Professor Jan Peter Balkenende: ‘Sustainability goals connect people.’

Former Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has been involved with Erasmus University since 2010, as a professor at ESE and ESL. The theme of sustainability is close to his heart. Here, he shares his thoughts on the subject.


Jan Peter Balkenende went to the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where he got a degree in history as well as law. After holding office as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 2002 until 2010 Balkenende was called upon to come teach at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In addition, he is co-founder of the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition (DSGC). ‘I would like to encourage the private sector in general to actively participate in cross-sector collaborations for more sustainable ways of doing business. To further the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in the coming decade, multinationals, knowledge institutes, non-governmental organizations and social entrepreneurs should team up in unconventional coalitions, to unleash transformational and scalable innovations that tackle our global challenges,’ is one of his statements at Making It Magazine.

Do you enjoy working at Erasmus University?
‘Yes I do enjoy it a lot, I’m very content with my university chair. I’m able to fulfill my duties in a flexible way, and I have the freedom to teach the subjects I think are important for students to learn, such as innovation, finance and ethics, or corporate responsibility. I give guest lectures at different faculties to students from various years, from Bachelor students to Master students. Also, I'm happy with the decision of the Erasmus School of Economics to start a big project on the Sustainable Development Goals.'

Why do you think sustainability is an important theme?
‘I’m very concerned about the theme sustainability and I try to incorporate it with my work as much as possible. Our concerns about climate issues are real and justified. For a university the future of the world should be one of their greatest concerns. At Erasmus University, the theme is central to many curriculums. From sustainability in policy and business studies, to the initiative Inclusive Prosperity. I’ve also noticed that students are asking more and more critical questions. They are concerned about the theme as well.’

Does climate change worry you?
‘Well, I see a lot of changes going on. Worldwide, increasing division is one of the problems that are worrying me. There are wars in the Middle East; nationalism and populism are growing. On the other hand, sustainability goals are connecting people. We can join forces to make things better. That’s the positive way of looking at it. We should cooperate; I feel the broad agenda of sustainability is the key to connections between universities, businesses and governments. And the key to connections between people. This is why it makes me tick.’

'I’ve also noticed that students are asking more and more critical questions, they are concerned about the theme as well.’

Professor Jan Peter Balkenende

How can you implement sustainability goals in businesses that put profit first?
‘Are you familiar with the theory of Doughnut Economics by Oxford academic Kate Raworth? She states that we should implement the ‘externalities’ – like natural resourcesas they are normally called, into economic studies and take them seriously. I think it’s not so much an obstruction, as merely a challenge for economists and lawyers to be creative with this theme and implement it into the sector in such a way that businesses will benefit, and nature as well.’

Can you explain the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition?
‘The DSGC is an initiative to unite eight Dutch multinationals - Philips, Unilever, Shell, AkzoNobel, DSM, KLM, Heineken and FrieslandCampina. These multinationals aim to drive sustainable-growth business models that combine economic profitability with environmental and social progress, in a way that contributes to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. One day their CEOs said, why not work together on these goals? They have to think about new models, about innovation, about more sustainable models than those used before. How, for example, might they introduce the concept of a circular economy into their business models? They’re speaking with our prime minister, with ambassadors, and with the UN. They’ll have to figure out their goals and purposes for the future. I believe in the importance of this initiative, because we cannot make it without these big companies. I’m proud that we have CEOs in the Netherlands like Paul Polman (Unilever) and Feike Sijbesma (DSM) who truly want to change.’

So you believe we can still turn the tide? 
‘Absolutely. Of course, we do not have a lot of time left. We’re facing big challenges worldwide in regards to the environment, and food and health issues. We have to take action. But the worst thing you can do is, in my opinion, say it doesn’t matter after all, because we cannot turn the tide. The Sustainable Development Goals are the successors of the Millenium Goals, and about 70 percent of those have been realised today. Another example: when I was a kid, there where signs everywhere that read ‘do not go into the water’. By now, the water quality in the Netherlands has improved so much that you can swim almost everywhere. These little things give me hope. Never say it doesn’t matter anymore – because then nothing will ever change.’

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