How I Unified Belgium

Harold Goldstein

Few boys from the Bronx have made a big splash in diplomacy. Colin Powell, our distinguished Secretary of State, is one, but at the moment his term of service is not yet over, so it's still a bit early to evaluate his contribution. My effort, on the other hand, took place more than forty years ago, and with all that experience it is easy to see the lasting achievement of my diplomatic work. The nation of Belgium is prosperous and united, and one of the jewels in the crown of a unified Europe.

It all began when I was invited by the OECD, the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development to come to Paris and make a study of how the member countries forecast their future needs for scientists and engineers. The OECD was set up under the Marshall Plan after World War II to help channel financial aid from the United States to the countries of Western Europe whose economies had been devastated by the war. The idea was that, rather than simply handing out money, the United States would work with the European countries on projects that would advance their economic welfare.

Projects in the field of education, for example, led to reform of educational systems in France and the U.K. that slotted children at age eleven into either an academic channel leading to the universities or a practical channel, leading to craft and manual occupations, with virtually no flexibility for a child to switch channels, thus requiring an irrevocable decision at an early age. One of the questions asked by OECD was whether education for professions and other occupations could be planned to meet future needs for trained workers by forecasting those needs.

Techniques for such forecasting had been developed in the United States at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We published an Occupational Outlook Handbook, revised every two years, to give young people choosing a career information on the employment outlook in the various occupations. That's how the OECD got to me when it wanted a study made of how the Western European countries forecast their needs for scientists and engineers.

I went to Paris early in 1957, and began by writing to officials in each country telling about the study and scheduling visits to find out what they were doing. One country, Belgium, seemed to be excited by my intention to visit them. The head of Belgium's Royal Commission on Scientists and Engineers called to say that he was coming to Paris before my visit to see me.

So a distinguished gentleman showed up at the office and explained his interest. The Royal Commission had been formed just recently, and arranging my visit was to be one of its first activities. He told me in confidence that Belgium was not a united country; quite the opposite: the Flemish-speaking people didn't speak to the French-speaking people (the Walloons), the Catholics and Protestants didn't speak to each other, the north Belgians and the south Belgians had no mutual contact.. This carried over into the professional organizations: there were separate societies of engineers and scientists along language and ethnic lines, and they ignored each other. As he described it Belgium was in a desperate situation.

But my impending visit could change all that. By bringing them all together to meet with me, he could get them to meet with each other for the first time. This could, he hoped, lead to further mutual contacts and cooperation. He was banking a lot on that meeting, and he wanted me to know how important it was.

I arrived in Belgium in the evening after a visit to England. The first thing I did was to forget to set my watch for the one-hour difference in time. After dinner I walked out into the beautiful main square of Brussels with its gilded buildings and handsome fountains, including the one with the famous statue of a little laughing naked boy with a jet of water coming out of his penis.

I woke up the next morning, had a leisurely breakfast, and returned to my hotel room to do some last-minute preparation for the meeting, which was scheduled for 10 o'clock. There I got a frantic phone call from my friend, the substance of which was, Where the hell are you, dear sir? I rushed by taxi to the meeting.

It was held in an elegant mansion. As I entered the large meeting room I could see that the two dozen gentlemen seated behind tables covered with diplomatically formal green baize were busily talking with each other. When we were introduced I learned that they were all representatives of professional societies. I made my little speech about my mission, and asked whether any of them made forecasts of Belgium's need for scientists or engineers, or knew of anyone who did such work, and, if so, what methods they used. I drew a total blank. The idea of planning professional education on the basis of future needs for workers had never occurred to anyone there.

I was disappointed; I had come all this way to learn what someone could have told me in a phone call to Paris, but at least I had found out officially that Belgium was doing nothing on the subject of my study. As the participants left, I turned to apologize to the head of the Royal Commission for my lateness.

He was ecstatic. The meeting had been a resounding success: people who didn't know that their counterparts existed had met and set up contacts. Belgians--at least those who were scientists and engineers--were united at last. And an extremely lucky thing had happened: because I was late in getting to the meeting they had even more precious time to get to know each other. The OECD and its representative had done a mighty day's work for the Kingdom of Belgium.

So ended my one visit to Belgium. Apparently the country has stuck together for the past forty years, and I suppose I can take a little bit of the credit for that. Who knows: maybe one day in the main square of Brussels, near the statue of the little boy, the Belgians will erect a statue of an absent-minded American who forgot to set his watch. .