regionalization of certain administrative tasks. Therefore, the key lies in understanding what needs to change and that which can be improved and made more efficient. ‘We have re-organized the embassy in three pillars: economic department (trade, investments, agriculture and S&T), political and security affairs and consular/administrative affairs. ‘For this setup to be successful, you have to have collaborators who are not only committed to their core responsibilities, but are also able to cooperate with each other in a focused unity’. Bob’s team in India consists of 23 officials posted in India from The Netherlands. In the next two years, probably one of these positions will be filled by a locally hired professional.

India

Given Dutch standards, the embassy in India is large, because the Netherlands government gives high priority to India with a clear focus on economy relations (trade and investment), science and technology cooperation and in some other fields such as corporate social responsibility. The Netherlands attaches a great importance to Corporate Social Responsibility. ‘For example, we closely work together with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs as well as Global Reporting Initiative. GRI develops and encourages companies across the globe to incorporate sustainable reporting besides their financial reports’. “It’s impressive how CSR has a long standing tradition with many of the Indian corporate houses, such as TATA, Birla’s, Reliance ITC and many others. At the same time Dutch companies now based in India are very active on CSR and have a great track record, such as Unilever, AKZO Nobel, DSM and Philips’.
 
Hiensch2We asked Bob which ‘change’ made a deep impression on him during his career and he said it was the technological developments of communication which resulted in fax machines, mobile telephones, satellite TV, the internet and its social websites etc. In 1993-97, he worked as director of information and chief spokesperson that made him witness the fast changing technology from close by.
 
Another very important change is the increasing role of non-state entities in international relations such as NGO’s and terrorist networks on a global scale.
A former Indian in The Hague Ambassador Mrs. Neelam D. Sabharwal emphasized the long-lasting trade relationship between the two countries once again in 2008 in the preface of the book ‘Changing Images/ Lasting Visions. We quote: “Our relations today have recaptured the vibrancy of historic contacts as much through trade and technological cooperation as through shared political values. Over the past 60 years, the two countries have developed a tradition of mutual goodwill and cooperation that is based on respect for each other’s values and aspirations and, as two democracies, on the common beliefs in human rights, pluralism in civil societies, an independent media and judiciary and a shared commitment to a global peace and development”.

Trade

The trade between the two countries more than doubled in the period 2003-2008 and is slated to leap 15 to 20 folds in the coming 25 years. This makes Bob’s task in India both challenging and full of opportunities. However, it will require him to manage and foresee change while implementing and executing policies with patience.

We asked Bob what The Netherlands could learn from India. ‘Indians are very good in frugal engineering and design: to take a product or technology and make it simple and affordable for the bottom of the pyramid. TATA Nano (the embassy has an orange coloured Nano car) is one good example’. We can learn from India how to stay competitive, and on the other hand, India can learn from The Netherlands in terms of organization and logistics!’
‘So that is a high priority on my agenda: to increase the (social) profit of the existing trade marriage between both countries in a sustainable manner.’

Favorite food: French food is by far the best.
Favorite music: Classical music and especially Beethoven’s violin concert.

Hiensch3

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