From 8 in the morning until 12 at night, she is hard at work for the Netherlands. Our Ambassador to Morocco Désirée Bonis studied History and Spanish at the VU Amsterdam. “The Netherlands is one of the most beautiful and best-governed countries in the world. We have a lot to offer, and we have to reach out to other countries to move forward together.”
By Elke van Riel
Diplomat Désirée Bonis (58) has been the Dutch Ambassador to Morocco for almost a year now. It is a unique post, she emphasises, not in the least due to the many Dutch citizens with Moroccan roots. They follow everything that happens in Morocco, such as the recent unrest in the Rif, with great interest. As a neighbour of the EU, Morocco is also closely involved in the Union’s anti-terrorism and migration management efforts. On 9 November, Bonis will give a master class at the VU for students of The Boardroom, a programme for talented Master’s students.
What is your average work day like? “My work is partly politics: I talk to the main players here and report on the discussions to the government in the Netherlands. I also bring people from The Hague, universities, companies, NGOs, municipalities and cultural institutions together with their counterparts here in Morocco. Many organisations in the Netherlands have some connection to Morocco, and we act as their facilitators. Recently, we had former Minister Stef Blok of Security and Justice here for a visit. I’m responsible for preparing the visit to make sure everything runs smoothly. That includes accompanying him to meetings with experts on preventing radicalisation and violent extremism. For the past two years, Morocco and the Netherlands have co-chaired the Global Counter Terrorism Forum, and their shared term has just been extended by another two years.
‘I think it’s important to get in contact with ordinary people, preferably deep into the follicles of society’
I also join Dutch companies on visits to the Director of the Moroccan Tax Authority to talk about fiscal problems they encounter. Sometimes I attend the openings of new companies, like Zoom Media in Casablanca, which was founded by young Dutch IT people from Moroccan backgrounds who studied in Delft and came here to conquer the market. I really enjoy that!”
Why did you choose to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? “As a kid, I was always interested in other countries, and even during my studies I knew that I wanted to go abroad. After a year of studying in Salamanca, Spain in the early 1980s, I considered Foreign Affairs, mainly because I liked the idea of public service. I think that the Netherlands is a fantastic country, and I believe we have a lot to offer other countries and that we have to reach out to them to move forward on important issues such as climate change, fighting poverty and building peace.”
What do you enjoy most about your work? “That I can become acquainted with other cultures. That makes me feel truly privileged. ‘I think it’s important not to just have contact with ministers and CEOs, but also with ordinary people, like young artists and self-employed business people, and preferably deep into the follicles of society. I recently visited a support post for returning immigrants in the Rif run by volunteers, and a home for abused women. Leaving the capital to meet people and listen to their stories; that’s what I find most interesting.”
Why are you the right woman at the right place? “Mainly because of my openness, eagerness to learn, my drive and my commitment. I enjoy sinking my teeth into new issues. I also enjoy the challenge of finding my way in a new environment. And I’m fit and healthy. That’s absolutely vital, because I’m hard at work on the Netherlands’ behalf from 8 in the morning until 12 at night. I love what I do, because we live in one of the most beautiful and best-governed countries in the world. The EU is a paradise of justice and freedom. Every statistic in the world puts the Netherlands among the top-10, whether it’s about competitive advantage, how happy the children are, freedom of the press, or public health. I put my heart and soul into expressing our society’s achievements.”
Are there also downsides to your job? “It’s only a few hours’ flight home from Morocco, but I’ve also been posted to places further away. Then you’re in a different time zone, and you miss your family and friends. When we were posted to Delhi, my father became seriously ill, and eventually passed away. That was very difficult for me, because I wanted to be with him as much as possible, but my family and my work was in Delhi. I was stuck with a foot in one world, and the other foot in another.”
“When my daughters were younger, we had to move house a lot, and they had to make new friends all over again. My partner also had to constantly readjust to things. Of course, you have lots of good experiences, but raising a family at a post is quite demanding.”
Were your studies in History and Spanish at the VU a good preparation for working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? “Absolutely. The combination of a study in the humanities or social sciences and a language, like Law and Arabic or Economics and Chinese, is fairly common at the Ministry. My background in History has been very useful in order to understand all of the worrisome developments in Europe, like Brexit, what’s going on in Catalonia right now, or how we can better deal with refugees. It helps to clarify the underlying causes. On the other hand, a language offers a key to getting to know a country from the inside. I’ve managed to learn a bit of Arabic since I’ve been here. People really appreciate it when you do your best to learn their language, and it opens a lot of doors.”
Was there one deciding moment in your career? “In 1995, I was part of the Dutch delegation to the UN Women’s Rights conference in Beijing, China. The Netherlands took the leading role in promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights. In the end, all of the governments in attendance signed the final document. It obliges the signatory countries to fight discrimination of LGBTQ individuals, to guarantee the right to marry the person of your choice, and the right to access to family planning. Governments are required to make an effort in these areas, which means a lot to NGOs and human rights activists in many countries. I was honoured to be able to fight for that.”
Do you ever look back on your student years? “In the early ‘80s, the VU had a lot of refugee students from South America and Southern Africa. Many of them later went back to their home countries. In Namibia, I came across several VU alumni who had become doctors, lawyers or ministers, and who played a positive role in the development of their country. They were grateful for the hospitality and opportunities that the Netherlands had offered them. I will always associate the VU with the vision that young talent, even those from less privileged circles, should be given a chance.
CV Désirée Bonis
1959: born in Velsen | 1978-1985: studied History and Spanish, VU Amsterdam | 1998-2004: MBA Open University Business School UK | 1986: employed by Min. For. Aff. | 1996- 2000: temporary Chargé d’ Affaires in Windhoek, Namibia | 2000-2004: head of Human Rights and Peace Building Directorate | 2004- 2006: Assistant Chef de Poste and head of the Economic Department in New Delhi, India | 2006- 2009: Dutch Ambassador in Damascus, Syria | 2009- 2012: Director of Sub-Saharan Africa Directorate | 2012-2013: Member of the Dutch House of Representatives (foreign affairs spokesperson) for the Labour Party | 2013- 2016 National Coordinator of International Functions | August 2016: Dutch Ambassador in Rabat, Morocco.