Dutch voters want development aid cut

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How can the government save nine billion euros? Conservative VVD Prime Minister Mark Rutte thinks he needs at least three weeks to decide. He is entering talks with his Christian Democrat minority coalition partner and with the populist Freedom Party to hammer out a plan for a new round of cuts.

The Freedom Party has, up to now, kept Mr Rutte’s minority government afloat by agreeing to support it from parliament. Its candidate for the new cutbacks is already on the table: development aid.
For decades, the Netherlands was one of the best boys in the class, keeping its budget deficit well below the European limit. But that’s all in the past: the deficit for next year is forecast to hit 4.5 percent of GDP, 1.5 above the ceiling set by the European Union.
Less aid
That means the government has to make drastic savings. If you ask Dutch people where the axe should fall, their answer couldn’t be clearer - development aid. A recent opinion poll indicated that 80 percent of the Dutch back reducing the development aid budget to 0.6 percent of GNP.
It’s now at 0.7 percent, the European norm for the level of development aid. The Netherlands has traditionally spent more than that, but Mr Rutte’s cabinet has already slashed nearly a billion euros off the development aid budget. The question is no longer whether the aid budget will be cut again, but by how much.
Geert Wilders’ populist Freedom Party, whose support keeps the minority cabinet in power, wants development aid cut altogether. It advocates giving only emergency rather than development aid because “development aid appears in practice just to mean channelling money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries”.
‘Aid doesn’t help Africa’
The Dutch development aid budget is at present just over four billion euros, with half the money going directly to governments in poor countries. The rest goes to NGOs and organisations such as the United Nations and the EU.
Mr Wilders is only prepared to talk about a new round of cuts if at least one to two billion euros is slashed from development aid. The senior coalition partner, the conservative VVD, seems to have accepted this. Former European Commissioner and VVD member Frits Bolkestein thinks a critical look at development aid is long overdue:
“The question is how much does aid help. Take a look at Africa where most development aid goes. It’s going rather better there than in the past. That’s thanks to investment from abroad, the high price of raw materials and local entrepreneurs. Development aid has got nothing to do with it. We need to take a bit of a critical look. We shouldn’t think that the destiny of the third world depends on us.”
Development aid has traditionally been a focal point for the Christian Democrats, the junior coalition partner, and for them the cuts will be more painful. But the party is in a weak position: it’s at an historic low in the opinion polls, and its rank and file appear to be shifting position with the realisation that extra cutbacks totalling billions of euros will have to be made.
Dutch aid organisations have every reason to be worried. Tom van der Lee of the aid sector’s Partos umbrella group:
“Enormous reforms are already going through because one billion euros have been cut from development aid. The Netherlands has halved the number of partner countries, so a great many countries don’t receive aid at all anymore. If we cut back even further, we’ll endanger the reforms that are already underway.”
Aid organisations have launched a campaign, You get what you give. Van der Lee: “We want to stress the importance to the most impoverished that the Netherlands continues to contribute. The world has three billion children and young people and 90 percent of them live in developing countries. If we deny them the chance to help themselves, that’ll come back to hit us hard in the future.”
Fenced in
Social democratic parties in the opposition say enough has been slashed from the development aid budget. They see though how popular support for development aid has dropped off enormously. What’s the reason for this? Labour MP Jetta Klijnsma:
“It’s a shame but we in the Netherlands are becoming a bit selfish. As long as we’re all right, we’ll just cordon ourselves off and the rest can fend for themselves.”