Close this search box.

'Investing in Perspective': the new development policy as a lucrative business model?

On 18 May, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation (BHOS) Minister Kaag's long-awaited policy was released. Good news: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are given a central role in the policy paper Investing in Perspective and gender equality (SDG 5) also runs like a thread through the piece. Yet there are also some, not entirely unimportant SDGs, that are missing out. In addition, Kaag steps away from some partner countries and focuses her policy on a number of regions, namely West Africa/Sahel, Horn of Africa, Middle East and North Africa, to tackle poverty, migration, terror and climate change. Business is given an important role here: the BHOS policy is presented by Kaag as a lucrative business model, not only when it comes to foreign trade, but also development cooperation. With this approach, Kaag unfortunately ignores the importance of good governance and room for a level playing field. The paper also mainly takes the interests of BV Netherlands into account, regularly losing sight of the interests of developing countries.

The SDGs as the ultimate prevention agenda

It had been clear for some time: Kaag, like us, is enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by the SDG agenda. According to the minister, the SDGs constitute the ultimate prevention agenda and are therefore the international guide for BHOS policy. "Working on this is an investment in preventing conflict and instability, core to the renewed policy," Kaag said in the policy note. And it is clear: each chapter details exactly which SDGs the new policy contributes to.

Yet despite this positive attention to the SDG agenda, not all world goals come off equally well. Danielle Hirsch (Both ENDS) did for her opinion contribution in Vice Versa a 'SDG check' and noted that the minister is committed to only 13 of the 17 goals, and reports on only eight of those 13. In particular, the SDGs related to eradicating poverty (SDG 1), reducing inequality (SDG 10), protecting seas and oceans (SDG 14) and restoring ecosystems and conserving biodiversity (SDG 15) remain under-reported. This is worrying. Fighting poverty and inequality is at the heart of development cooperation, and the green SDGs 14 and 15 are precisely of increasing importance when it comes to instability and migration. We hope the minister will show that she takes these SDGs seriously when implementing her policy.

Development policy in the interests of the Netherlands

Although Minister Kaag is the minister for both Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, the new policy seems to be mainly dominated by Dutch self-interest. For instance, in her introductory summary, Kaag writes: "This paper outlines how the government is addressing these international challenges and opportunities in the Netherlands' interest." This is also evident when it comes to the SDG agenda, which is seen as an agenda for innovation that offers business opportunities to tap new markets. The paper steers too much towards earning from the SDGs and the new BHOS policy.

As far as we are concerned, this is not in line with the idea of policy coherence for development, which means that policies should not thwart development goals, or better still, should support them. Although Kaag stresses the importance of coherence in a paragraph on page 53, the rest mainly deals with the Netherlands' self-interest. She does say she will continue the existing coherence policy, however, and will come up with a revised action plan with new emphases later this year.

New focus: countering irregular migration

Another major theme in the paper, and also in the OS chapter of the coalition agreement, is countering irregular migration. This is one of the major changes: the so-called focus regions of development cooperation policy have been chosen on the basis of their instability and their importance in addressing "the root causes of poverty, migration, terror and climate change". As Paul Hoebink also highlights in his response on the paper, this means abandoning the poverty criterion in country selection. So not poverty, but current instability has become the main condition for receiving development funds.

In addition, conditionality is again becoming more important in policy. In her note, Kaag writes: "Both positive and negative incentives are used to induce countries of origin to take back nationals. This includes providing or withholding OS funds (...) possible means of pressure." A worrying development as far as we are concerned. Development money is meant to contribute to the development of the poorest of the poor and should not be used as a means of pressure to keep migrants out.

Investing in social counterforce

The shrinking space for civil society is only briefly addressed; Kaag pledges to continue investing in it. However, with a clear emphasis on engaging the business community, we wonder if this is enough to create a level playing field create, with local counterforce. In her brief response, the minister misses the importance of good, local governance. Similarly, Hivos states in its response: "It is understandable that the minister is taking the SDGs as a guideline for her policies, but the most important condition for achieving results and delivering adequate public services in low- and middle-income countries is good governance." Without additional support for civil society, removal of barriers and discriminatory legislation and policies, and functioning governance, increasing prosperity will only further contribute to local as well as international inequality.

A double vision

All in all, the new BHOS policy paints a double picture. We welcome the central focus on the SDGs, but on the other hand, Dutch interests in particular play a major role in this paper. Human rights, good governance, civil society and democracy promotion have become insignificant in relation to the drive to halt migration and boost the coffers of BV Nederland. The minister's plan to return to an ODA budget of 0.7% of GDP only in 2030 does not help either. By then, all the SDGs must be achieved. To achieve this, the importance of the SDGs must also be recognised in other policy areas. Kaag is the first Dutch minister to give the SDG agenda a prominent place in policy. But to really bring policy coherence closer, we hope that other ministers will follow this good example and set the world goals as guiding principles in their policies.