What the Dutch iron lady has in store for Europe and Africa

Sigrid Kaag has been appointed as Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands. The media referred to her as the Dutch iron lady in her role as head of the international mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. What can Europe and Africa expect from her in this new position?

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      First, we need to peek at the coalition agreement, which Madam Minister probably keeps on her bedside table these days. It provides the political framework for the new quadripartite government of Liberals (VVD), Christian Democrats (CDA), Liberal Democrats (D66) and Christian Union (CU) that came about after more than 200 days of negotiations. It is up to Mrs Kaag to shape and implement the approach to trade and international development of the new Dutch government in the next few years within the boundaries of that framework. To what extent and how is she likely to seek EU alliances and engagement with African partners?

      A story of continuity in some ways …


      Even though three out of the four parties were not in the previous government, combining aid and trade remains at the heart of Dutch development cooperation. This agenda combines the objectives of poverty eradication, sustainable inclusive growth worldwide and success for Dutch companies abroad. While the aid-trade combination is not referred to explicitly in the coalition agreement, the mere fact that Mrs Kaag has been appointed as Minister for Foreign Trade AND Development Cooperation is evidence of that. She will operate alongside a Minister for Foreign Affairs, together heading one Ministry, as was the case in the previous government. Mrs Kaag is likely to find allies within the EU institutions and the many Member States who increasingly pursue a similar approach.

      As part of the aid and trade agenda, the government will continue to strive for fair and free trade, export promotion and trade treaties that take into account international sustainability standards. This includes better access to the EU market for developing countries. The government will also continue promoting sectoral multi-stakeholder cooperation to enhance responsible business conduct in global value chains. The priority areas for development cooperation will remain food security, water, security and the rule of law, and sexual and reproductive health and rights, with attention to gender equality in all these areas. So will engaging with Mrs Kaag and her staff be similar to engaging with her predecessor Mrs Ploumen? Well, not quite.

      … and discontinuity in others


      Minister Kaag will have read that she lands a job that emphasises development cooperation as a tool to curb migration, by addressing its root causes. This discourse is much stronger than in the past. It is in sync, though, with approaches at EU level, where the new External Investment Plan is also meant to address the root causes of migration. It implies, so the coalition agreement specifies, that the Netherlands will channel more official development assistance (ODA) resources to countries of origin and transit of migrants, particularly to improve reception of refugees, education for refugee children and employment opportunities. In this spirit, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are added to the list of focus countries of Dutch development cooperation. Additional changes to the list will be considered at a later stage, yet North African and Sahelian source and transit countries of migrants, such as Niger, are likely to be targeted.

      Mrs Kaag will have some flexibility to determine the extent to which the ‘root causes’ reasoning will affect the Ministry’s interventions and how. Given that the logic that development (cooperation) leads to less migration is flawed, and that the government’s development cooperation objectives will not be met by focussing on source and transit countries of migrants in the Middle East and North Africa only, we invite her to carefully consider how to go about this.

      Mrs Kaag will have more budgetary space to operate than the previous government had envisaged. While the figures in the coalition agreement are difficult to unravel, it implies that ODA levels will more or less remain the same as this year, rather than decline, as was scheduled. The ODA budget will not be more than €4.5 billion a year, which in 2021 will represent 0.54% of gross national income (GNI). While this stronger ODA commitment will certainly be welcomed by the Netherlands’ partners in Africa and beyond, it doesn’t live up to the EU commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI, which is the case for most EU Member States.

      From bedtime reading to action


      More than 200 days after the general elections, it is time for Mrs Kaag and her colleagues in the new cabinet to get to work. Will she help the Netherlands to contribute effectively to poverty eradication and sustainable inclusive growth worldwide? While the general framework is set, this will depend on her priorities, her approach and, importantly, how she engages with her fellow ministers to promote policy coherence for sustainable development. It will also depend on how she shields her development budget from being ‘contaminated’ by rising expenses related to climate, migration and emergency aid for example.

      Mrs Kaag is more familiar with UN than EU-level collaboration and the coalition agreement focuses on the ‘arc of instability around Europe’s periphery’, including North Africa, rather than Africa more broadly. Nevertheless, EU and African actors will be valuable and unavoidable partners to make Dutch foreign and development policy effective. The upcoming AU-EU summit, which will take place on 28 and 29 November in Abidjan, provides an excellent platform to show her policy intentions on Africa. Will the iron lady deliver?

      The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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