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The Dutch Polder Model

Without cooperative water management, the Netherlands would be a paradise for birds, not humans, a largely uninhabitable marshy river delta. However, by cooperating, the Dutch have managed to keep their feet dry for fifteen hundred years.

How a polder works

How a polder works

By digging drainage ditches, starting around 500 A.D., the people were able to create dry land for farms, pastures, and buildings. Around five hundred years ago, when they added windmills to help with the drainage, they created the landscape we see today.

They built a system of drainage ditches (sloten) that all connected to each other, gradually getting larger until the water flowed into a river and then to the North Sea. A polder is the resulting dry land, usually rectangular.

The people learned not only to cooperate with their neighbor, but to coordinate water control in much larger areas — the natural watersheds. This system grew from people’s cooperation, not a policy imposed by a conquering general or feudal lord. The people learned to discuss and cooperate for the good of society.

Dutch polders

Dutch polders

Today, the Dutch polder model is a tradition of cooperation between the “social partners”:

  • employers’ organizations
  • labour unions
  • the government

Social Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, SER). the central forum to discuss labour issues and has a long tradition of consensus, often defusing labour conflicts and avoiding strikes. Its three main goals for Dutch social-economic policy:

  • balanced and sustainable economic growth;
  • full employment;
  • fair income distribution

It is not based on zero-sum power games as in the U.S. system. The Dutch system is based on data from three agencies:

  • Mark Rutte

    Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands since 2010

    Central Planning Bureau

  • Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
  • Social and Cultural Planing Bureau

Reasoning from the data and analysis from these three policy research institutes, not fighting for power based on emotions and prejudices, the Dutch compromise and cooperate. Looking at the economic and demographic data, you can see that their system of compromise, cooperation, and consensus works, and works well.