In 1945, after five years of war and occupation, the Netherlands lay in ruins. Bridges and port facilities had been destroyed, industrial plants dismantled and agricultural land deliberately flooded. There were acute shortages of food, coal, raw materials, clothing and housing. In addition to all the material damage and shortages, the Second World War had cost the lives of more than two hundred thousand Dutch citizens. Worldwide, between 70 and 85 million people died.[1]  

A speedy revitalisation was going to prove a huge challenge. From a historical perspective, there had rarely been so much consensus about the need for state intervention in economic and social life. It was the national government that presided over the recovery, with the ministry of public works and reconstruction in charge.[2]  
Thanks to the sudden increase in reconstruction work, pre-war engineering firms, such as Ingenieurs- en architectenbureau voorheen J. van Hasselt en De Koning[3] and DHV, thrived. Countless new firms also appeared as if from nowhere.[4] A post-war renaissance had begun. 

Plan for cooperation

With the same drive for revitalisation and recovery, in 1945, four gentlemen[5]  devised a plan to form a partnership of engineering firms. This way they could win assignments overseas, especially in the field of Dutch hydraulic engineering expertise. It was not by chance that the timing of their idea coincided with the start of the decolonisation of Indonesia.[6] The country had provided employment for hundreds of engineers for centuries. But increasingly, Dutch engineers were becoming less welcome in Indonesia and were returning home to the Netherlands unemployed. It was therefore essential to find new markets for all (civil and agricultural) engineers who had ‘experience abroad’ and to prevent possible economic loss as a result of these experts emigrating.

Beeldstatistiek met de 17 Europese landen die Marshallhulp ontvingen
Pictorial statistics showing the 17 European countries who received assistance via the Marshall Plan. Showing the effects on agriculture, industry and foreign trade in the period from 1948 to 1950. (Source: Marshall Foundation)

In Western Europe, despite their remarkable recovery effort to date, the Marshall Plan countries are still far from reaching their maximum potential of productivity

A major influence on the ongoing development of this partnership strategy was the US Marshall Plan, offering aid to war-ravaged Western European countries, in particular its Technical Assistance Program. This technical assistance was aimed at driving up the economic productivity of these countries. In fact, assistance was a form of knowledge exchange. The offer of study trips to America and visits by American experts to Europe helped spread US know-how with respect to productivity. Furthermore - and more importantly - there was a conscious effort to instil pro-American sentiment in Western Europe.[7]  

The study trips to the richest land on earth at the time provided participants with the inspiration to apply the American example in everyday practice in the Netherlands. Amongst them was Jan Pieter Heederik, partner in the engineering firm of DHV. For him, group travel to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other places meant familiarising himself with new more productive, i.e. American methods of construction.[8] 

In the Netherlands, economic recovery had to be achieved through increasing industrial output and increasing exports. The four engineers from The Hague and Rotterdam, who had been drawing up plans to win foreign orders through cooperation, had the same idea. Their reasoning was that before large-scale export of products could begin, experts - that is, engineers - would probably first have to travel abroad and so provide technical assistance in other countries, which in itself would lead to increasing demand for Dutch products.[9] This way of reasoning helped transform their idea of cooperation into an actual organisation. 

“In Western Europe, despite their remarkable recovery effort to date, the Marshall Plan countries are still far from reaching their maximum potential of productivity.” An American folder explaining the purpose and necessity of technical assistance. Publication of the Economic Cooperation Administration, 1951.

Nedeco initiated 

In 1951, a foundation Nedeco - Netherlands Engineering Consultants - Nederlands Adviesbureau voor Ingenieurswerken in het buitenland - was established with the full backing of the government. The organisation acted as a broker for engineering assignments and had its own small team of technical staff – as well as numerous engineers on its board and advisory council. 

It was set up so that “research, survey and design work […] would, in general, be carried out by existing Netherlands-based engineering firms and, in part, by individual experts working in the public or private sector, so that a significant advantage could be taken of the ‘technical know-how’ of the Netherlands as a whole.”[10] The aim was to focus on complex, large-scale projects, ranging from the construction, improvement and regularisation of ports, rivers, estuaries and canals to land reclamation, dyke construction, drainage, irrigation, road-building, sewage, urban planning and surveying.[11] 

No fewer than 28 different organisations joined forces in Nedeco. Among them were the engineering firms of Dwars, Heederik & Verhey, Ingenieurs- en architectenbureau voorheen J. van Hasselt en De Koning, Tebodin, Witteveen + Bos and Fugro. Additionally, various industrial concerns, contractors and some banks participated.[12]  According to the participants, this umbrella organisation would help spread the risk of carrying out projects abroad. Another advantage was the effect of the support from the Dutch state: civil servants (including those from Rijkswaterstaat) were allowed to cooperate in consultancy work and several ministries were represented on the advisory committee (Commissie van Advies).[13] The idea was for the Netherlands “to act as one large engineering consultancy”.[14] 

The board of the new organisation was chaired by the austere E.W.H. Clason (1903-1970) and the brilliant B.D.H. Tellegen (1897-1963). They both had extensive experience in engineering work abroad.[15] The executive board also included Reep VerLoren van Themaat (1882-1982), an associate of Ingenieurs- en architectenbureau voorheen J. van Hasselt en De Koning.[16]
  Left: Reep VerLoren van Themaat (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)
Right: B.D.H. Tellegen (in the middle), presenting Bandar Abbas plans to the Shah of Persia (Iran), 1959. (source: Nedeco archives)

Major news: Syria assignment

News of the first major foreign assignment acquired by Nedeco received widespread attention. Dutch experts had been asked to produce a report for the drainage, irrigation and cultivation of 60,000 hectares of marshland in the Al Ghab valley of Syria.[17] The deal which secured 12 months’ work for a dozen specialists had taken five months of negotiations. In the process - and that was a major triumph - Nedeco had managed to beat off 53 international tenderers and six competitors in the first and second rounds respectively. The negotiators were J.P. Heederik from Dwars, Heederik & Verhey and F.H. Waringa from the Nederlandse Heidemaatschappij. They had flown to Syria in 1951 and, with the aid of the Dutch trade representative in that country, had established the contractual basis for the initial report and the multi-million dollar project. This work would be carried out in the following years under the authority of the Syrian government headed by President Fawzi Selu. 

To help Dutch newspaper readers understand the hydraulic and agricultural engineering work in this faraway country, journalists compared the work to that of reclaiming the Noordoostpolder and Wieringermeer in the Netherlands. The Syrian project not only offered excellent prospects for further orders, but also provided the perfect showcase for the technical expertise regarded as quintessentially Dutch at the time.

Left: Nedeco delegation just prior to departing for Syria in a KLM’s Flying Dutchman, 1953. (source: Nedeco archives)
Right: Irrigation channel in Al Ghab valley, undated. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

Formula for success

The formula proved a hit in a world where many ‘emergent countries’[18] were at the start of their economic development. These nations no longer had to make a choice between different firms: the name of ‘Nedeco’ was sufficient. Furthermore, the central organisation saved individual firms a lot of paperwork - in those days, the free movement of people and foreign currency still required bilateral government support. The engineering firms won a string of orders via Nedeco and recruited new people for all this work, in the first instance engineers with experience of working in Indonesia.[19]  

In the air and on the ground

Most design work and reports were drawn up in the Netherlands. Only the work planning was carried out locally, such as survey work and necessary data collection. Very similar, in fact, to the approach adopted by De Koning in Egypt in 1889! The advent of air travel sped up the work of travelling engineers enormously and, using productivity terminology of the age, made it more efficient. 

Likewise, the groundwork for much of the research often took place from the air: areas singled out for development were mapped using aerial images taken from Dakotas made available by KLM. Journals written in the 1950s reported extensively on the countless steps that were necessary before a contract could be signed, to open local bank accounts and to collect forwarded baggage. But it was the pursuit of reliable survey data and the at times tiresome cooperation with different foreign clients and experts that proved a major challenge.

“It’s strange how in the first instance they always come with criticism from all sides, but after some talking, they start to agree, as it were, and then appear to be extremely cooperative,” R. Tutein Nolthenius (1921-2002)[20] wrote in his diary on a 1954 visit to Calcutta. Only to express his opinion somewhat less diplomatically a few lines later about one gentleman who was “evidently exec. eng. of water supply”: “It’s incomprehensible that this bearded gentleman should produce any hygienic water.”[21]  

Survey team from Ingenieursbureau voorheen J. van Hasselt & De Koning, at Hastings in India, early 1954. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

Street scene at Writer’s Building in Calcutta, the place where the engineers had to finalise many of the formalities in 1954. At the time, Calcutta (since 2001 known as Kolkata) was the third largest city in the world. It was home to 7 million people. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

Changing times

Not much less than 10 years after this first pioneering phase, an impressive and diverse list of civil engineering and ‘tropical engineering’ projects had been carried out under the flag of Nedeco: from port projects to land reclamation, irrigation and drainage, river surveys, road-building, bridges and railways. 

For calculating the economic aspects, Nedeco entered into a partnership with the Nederlands Economisch Instituut (NEI).[22] In 1958, Ingenieursbureau J. van Hasselt en De Koning alone was already working on 15 overseas projects, spread over eight countries.[23]  By 1984, these numbers had grown to 112 projects (out of a total of 426 projects carried out by Nedeco) in 33 countries. Sometimes cooperating with other firms, at other times alone. This principle applied for all participating firms, but it turned out that the two largest, DHV and Haskoning, were carrying out most of these projects. By 1983, the final count of Nedeco project files came to a total of 538 foreign projects carried out by DHV and 702 by Haskoning – with a word of caution here that the records are not complete: the actual number of projects was higher.[24] 

Project for the restoration of Borobudur for which DHV worked as part of Nedeco, ca 1972. (source: Nedeco archives)

Kano River project in Nigeria, ca 1970, a Haskoning project as part of Nedeco. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

As they gained all this experience, the way in which engineers approached foreign clients changed too: it became less colonial, but was still highly technocratic. The prevailing worldview of ‘the engineer’ was clear for all to read in fictionalised recollections written for the 50th anniversary of DHV in 1967. In the story, at the opening ceremony in a non-specified Asian country, the engineer is listening to a politician who looks upon the work - a bridge - as a way of achieving his own political ambitions. The engineer feels annoyed and reflects: “For goodness’ sake, […] just tell us about the work that’s gone into this. Just be thankful that you had help in opening such a large region to habitation. […] We have carved out a future for you here. You will be able to do something with this new land. Much better things await than waging war.”[25] Almost twenty years later, the Haskoning staff newsletter (Haskoning-informatief) singled out “the problem of western (typically Dutch?) engineers, who evidently find it difficult to deal with other cultures” and urged colleagues to undergo self-reflection.[26]  

What also changed was the attitude of firms towards their own umbrella organisation, Nedeco. After internal turmoil, this cartel-like vehicle – highly successful up until 1970 - came to a juddering stop;[27] the new political wind of the 1990s brought with it a clear dislike of these types of organisations. The original organisation was closed down in 1990[28] and the firms involved continued to operate in the market under their own steam - competing against each other.

Wealth of world experience

By contrast, while Nedeco was slowly but surely being dismantled, the independent firms continued to flourish, with the scale of engineering projects only increasing. Collaborations that had developed between local experts and firms expanded and gradually globalised. The export of intellect started under the guidance of Nedeco many years before had provided the firms with a wealth of experience and expertise. Increasingly, both Haskoning and DHV began to spread their wings in foreign lands in their own right. For example, they opened their own regional offices in places like Lagos, Jakarta and Delhi: the ‘multinational’ had been born and they no longer needed a Dutch umbrella.

1962 work schedule of Nedeco director B.D.H. Tellegen in the heydays of worldwide expansion of Dutch technical expertise. Just count the flags! (source: J.W. Tellegen) 



About this project

In October 2021 Royal HaskoningDHV will celebrate its 140thbirthday. To mark this milestone, we have commissioned a series of striking stories highlighting key moments in the firm’s history. We are proud of our heritage and this is a great opportunity to share our stories with a wider audience.
From January to October 2021, we will publish a new story each month.