The Netherlands: a Bleak Perspective for Development Cooperation

By Lau Schulpen / Part of the European Development Policy Outlook Series

June 2024 is more than six months since the last general elections were held. Elections in which the radical right Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders emerged as the biggest with 37 seats of the 150 in the Dutch lower house. It took the full six months for the PVV and three other right-wing parties to form a coalition government, meaning the Netherlands will have the most right-leaning government they ever had. For those still trying to cope with the blow of the PVV victory six months ago, and certainly for those who care about the world outside of the Netherlands, the new cabinet will have little to offer.

Central in this ‘little to offer’ is that the budget for development cooperation (already under political pressure for some years now) will decrease tremendously. Sure, there are international rules and regulations (e.g., the Netherlands will have to contribute to the European development cooperation budget), but if it is up to the four coalition partners, what will be left will be the bare minimum. Undoubtedly, they might sell this as part of the budget cuts that high-level civil servants have been calling for – even though the few billion euros will hardly make a difference. More importantly, such budget cuts are politically attractive because they symbolise the idea of the ‘Dutch back on one’ (not entirely coincidental but also the title of the PVV election programme). But, it is not only about money. Let’s look at what the four reigning parties have in store based on their election programmes.

The PVV is not only known for its anti-Islam, anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric, but it is also the party which is anti-international cooperation – and indeed, anti-development cooperation. In its programme, the PVV states (as it has been doing since the very start) that it wants a full stop on development aid and no minister for development cooperation anymore. Stopping with ‘transferring billions to Africa’ frees up money for ‘rebuilding the Netherlands’. At the same time, they also implicitly argue that by reducing development aid, in particular to Africa, they no longer contribute to ‘corrupt ruling classes which have doomed Africa to poverty and war’. 

The VVD (the political party of Mark Rutte) – one of the three parties in government together with the PVV – at first comes across as the liberal rights wing party it is by stating that ‘development aid should be used to create a win-win situation for the Netherlands and receiving countries’. Unsurprisingly, that ‘aid’ should be spent via ‘Dutch private companies and knowledge institutions’. At the same time, they also call for ending development relations ‘where needed’. Whereas money will remain available for emergency aid and ‘shelter in the region’, the VVD wants to ‘stop with well-meaning but not really effective projects’. With the latter, they already move more closely in the direction of the PVV, which was certainly the case when the Central Planning Bureau financially assessed their programme. There, it turned out that they actually opted for a significant budget cut comparable to the PVV.

The third coalition partner is the NSC (New Social Contract). This party was only established three months before the November 2023 elections. With 20 seats in the Lower House, it is still a mystery in many ways. That certainly also holds for its stand on development cooperation. Without an actual full-swing election programme, its fundamental document reasons that the Netherlands is a ‘small country and cooperating with other countries is sometimes needed to reach goals’. However, those ‘other countries’ mainly seem to be EU and NATO members. Nothing is further said about the rest of the world, let alone developing countries, development cooperation or aid.

Finally, the BBB (Citizen Famer Movement) is relatively new in Parliament and is, with seven seats in the Lower House, the Benjamin of the coming government. Unsurprisingly, BBB wants to focus development cooperation on Dutch expertise, such as agriculture. Development cooperation should serve the interests of the Dutch. Interestingly, they want to ‘develop plans for countries where the Netherlands can make a difference’ – as if the discussion on locally-led development and decolonisation has passed them by. Finally, they want to reduce the development budget to the average percentage of EU member states (effectively reducing the budget). 

To all this, we can add that none of these parties pays a lot, if at all, attention to the SDGs. Besides, they regard development cooperation, at best, as a means to a Dutch end (e.g., ensuring access to raw materials, curbing migration) with the PVV adding the feeling that ‘government funding for all kinds of left-wing civil society organisations’ should stop. 

All in all, the outline agreement between these four parties paints a grim picture of the future of Dutch international cooperation. The financial resources will shrink, and the discourse around it will shift dramatically, with ‘own people first’ becoming the new norm. This change could be catastrophic for the Netherlands’ international reputation, marking a significant shift from the past, even with a VVD minister overseeing development cooperation in the last years. The days of debating the allocation of a slightly larger portion of our development budget through Dutch companies may be over if there’s hardly a budget left to discuss. 

The most significant impact of these potential changes will be felt by the recipients of the current aid programme. The first to bear the brunt, however, will be Dutch NGOs. The central NGO budget schemes, crucial for their operations, are all set to be renewed in 2025. This timing couldn’t be more perfect from the perspective of the new coalition government, leaving these organisations and the communities they serve in a dire situation. 

Lau Schulpen is Assistant professor for Development Studies at Radboud University, The Netherlands

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