If you live in this country long enough, you are pretty much guaranteed to learn firsthand about Dutch philanthropic activity. Any given week of the year, young, slightly nervous do-gooders hit the streets to pull at your heartstrings, equipped with an iPad or a collection box.
By Traci White
In the Netherlands, 700,000 volunteers annually contribute their time to recruiting new donors for a wide variety of good causes. There are roughly 18,000 registered charitable organisations in the Netherlands, and as of 2016, the World Giving Index ranked the Netherlands as the 13th most charitable country in the world: 66 percent of Dutch people donate to charity and 33 percent report volunteering for an organisation.
Many regions across the country have their own straatkrant, a newspaper distributed by homeless men and women, typically outside grocery stores and on the corners of shopping streets. The northern Netherlands’ street newspaper is De Riepe. The principle behind it is to provide a source of income for homeless people, to inform readers about topics that are relevant to their local homeless population and to bridge the gap between the general public and the men and women who live on the streets or in shelters. The Dutch do not get credit for inventing the format, however: that goes to the Salvation Army in London.
While many religions hold tithing as a central tenant, modern Dutch willingness to give cannot be directly attribute to religiosity. Roughly half of Dutch people identified as “irreligious” in 2015, followed by about 25 percent identifying as Catholic, 15 percent as Protestant, 4 percent as some other form of Christianity and 5 percent identifying as Muslim. But at least one holiday tradition can be directly linked to religious origins: a beloved part of Sinterklaas Eve – setting out your shoes for them to be filled with treats and small presents – traces back to 1427 at the Sint-Nicolaaskerk in Utrecht. Impoverished citizens of the city received donated goods from the rich at the church. The collection took place on December 5, and the donations were distributed on December 6.
During the Dutch Golden Age, philanthropy in the Netherlands was so well established that foreigners would come to the Netherlands to admire its system of poor houses, orphanages, guest houses and other charitable organisations. The city of Groningen has 32 “hofjes” – almshouses – which were primarily affiliated with local houses of worship and were often financed by wealthy members of the congregation, whose wealth in turn at times came from the resources and commercial activities, including the slave trade, in the Dutch colonies. One example of such a property is the Saint Anthony Guest House, located across the street from the St. Jozefkerk in Groningen. It was founded in 1517 and served the poor, people with mental health issues and those suffering from the plague. Leeuwarden also has several such hofjes, including their own Saint Anthony Guest House.
Living in these humble but beautiful accommodations involved meeting certain strict conditions: being well born and of outstanding character, observing a 10 p.m. curfew, and mandatory attendance at the church affiliated with the housing were among the requirements. In 2017, Groningen alderman Roeland van der Schaaf proposed that the Groningen Monuments Fund become responsible for at least some of the centuries old courtyards rather than private housing corporations who may not feel obligated to preserve the historic structures when renting them out.
Religious tolerance has long informed a national willingness to provide safe haven for refugees, asylum seekers and political exiles. During World War I, the Netherlands was officially neutral, but they accepted Belgian and French refugees, as well as British prisoners of war. In Groningen, at the site of the modern day Van Mesdag clinic on the Herestraat, thousands of British soldiers were housed in wooden barracks. There were so many troops that the area became known as the English Camp. Dutch ambulances also provided aid outside the Dutch borders, as far away as Serbia and Hungary, during the war.
The fact that the Netherlands was a place where those fleeing for humanitarian reasons felt they would find safety in the 20th century is thanks in large part to the diary of a young Jewish girl. Anne Frank’s personal journal, released by her father following her death in a concentration camp, humanized the scope of the Holocaust and Germany’s military campaign in Europe. Her family was originally from Germany and moved to Amsterdam when Anne was four years old as the Nazis took control in their home country. The Franks, along with the Pels family and family friends, hid for more than two years in an attic annex of a building where Anne’s father had worked on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.
Even though antisemitism has been present in the west for centuries, the Dutch have provided some measure of safety and tolerance for Jewish people throughout their history. In the 1400s, Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula moved to Amsterdam when they were being compelled to either convert to Catholicism or leave their home countries, and Ashkenazi Jews fled to Amsterdam to escape violence in much of the rest of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s.
In 1933, 35,000 German refugees – Jews, communists, socialists and other vulnerable groups – had crossed the border into the Netherlands in the hopes of escaping the Nazis. However, many more were not allowed to enter the country: in that year, Dutch attorney general Josef van Schaik stated that asylum would be granted as an exception rather than as a rule. “While the position of the Jewish people in Germany is lamentable, it will take more than that to qualify for asylum”, van Schaik said. He and his contemporaries referred to the fleeing Germans as an “invasion” which could have an undesirable racial, economic and social effect.
In the 21st century, many refugees escaping the ongoing civil war in Syria have come to the Netherlands and other European countries in search of safety. There are more than 60 asylum seekers centers which are in operation across the Netherlands, including 14 in Groningen, Drenthe and Friesland. The exodus of men, women and children fleeing the civil war, along with economic and political refugees from other countries, has led to similar rhetoric about a flood of foreigners entering the Netherlands and changing the culture. Between 2013 and 2015, during the peak period of people seeking refuge in the Netherlands, several meetings about placing asylum seekers centers in rural and less affluent municipalities turned violent. But hundreds more Dutch people participated in demonstrations across the country to welcome the refugees with open arms.
Photo source: Wikipedia