Dutch Alcoholics are Paid in Beer

A Dutch project to get alcoholics off the street got global publicity when AFP (Agence France Presse) reported on the initiative.

“Amsterdam pays alcoholics in beer to clean streets”, wrote AFP on 19th November 2013. “The Netherlands is using an innovative solution to clean streets by offering alcoholics beer, tobacco and pocket money to do the work instead of hanging around the park all day.”

Gerrie Holterman, who heads the project, told AFP “this group of chronic alcoholics was causing a nuisance in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark: fights, noise, disagreeable comments to women….the aim is to keep them occupied, to get them doing something so they no longer cause trouble at the park.”

There are several interesting things about this story: even though it’s a miniscule project (only 20 alcoholics are involved) it got global publicity. The story was picked up by the Daily Mail, The Independent, Huffington Post, The New York Times and scores of others. The Rainbow Foundation, the Dutch charity behind the project, must have been flabbergasted by this windfall of free publicity.

“It’s a crazy world in The Netherlands,” said Ferd Jan van Kemenade, a therapist in Castle Craig’s addiction treatment clinic in Amsterdam. “This is definitely not helping these poor people. It is a maintenance solution equivalent to the methadone programmes.”

Most of the global media picked up on the story verbatim, reporting the facts as written by Agence France Presse. The impression was that this programme is being rolled out all over The Netherlands, a country known for its tolerant approach to drug abuse and prostitution. But it’s just a small charity project and Ferd Jan told us that it will be coming to an end soon and “questions have been raised in the city council.”

I found a comment about this story on the blog of the venerable American journal Foreign Policy. This is what they said:

By offering positive reinforcement to Amsterdam alcoholics’ worst tendencies, the weirdly commonsense solution to the problem of drunks causing a ruckus in public parks raises some serious ethical questions…Paying alcoholics in beer doesn’t just turn a blind eye to the problem in the name of practicality but turns it into labor that benefits the city, even at the risk of worsening these alcoholics’ drinking problem.”