Share our wealth with the very poorest

28 January 2010

Share our wealth with the very poorest

“Koenders' aid doesn't aid”, was former centre-right (VVD) Member of Parliament Arend-Jan Boekestijn's view in an opinion piece which appeared in NRC.Next on 20th January. Expressing pity for development minister Bert Koenders (or ‘poor Koenders’), Boekestijn announced that the 'God-is-dead-theory' was valid in relation to modern development aid, but was very selective in his reading of the report on which he based this, ignoring criticism of his own hobby horses.

by Ewout Irrgang, Member of Parliament for the SP

Last Monday the WRR, a body charged with presenting the government with expert policy advice, brought out a report entitled Less pretension, more ambition. Boekestijn's instant response was to say that "The holy house of the 0.7% BNP norm has collapsed”. This is a reference to a norm introduced in the 1970s with the aim of ensuring that every country would commit itself to providing a high level of aid. Boekestijn has seized on this chance to call into question the very usefulness of development aid, yet nowhere in the report is it stated that aid is of no value or that the norm should be lowered. It is a shame, then, that the report has been misused in this way by Boekestijn and other critics.

The SP sees the function of the 0.7% norm as being ensuring that if we are all going to become still richer, a small proportion of this wealth should be shared with the very poorest people in the world. By means of this norm, international solidarity is assured. If we earn a tenner more each, then seven additional eurocents per person goes on aid.

The WRR is right to be critical of the way in which 'aid' has been given in the past. During the Cold War, dictators were supported with such 'aid' provided they took the side of the West. That had very little to do with real aid. In the 1980s and '90s countries were pressured through 'aid' to privatise and liberalise their economies, often with tragic consequences, in the name of the ‘Washington consensus’. Have we during all these years really worked for development or have we served primarily our own interests? The countries which have enjoyed the greatest success in terms of development are those which have been able to apply their own growth strategies, protecting their industries, developing their economies and making the turn towards an open economy only when they were ready, in economic terms, to do so. Classic examples of this are Singapore and South Korea, the latter having done so with a great deal of western aid, as the WRR correctly notes.

Aid is neither dead nor, alas, is it superfluous. The WRR presents an interesting argument for more professionalism on the part of the Dutch government. It wants to see an ‘NLAID’, a sort of Dutch version of USAID which would be directed towards a limited number of countries and subjects and more attuned to the needs of the recipient country itself. It is not difficult to think of arguments against this, but in my view Koenders has rejected the proposal too readily. The same goes for the WRR's suggestion that aid be limited to ten countries instead of the current total of thirty-six. In many of these countries, such as for example Indonesia and South Africa, there remains a great deal of poverty. These are countries, however, which are well-positioned to improve matters for themselves. The WRR's argument that aid should be concentrated on the very poorest countries, because it is there where it is most needed, is something which, therefore, the development minister must address.

The response to the earthquake in Haiti has made it clear that the Dutch people stand for international solidarity in word and deed. Heart-warming fund-raising initiatives bring out the best in us. It would be a good thing if the debate occasioned in part by the WRR's report were to concern itself with how we can improve aid, rather than on focusing on how we can get rid of it.

This article appeared in the Dutch national newspaper NRC.Next on 22nd January 2010.

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