Trading in the colours of the heart: The SP’s new development agenda

2 September 2015

Trading in the colours of the heart: The SP’s new development agenda

It’s 2015. The time to see Africa and poverty as irrevocably linked is past. Poverty is only one facet of Africa, one which unfortunately and unjustly still dominates its image. Poverty and inequality can, moreover, be found throughout the world, including in the Netherlands. There are also many positive developments in Africa: more than 90% of children now attend school, more is being invested than was the case twenty years ago and there is clear evidence of a growing self-awareness. Poverty has not disappeared, but in our view the post-colonial period characterised by traditional development aid is over. Along with it, a line must be drawn under the classic approach to development, where ‘aid’ was the dominant source of capital for many poor countries.  Also, the popular discussion around trade, in which it is seen as replacing aid, is somewhat wide of the mark, because this is a matter of Africa’s self-development. In this aid and trade are two of a number of sources of capital, which do not, moreover, stand in an unambiguous relationship towards each other.

Foto: SP

The sacred belief in existing institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation is a thing of the past. To date, none of them has been capable of preventing wars or of formulating an alternative to global capitalism. The world as a whole is indeed becoming richer, but rich and poor are moving ever further apart. Scarce natural resources are being plundered and always economic growth is for these institutions still the only way of thinking. This doesn’t alter the fact that on the global level an organisation is needed which concerns itself with people and regions in need and one which would maintain its credibility in the eyes of as many people and countries as possible. The UN must certainly continue to play this role, but more decisively and not by means of too many organisations in comfortable cities like Paris, Vienna, Rome and New York, where the salaries are high and the eating good.  

Where a world trade system failed, attempts are now being made with regional free trade treaties such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and  Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) to nevertheless play to the rules of the capitalist game. The fear is that these will in fact disrupt markets on a large scale, put a spoke in the wheels of national policy and – in the case of the EPAs – deprive Africa of the chance to itself become competitive in relation to other parts of the world. The latter applies in particular to the adding of value to raw materials from agriculture and industry.  

According to some people, all development aid has been futile. Others insist on the opposite. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Not all aid has been effective, but that applies just as well to a lot of expenditure in the Netherlands. Since the 1960s, aid has kept large numbers of people out of absolute poverty and offered opportunities to others to gain an education and a better quality of life. Official growth figures give, moreover, only a limited picture of the increased wellbeing in countries with an extensive informal sector, a great deal of unpaid work, but also exploitation of natural resources. Tax systems are indeed often poorly developed, resulting in the mediocre quality of public services such as education and health care. In addition, services such as a land registry and other statistical services are often lacking or missing.  Furthermore, many African countries since independence have had to confront brutal, corrupt or megalomaniac leaders who see themselves as sent from on high and who refuse in time to pack their bags and go.  

The other side of this story is the pressure from the West to impose a multiparty system which is alien to the region, where society has principally been ordered on tribal lines. Before colonial times there were no nation states on the western model. People lived on the basis of clans and tribes and this is still noticeable, certainly in the countryside. So it’s correct to work for more democracy, but the way in which this is done is crucial. A western blueprint won’t work, whereas a model of people’s own might.  

Development cooperation in the Netherlands is starting to become an anachronism. Just look at the number of people in their fifties and beyond at Africa-related events and concerts by African bands. Nostalgia is huge and gives evidence of the qualities which life in Africa has offered and continues to offer. But we no longer have a monopoly on development aid. For decades we have given such aid with the best of intentions and have certainly achieved some good results. For decades it was also a puzzle, one which yielded many progressive insights. That can be seen, for instance,  in the way in which a sector such as agriculture was made central, when later there was a complete refusal to return it to centre stage. Education took the opposite route.  

The question ‘how can we go further?’ is partly determined by the changing context. China has in recent times turned emphatically towards Africa as a trading partner. This it does in a straightforward fashion : no development projects with all sorts of human rights conditions attached, but the building of roads, harbours and airports, often using workers from China itself. In exchange, China gains access to African raw materials. That may not be our style of operating, but it is the reality. There has in recent times also been a strong growth in smaller scale trade between Africa and China.  Brazil meanwhile is taking the lead in relation to other Portuguese-speaking countries, South Africa has since the end of apartheid been transformed from  international pariah to motor of development for the southern region. The Netherlands and Europe must reinvent themselves when it comes to their relations with Africa, because a strong friendship with our neighbouring continent is not only to be desired, but also necessary both from the viewpoint of political stability and that of socio-economic progress.

The basis: Mutual interests and friendship

The time is ripe for a new way of dealing with each other, for a move towards mutual understanding and sharing of values, the identification of strong and weak aspects and the improvement of the wellbeing of people, animals and the planet. Not by pointing the finger, but through a sympathetic dialogue and the acceptance of differences of opinion. This means also that the relationship would not evaporate too quickly when for whatever reason a country suffers a setback.

This mentality – of good neighbours – must be embodied in a cooperation programme aimed at urgent - and for both parties attractive - subjects, and at the near future and beyond. Consider West African countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, which are seriously affected by the Ebola epidemic. Together with the other Benelux countries (Belgium and Luxembourg) we could establish a cooperation programme to improve the health care systems in these countries so that a future outbreak is prevented and the level of health care raised. By making tangible these matters, with plenty of possibilities for popular participation and a catalysing role for the embassies and for the African diaspora in the Netherlands, the expectation is that the Dutch taxpayer will be comfortable with continuing cooperation with Africa.  

This won’t work if we continue to split development aid between dozens of international institutions, and non-transparent funds paid out to firms, export guarantees, and strategic partnerships between NGOs. With a different partner country every time, narrowly-defined leading goals, and fashionable hobby-horses that come and go with the ministers, development aid is scarcely favoured.  The Dutch people have less and less affinity for this. And that’s true also for Africa, because many countries actually favour ending development aid. That’s why we must move towards a modern, dynamic bond of friendship.

Five topics

The SP proposes that €5 billion a year be reserved for the intended development agenda. That’s around 0.75% of current GDP. This sum would be divided between five subject areas: emergency aid, health care, youth, money and ‘green’. With the exception of emergencies, the programme would be limited to Africa. It’s not that cooperation isn’t needed elsewhere, but in our view this limitation would make the spending more transparent, including for the taxpayer. For cooperation with other regions, other private, public or individual channels must be tapped which fall outside the scope of this position paper.


Emergency aid has unfortunately, in a world full of conflicts, become structural in nature and is likely to remain so. Every year multiple emergency situations arise which demand rapid intervention. Following such intervention, however, what often happens is that large groups of people in refugee camps have to be provided with things which will improve their quality of life. Our efforts should therefore have four dimensions:  

  1. Reducing risks: this might be done by averting danger (eg, increasing the ground available to a river in order to discharge excess water), or reducing vulnerability (eg, laying dykes, building mounds or evacuating as many people as possible from the most vulnerable areas).
  2. Taking rapid and effective action when an emergency situation occurs (increasing preparedness).
  3. Regulating reception of refugees in the initial period and ensuring continuity of basic services.
  4. Offering a dignified existence : people often remain in refugee camps for a long time, sometimes for decades. Instead of merely waiting on better times, more should be done to contribute to a meaningful existence for the inhabitants. This is an important aspect of ‘more reception within the region’.  

Health Care

Good health is an essential element in human wellbeing, maintains productiveness and ensures children’s good physical and mental development. In many African countries there remains too little access to care of sufficient quality. People with a disability are often forced to fall back on family, or have nothing. The tendency is for aid to be concentrated on certain aspects of health care, such as infectious diseases, vaccination, contraception or information. Yet the important thing is that the system as a whole functions well. The recent Ebola crisis demonstrated how vulnerable the health care system is in some African countries. The health care system as we know it need not be copied, but we would gladly contribute to a process that led to a basic level of health care being accessible to all.

We would invest in the complete system of health care: the basics are formed by medical infrastructure, well-trained and motivated medical personnel, and access to medical attention for all, including in remote areas. The relationship between good food, clean drinking water and hygiene on the one hand and health on the other should be given special attention. Where possible the first steps should be taken in the direction of establishing a health insurance system for which affordable, good quality health care is central.


The African citizen is often young. Africans in their twenties have had much more education than have their elders, but stagnation threatens due to a shortage of vocational training and too narrow a labour market. The risk exists that youth unemployment is spreading, fuelling the need to emigrate or creating a feeding ground for discontent and alienation. Thanks to social media, today’s young people acquire knowledge early in their lives of how things are in the rest of the world. They must not be left to sit frustrated at home or to hang around the streets, but should be breathing new life into the planet. That calls for targeted efforts.

We should invest in vocational training, financial support for study, and starters’ jobs, and in this give cultural exchange and social media a central role. The growth of social media makes it easier to bridge greater distances and thus communicate with each other more quickly.


A common effort towards a green future in needed. Major corporations continue to get access to land too easily, because the indigenous population lacks land rights. Moreover, large-scale felling is bringing with it desertification of mangroves and forests, and devastating biodiversity and soil fertility. Countries are losing exceptional animals as well as tourist potential as a result of the trade in ivory. In recent years this has taken the most tragic forms. Towns have often grown up without much in the way of spatial planning and would get enormous advantages from improved services, cleaner air and reuse of materials which as things stand are thrown away, such as plastics and old mobile phones. This would create more earning power and a city of healthier people.

We should contribute to maintaining the environment in its broadest sense,
in line with the priorities a country has set. In addition we want to promote sustainable tourism, a major source of income for many African countries. And by encouraging recycling you not only get a cleaner environment, you also generate returns.


The world is dominated by money, but if you don’t have any you can’t start a business. Lack of collateral means that novices looking to set up small businesses often find themselves knocking in vain at the door of a bank. Despite decent attempts in the area of microfinance, attempts to stimulate the economy and create employment by means of local investments have fallen short of success. This must change. At the same time major corporations keep money out of Africa: profits and unpaid taxes. The latter often find their way to tax havens via mailbox companies on the Zuidas, Amsterdam’s ‘financial mile’. In a somewhat broader context, where  requested we should contribute to establishing an effective taxation system and resist taxation treaties which ensure that African countries can make no progress with their development.

We would facilitate investment opportunities for beginning African entrepreneurs. A growth in trade could follow, but this must not be a precondition. At the same time we should see to it that Dutch banks and Dutch firms conduct their business in a socially responsible fashion, pay their taxes in the country in which they are active and ensure that income differentials between the boss and his or her staff are narrow.  

Who, where and how?

Dutch companies looking to promote trade can themselves invest as well as going directly to embassies (of which there should be sufficient numbers). They can also,  where both sides agree, join programmes already up and running. NGOs should be more resolute than they have been in recent times in focussing on their own narrative, backed by support amongst Dutch and African citizens who feel themselves to be involved and who finance the project themselves, directly or indirectly. Competing for government funds when cooperation takes form remains of course possible, but the role of carrying out Dutch development policy should be shaken off.  

The allocation of €5 billion p.a. has three stages.

Money for emergencies will be deployed where needed and awarded to institutions which best meet the four criteria (see above). Locally-based organisations should be favoured when the kind of problem involved demands such.
Money for the other four subject areas would in principle be available to all countries in Africa. For this, sound allocation criteria must be developed. These funds should not go straight to Dutch corporations or to NGOs, but should rather be distributed with respect to content.
Approximately 20% of the budget, amounting to a billion euros per annum, would be deployed on an intensive, long-term relationship of ten years, a relationship with only one or two countries which are lagging badly in development terms. The ‘Ebola’ countries could be considered, for example. Not only has the disease itself caused widespread misery, but the whole of public life has disintegrated, little is left of the health care system and young people have missed a lengthy period of school. The interpretation of this relationship would be more structural in nature than would be the case under 2 and 3, because continuity would probably be of even greater importance in realising the goals. Here too the desired result must offer a basis for cooperation and no funds should go directly to companies or NGOs.

For categories 2 and 3 ‘good governance’ is demanded, but the pitfall must be avoided of it always being the Netherlands that defines ‘good government’. For category 1 it’s important that aid goods do not fall into the hands of those who provoked the crisis.  

The distribution of resources should be done on three levels of scale:

  • Global: we must continue to contribute to funds and to institutions above the level of the Netherlands. Sometimes this is more effective. In essence this means the United Nations agencies active in the field (particularly in activities directed at emergency situations, health care and youth) and more the African Development Bank than the World Bank. The European Development Fund should only be used in the strengthening of the African Union or regional economic blocs attempting to build a common internal market.
  • National: here the choice falls to concrete cooperation on the themes of health care, youth, money and ‘green’, as well as the separate emphasis on the one or two countries with which a longer term relationship is instigated. In relation to this, embassies and for example also Dutch people of African origin – the diaspora – could be allocated an important role. Amongst other things this could involve cooperation with national and local authorities, social organisations, local business people or trade unions. The choice must be made in the national context, with the initiative of the people concerned as an important guide. A fine-meshed postal network is essential in Africa if this is to develop well and, for example, trade relations are to be broadened as a consequence of the programme presented here.
  • Local: in the Netherlands resources remain available to maintain the level of knowledge of international developments, give creative ideas a chance and offer young people study- and work experience on each other’s continents.  Neglect of this leads to the drying up of knowledge and loss of depth.

Africa is not free from poverty and certainly not free from problems which did not exist a while ago. But there’s an optimistic wind blowing through the continent. This is going to be coupled with a new generation of young people, better educated than their parents and with a growing self-confidence. In addition Africa can choose from more capital flows than just aid. The Netherlands is also not free from poverty and also knows - as a result of a remarkable mix of globalisation and atomisation, a combination which is running out of control - countless problems which did not exist a while ago. If we persevere in our dim-witted, paternalistic approach to Africa, based on the transfer of knowledge which we have and they don’t, and with the glorification of our own democratic ways, we could soon find ourselves at the back of the queue. It’s time to look at Africa through new glasses, bring more balance to the relationship and, as brother and sister, go on.

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