The residents of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba can enlist the services of the National Ombudsman if they have complaints about the government on the islands. Coordinator Gaby von Maltzahn: "We can exert some pressure, which helps."
The National Ombudsman has been helping citizens of the Dutch Caribbean with complaints about central government since 2010. Since 2012, it has also been possible to complain about local governance: the public bodies. Gaby and her colleagues are based in The Hague and regularly visit the islands.
"Investigating complaints and signals about the actions of the government in the Dutch Caribbean from Europe alone simply won’t work. You have to go there to really find out what’s going on", believes Gaby. "You need to be there in person, walk the streets, hear what citizens have to say, organise consultations and talk to local government. You have to be inquisitive.
Arranging an appointment to visit in advance doesn’t always work. But once we’re on their doorstep, the people we want to talk to are really helpful. Personal contact is important in order to find out what really matters to people. It allows us to find out what’s going on in the background, which the ministries in The Hague can’t do. Of course, that’s also because of our position. We hear the stories that they’re not aware of.”
Over the last few years, Gaby's team has learnt a lot about the approach that works best for the citizens and government authorities of the Dutch Caribbean. "We have a good understanding of the culture and mentality, which are different from here in the European Netherlands. We work without prejudice. That may sound logical. However, in practice we see that some ministries still have too much of a tendency to apply Western ideas to their thinking about the islands and base their conclusions on that."
Thanks to regular visits, the National Ombudsman has generated a lot of goodwill on the islands. Gaby: "The residents there see the same faces all the time, which helps to develop trust. They can also see the difference we make in solving problems. They realise that they don’t simply have to accept things and that their complaints won’t be ignored.
What’s more, we don’t only investigate complaints, but also focus on structural issues that we identify or hear about. These include the issue of poverty on the islands. This really matters and the fact that we continue to focus on it is very much appreciated."
Food bank and elderly care
Gaby and the team make every effort to hear as many stories as possible from people on the ground. "From the people themselves, but also via organisations like the food bank and elderly care", explains the coordinator. "We actively engage with the church, which plays an important role there. The pastor, priest and volunteers know the people. They also know us now. They trust us.
It was they who told us about the refugee issue on the island, for example. Officially, there is no problem. But if you go onto the streets, you’ll see Venezuelans who’ve left their country to seek sanctuary in the Dutch Caribbean."
"We work hard to be a familiar face for the people in the Dutch Caribbean", continues Gaby. "So, as well as communicating in three languages (Dutch, English, Papiamento), we’ve also introduced Papiamento speakers into the team. That means that we’re accessible to people whose main or sole language is Papiamento. It's a group that’s finding it increasingly easy to reach out to us."
The National Ombudsman for the Dutch Caribbean was also established in order to ensure government bodies do their job effectively.
"We aim to make a contribution to proper governance on the islands", says Gaby. "It’s vital that government bodies make it clear that their role is to serve the citizens. The islanders need to be able to trust in good governance and have confidence that it’s working for them. We’re a kind of watchdog. When we ask the government something, we always get an answer. On the other hand, a citizen will often receive no response and simply be told, just like three years ago, that he’s number seven on the waiting list. We can exert some pressure, which helps. However, we still need to ensure that we keep pushing in order to get things moving.”
Gaby: "We conduct investigations and make interventions, providing direct help to people by telephoning official bodies when there’s a problem. Alternatively, we go straight to their offices after a consultation session. The islands have a spoken culture, which is why interventions are effective.
But an investigation report can also work very well. It generates media coverage, ensuring that the authorities feel the need to act. Our reports also tend to catch the eye in the political world of The Hague."
The National Ombudsman presents the reports to the relevant government authorities on the islands. "A major area for improvement will be to achieve better cooperation between government authorities and better coordination. That emerged following our investigation about poverty among single parents. One of our recommendations was to improve the organisation of public transport. The Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations told us they’d laid on buses, but it then turned out that the people on the ground knew nothing about them. But we continue to monitor our recommendations and never give up.”
She feels that there is still progress to be made. "Another example: plans were developed in The Hague to improve the roads on one of the islands. But when the proposals were ready it turned out that they were completely unworkable. The ground just wasn’t suitable. I think it’s shocking that everything takes so long. Couldn’t you have realised that earlier? We need a different approach to thinking about the Dutch Caribbean. Better cooperation and coordination are essential.”
Who is Gaby von Maltzahn?
Before joining the National Ombudsman in 2011, Gaby von Maltzahn previously worked as a lawyer for the Council of State and the courts. Two years after her appointment, Gaby's role as an investigator for the Dutch Caribbean was added to the portfolio. At the time, the work of the National Ombudsman in the Dutch Caribbean was still in its early days. She is now the coordinator for the core team of seven people, focusing on: being visible to citizens in the Dutch Caribbean, providing them with assistance and contributing to good governance on the islands. She travels to the Caribbean two to three times every year.