A Brief History of ISS

Associate Professor David Dunham

"We have recently started to write up an intellectual and social history of the ISS. Any insights, scanned photographs or other materials that you think could be useful (and not readily available at the ISS) we would greatly appreciate. They should be e-mailed to info@remove-this.iss.nl"

From its inception in 1952 to the present day, ISS can mark itself as a unique and still growing Institution. Being both research- and teaching-based, the collected talent and significant contributions its academics have made in the field of development can be at least partially attributed to the multicultural and close-knit community that has marked the Institution’s history. This article provides a brief overview of the rich background from which ISS has emerged into what it is today.

1950 marked a new post-colonial world and an era of widespread European interest in reconstruction. With this goal in mind, the Dutch government set up a committee to explore the idea of a training institute for civil servants that would adopt a policy-oriented, multi-disciplinary approach to the needs of developing countries. The committee was in favour, but the task it defined was ill-suited to the faculty structure of Dutch universities. In January 1952, a Netherlands Universities Foundation for International Cooperation (NUFFIC) was formed by the Dutch universities, and one of its first tasks was to set up an international Institute of Social Studies – a special post-graduate English-language institution that would bring Dutch knowledge to bear in a distinctive brand of higher education concerned with problems of development. The Institute went through a short evolutionary period before 1956 when it emerged as a separate institution under the firm and energetic leadership of Prof. Egbert de Vries.

The development of this Institute has very much been a function of its environment – of changes on the world stage, in thinking about development and, within The Netherlands, in the need to position itself vis-à-vis ministries and the Dutch universities. Its history can be divided into three general phases, corresponding to the buildings in which it was housed. Buildings typify and shape the nature of an institution just as much as they are shaped by it, and the ISS has had three different homes; the Paleis Noordeinde (located in the centre of The Hague), the former Hotel Wittebrug (about half-way to the nearby fishing and seaside resort of Scheveningen), and the former Post and Telecom (PTT) building in Kortenaerkade (its current location and again close to the centre).

The Paleis Noordeinde

In 1951, Queen Juliana generously offered part of the royal Paleis Noordeinde to house the Institute and NUFFIC. At the outset, ISS was very much a pioneering venture, finding its way in development studies and the pedagogic needs of its subject matter. While originally conceived as a teaching Institute, already by 1954 it became apparent that it should also be research-based, making teaching and research two complementary outputs. The first batch of twenty students (most from South and East Asia) attended a two year MA programme, while shorter courses were soon introduced as Post-Graduate Diploma Programmes.

The Palace building was ideally suited for the Institute and the ISS community in the early years. A residential college, students with common interests lived and worked together, with social get-togethers every evening and the Rector and his wife living on the premises. The ‘technical assistance’ of which ISS was part, was technocratic, bringing in experts from the Dutch Central Plan Bureau, the Statistical Office, Ministries and the Dutch universities (including Jan Tinbergen), interspersed with visits from ‘stars’ from international organizations and the international community. At the time it offered what for most was a unique experience, such as teaching planning, issues of public administration and a Dutch experience, designed for successful mid-career civil servants who came to develop themselves. The project proved a renowned success, and it secured government funding, much of the credit for which must lie with Egbert de Vries (the Rector at that time).

At the time ISS was the vanguard of development studies in Europe and the earliest such institute. It certainly made its mark, but it was also very much an island – a very conventional, centrally-run, inward-looking community cut-off from society around it. In the early 1970s, with a change of Rectors, the intellectual situation began to change, becoming more open. There was more internal delegation of power, and committee structures that still exist today were first institutionalized. With the tripling of oil prices in 1973 and the recession that followed, a more distinctive and critical slant was also to be discerned in its intellectual emphasis. Important work was underway (under Jan Drewnowski) on social indicators, on the New International Economic Order that was emerging, problems of grassroots survival, and the very poignant fact that development had winners and losers. There was also a marked increase in the size of the student body and in the proportion of foreign staff, widening the range of interests and of expertise. The ISS was changing. But, as it grew, it also began to burst at the seams – it desperately needed a new home.

The Hotel Wittebrug

In August 1977, the Institute moved to the former Hotel Wittebrug. A lighter and far more spacious building, it was more in keeping with its needs and with changes that were taking place in its professional development. A new Rector, Prof. Louis Emerij, carried over earlier trends to the new location as the ISS became less supply- and much more demand-oriented. Less concerned with training the administrator it concentrated on ‘training the trainers’, such as NGOs, universities, trade unions, women and other organized groups, rather than just civil servants. Research was emphasized, consultancy and advisory involvement grew, and new links were established with international organizations and relevant groups in both the north and south. In the mid 1970s, the ISS took a leading role in the creation of the European Association of Development Institutes (EADI). More emphasis was placed on academic quality, the systematization of teaching and staff research. The Institute’s work gained widespread recognition abroad (and, to a lesser extent, in The Netherlands) and the Institute’s right to award the PhD was formally recognized in law.


The period was also marked by a rapid infusion of experts – Raymond Apthorpe, Bryan van Arkadie, Oscar Braun, Charles Cooper, Walpe Fitzgerald, Kurt Martin, Maria Mies, Ashwani Saith – and produced new thinking on development, such as its path-breaking work on women and development (from 1976 onwards) and the research on money and finance. Its research plan in turn reflected a much more critical perspective, exploring agricultural development and rural poor; industrialization; social movements; international economic and political relations; basic needs; employment and technology; labour relations; women and development; rural-urban relations and metropolitan development; and the margins of state intervention. There was also solid work being done on agrarian politics and the whole question of land reform.


By this time, the student body was no longer residential and many were scattered in homes in the Dutch community. Yet the Institute was still in many ways very cohesive, in part because of the building. All paths in the Hotel Wittebrug led through the Common Room, down one central stairway or, on the way out in the evening, past the Butterfly Bar. It was cleverly designed in such a way that it was hard to avoid contact. Staff met on the stairs, at coffee breaks in the common room and, with no nearby shops, often ate together in the ISS canteen. This was an important ingredient of its success, both intellectually and socially. The Institute had been able to change, to become much more professional and more outward-looking, while equally retaining the sense of community that bound staff and students together. However, it was also still growing and in 1990 it needed more space than was available, particularly for classrooms. ISS had to move on.

The former PTT building – a national monument

In 1993, it moved to its present location, the former headquarters of the Netherlands Post and Telecommuications (the PTT). A larger, more commanding building near the city centre, it conveyed an aura of business-like professionalism that seemed to fit what was asked of the Institute, and of higher education more generally. The period was to be one of internal reorganization, of tooling up to compete more effectively in an increasingly competitive environment in which Masters Programmes in development studies were mushrooming everywhere and the universities themselves were becoming more international, and in The Netherlands more English-speaking. Understanding demand, marketing and acquisition had become much more important as had networks and partnerships in the south, as well as accreditation, quality control, costs, sticking to budgeting and increased efficiency.

In the process, there was closer collaboration with international agencies, ministries, NGOs and the corporate companies in both the north and south. The Institute began to reassess what it offered that differentiated itself as a research-led, teaching-based institute on problems of transition and change, both in the developing and developed world. Diploma teaching was revamped, new specializations have been introduced (including the five being introduced this year). A sharp decline in the number of Dutch Government Fellowships it could command in the mid-2000s did not give way, as some had feared, to a fall off in student numbers. On the contrary, as a steady effort was put into the acquisition of alternative funding for students, there was an increase in the number of students who covered their own costs as well as those attending ISS on other fellowships. The Institute also played a prominent role in the establishment of CERES, the Dutch national research school relating to development studies. It became much more directly linked to the Dutch university system, and it became more recognized in Dutch society as a centre of critical expertise on development problems, policies and individual countries.

The Institute as an academic institution is therefore very established. It has a brand name that is known throughout the world and that is widely valued, but the individualistic nature of its teaching and research became more apparent in the 1990s as the workloads heightened. The new Institute building was more spacious and it offered better facilities, but there was no real no centre of gravity or focal point. With student residences next door and eating places nearby there was no necessity for everyone to mix in the ISS canteen. Staff can work from home or their office, communicate by e-mail, with far less need to socialize. Again, therefore, the building reflects and amplifies the nature of the Institute (and general work trends in society), and a recognized contemporary need is to find a way to reconstitute the old sense of community. The Institute, like everywhere else, has to adjust to the times and will no doubt continue to do so.

David Dunham, now retired, taught Development Geography at ISS.