Interview with Lilianne Ploumen, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation

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Earlier this month, The Bright Continent spoke with Dutch Minister Lilianne Ploumen about the combination of trade and aid in one Ministry, the pros and cons of development cooperation, and youth unemployment in Africa. 

By: DAAF BORREN 

Our interview with Minister Ploumen:

You combine development cooperation and foreign trade in a single ministry. How do you (and your international counterparts) approach sub-Saharan Africa nowadays?

Relations with developing countries have changed fundamentally, from aid dependency to a much more equal relationship. The Netherlands certainly has something to offer developing countries, but the reverse is also true, in the shape of opportunities for trade and investment. Of course there are also fragile states, where the focus is on aid because their governments can scarcely function. In those countries we concentrate on promoting peace and reconciliation, and access to the law and justice for ordinary people. But this no longer applies to most countries. So a different approach is needed.

In recent years I’ve worked hard to achieve a series of concrete changes that stem directly from my aid and trade agenda. Like the voluntary agreements I’ve concluded with businesses to increase sustainability in supply chains. For instance in the garment, timber and banking industries. And soon in the gold sector, too. Initiatives like these improve the standard of living and working conditions of vast numbers of people in developing countries.

We’ve also reviewed 10 tax treaties with developing countries, so that businesses now pay tax in the country where they make their profits. And we’re training tax inspectors to make sure those companies actually pay. A further sign of progress is that companies and NGOs active in the same fields no longer work in isolation, but engage in dialogue and even collaborate when it comes to sustainable trade and investment. That shift in mentality is a crucial one. Another example of a fresh approach is the constant focus that trade missions (which often include those same businesses and NGOs) now place on corporate social responsibility. Dutch businesses are taking the lead in this, encouraged by government and civil society. In short, a lot has changed.

On top of that, we concentrate on areas in which the Netherlands traditionally excels and can provide added value. Like food security, water, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

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Minister Ploumen visiting projects concerning family planning in Kenya

To what extent is development cooperation (humanitarian aid excepted) impeding sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa?

That’s the last thing we want, obviously. The kind of development cooperation we believe in specifically aims to promote sustainable growth. Take these examples:

  • Child mortality (i.e. deaths among under-fives) has halved since 1990, even in countries that have experienced no economic growth.
  • In 1990 only 86 girls attended school for every 100 boys. Today just as many girls go to school as boys.
  • In 1990 only 50% of children in Africa went to primary school. Today it’s 80%.
  • Between 1990 and 2010, 2.3 billion people gained access to clean drinking water.
  • Polio has almost been eradicated globally. The AIDS epidemic in Africa is being beaten back (with 36% fewer deaths from AIDS in eastern and southern Africa since 2010). Deaths from malaria have been reduced by 60% in the past 15 years.
  • In the past 20 years more and more Africans have gained access to energy (50% rise).

The Millennium Development Goals played a crucial role in driving these achievements. The baton has now been taken up by the Sustainable Development Goals (or ‘Global Goals’), which the international community adopted in September 2015. Their ultimate ambition is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. That will require a massive effort, but I’m optimistic that it can be done. If government authorities, companies, private institutions and civil society organisations work together, we can combat inequality effectively and systematically. The Dutch model is a good example of that approach.

Strong economic growth in various African countries has brought new problems. Youth unemployment, which is already high, is expected to rise explosively in the next few decades. How should this alarming trend be tackled?

It’s true that Africa is facing an enormous challenge. That’s why the Netherlands and other countries are working hard to promote enterprise and job creation. Improving the business and investment climate, for example, will foster more economic activity. Companies are crucial for generating employment. At the same time, we’re also working to strengthen civil society in developing countries through our Dialogue and Dissent programme. This work is equally essential to improving people’s future prospects. As is our specific commitment to enhancing the rights of women and girls.

The Netherlands helps local public authorities promote a good enterprise climate and corporate social responsibility in low- and middle-income countries. Take the Local Employment in Africa for Development (LEAD) programme, launched in 2016, which aims to generate 17,000 jobs in various North African countries in a three-year period. Its activities include promoting entrepreneurship among young people (with a special focus on women), providing entrepreneurial skills training, facilitating access to financing (for example by matching entrepreneurs with investors), and offering young people training and on-the-job-learning placements to enhance their employability.

For more information on the results of Dutch development cooperation, please visit www.dutchdevelopmentresults.nl

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