How resilient is the Netherlands?

/ Author: Masja de Ree
Monitor of Well-being
© Hollandse Hoogte / Peter Bakker
On 19 May 2021 CBS published the Monitor of Well-being & Sustainable Development Goals 2021, which provides a broad description of the trends in well-being in our country. A new feature of this Monitor is the resilience dashboard. How well could the Netherlands cope with a major blow such as a breach of the dikes?

A topical issue

The Monitor of Well-being describes economic, ecological and social aspects of well-being. CBS examines well-being at household level, but also considers the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. A year before the coronavirus pandemic struck, CBS had the idea of investigating the ‘resilience’ of the systems on which the Sustainable Development Goals are based. CBS researcher Edwin Horlings explains: ‘What would happen to the Sustainable Development Goals if, for example, the dikes were breached? Or if education came to a halt? This subject has become unexpectedly topical due to the current coronavirus crisis.’


The resilience dashboard answers questions on five themes that cast light on the extent to which our country would be able to absorb a shock. The first question is whether households in the Netherlands have sufficient buffers to maintain their livelihood in the event of a shock. The second question is how large the vulnerable groups are that would be the first to be affected in the event of a shock. Horlings adds: ‘The third question is the most important one and concerns the major systems: society, the economy and the biosphere. How resilient are they?’ The final questions relate to government power and dependencies between the Netherlands and the rest of the world.

Recovery period

Resilience is not an absolute concept. The academic literature divides the concept into three components: first, preparation for a possible shock, for example strengthening the dikes; next, the depth of the shock itself, which depends on the base situation; finally, the recovery period in which life slowly returns to normal. These components are all covered in the Monitor. Horlings explains: ‘The question is whether the final component actually takes place: will things return entirely to normal or will adjustments be made that may provide better protection for the next shock?’

Predominantly positive

The dashboard highlights trends indicating which vulnerable groups will be worst affected by a shock. These will include, for example, the 6 percent of people with the lowest incomes and the 26 percent of people with the lowest education level. Chronically ill people will also be less resilient.
The trends in resilience were predominantly positive when the coronavirus struck our country. In that regard the Netherlands was high in the international ranking, except in terms of the amount of natural space and dependence on energy imports (for example gas from Russia). ‘It will be interesting to see how resilience has fared if we measure it again next year,’ Horlings adds. ‘The shock wrought by the coronavirus on our society is profound and the recovery will probably take a long time. We’re already adapting. For example, you can see companies preparing to make a permanent switch to more homeworking.’

The dashboard highlights trends Indicating which vulnerable groups will be worst affected by a shock

Outline view

Horlings emphasises that the dashboard is an initial effort. ‘The indicators are consistent with the Monitor of Well-being and give a good outline view, but a full understanding of resilience requires a lot more information. Furthermore, CBS does not make forecasts and only looks back. To look into the future we need the applied policy research institutes (CPB, SCP and PBL) and other knowledge institutions.’

Interesting move

The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) advises the government and the House of Representatives on societal issues. WRR researcher Bart Stellinga considers the development of the resilience dashboard an interesting move. ‘The coronavirus crisis has exposed a number of vulnerabilities in our society. We explored those vulnerabilities and the resilience of society in our WRR study of ‘Vulnerability and Resilience’. I welcome the fact that CBS is now working on a structural assessment of our resilience. The Monitor of Well-being shows how well the Netherlands scores in terms of economic, natural, human and social capital. I’ll be interested to see how that correlates with the resilience dashboard. The explicit focus on government power is an interesting move: the coronavirus crisis shows that a powerful government is immensely important when combating crises, but how do you measure that power?’

Role for advisory bodies

Stellinga points out that when gauging resilience it is important to examine specific systems. For example, how susceptible is the food supply to disruption? How vulnerable is the financial sector? Where are the weaknesses in the digital infrastructure? Can the care system cope with a health crisis? ‘That ultimately requires an extensive set of indicators.’ Could other advisory bodies take advantage of the dashboard? Stellinga thinks they could. ‘Mapping the resilience of different systems is complex and requires different types of analyses, both quantitative and qualitative. The analyses are also inherently more speculative, because they explore a ‘what if’ question. A dashboard is therefore a welcome move, but more is required, as there is always a danger that a ‘warning system’ will lull you into a false sense of security because the signals are green. Continuous questioning of what we know about vulnerabilities is essential. The advisory bodies certainly have a role to play in that regard.’