Cuts in aid have consequences

It seems a straightforward concept. But spending cuts which carry no costs don't exist. Real people elsewhere will be the victims of cuts made here. The poor of the world have no voting rights here. So people here have to use that right to protect people elsewhere from the ransacking of the development budget.

The economic crisis was a hot item in the Dutch election campaign. All parties are trying to find billions in cuts. The budget for development cooperation appears to be very easy prey. Although the global crisis has hit the Netherlands hard, it has hit the poorest countries the hardest. There, the results are literally deadly. The World Bank and the IMF calculate that as a result of the economic crisis some 53 million more people will live in extreme poverty than would have otherwise been the case.  According to the World Bank, between 2009 and 2015, 1.2 million children under five years of age will die as an indirect consequence of this crisis. These institutions point directly, therefore, to the need to increase aid as a result of the crisis.

From every euro earned in the Netherlands, 0.8 cents goes to people in developing countries. This sum – €8 in every €1,000 – may not seem very much, but globally it is amongst the leaders. Something to be proud of. If, however, it was up to the neoliberals of the VVD, which emerged from the electyions as the biggest party, this percentage would be halved, while the far right PVV, which also did well, would reduce it by even more, much more. The centre-right Christian Democrats of the  CDA, which lost almost half of its seats, once had something of a name in the area of development cooperation, but now want deep cuts, transferring €600 million from the development cooperation budget to military spending. The Netherlands' defence expenditure, including spending on peacekeeping operations, amounts in 2010 to €9 billion, almost double the sum devoted to development. A right-wing government means that the Netherlands would join those contributing to the furtherance of lopsided growth between development aid and military spending. Total global military spending totals some $1500 billion per annum. For every dollar spent on aid for education, food and medicines, twelve are spent on bombs and grenades.

The neoliberal VVD justifies its halving of the budget by arguing that 'support for dubious regimes' must be ended. That sounds like tough language, but it doesn't ring true. So-called budgetary support accounts for less than 4% of the total development budget. If you want to cut 50% off this expenditure, then, you'll hardly do it by cutting budgetary support. The far right PVV's manifesto gives no explanation as to how its draconian cuts will be achieved, but states that it prefers trade to aid. Trade barriers must, therefore, this party argues, be dismantled. Barriers to trade for the poorest countries are indeed a bad thing, but surely the PVV knows that the poorest countries already enjoy free access to western markets, via the ‘Everything But Arms’ agreement. Their problems lie elsewhere, in the removal of the possibility to protect their own markets from western imports. This is precisely what is strangling the life out of them. Free trade isn't fair trade. Moreover, European agricultural subsidies, the effects of which are extremely damaging to developing countries, go unmentioned in the manifestos of the right-wing parties.

Are there then no grounds whatsoever to be critical of development aid in its present form? Of course there are. But instead of giving less money to poor countries, we should be spending the money we do give more effectively. Aid should be improved, not reduced. An end must be put to the fat pay-packets picked up by executive staff of Dutch development organisations, some of whom receive more than the very highest paid civil servants. This is solidarity turned on its head – using money for poor people to make people here rich. Subsidies for Dutch talking shops, such as the National Committee for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development (NCDO) are also open to question. And we should be very careful to whom we give budgetary support. Putting a stop to it in the case of Rwanda and Senegal was certainly justified. But everything which you can point to as wrong argues not for less money, but for better use of this money.

Cutting development aid sounds straightforward but costs human lives. This year the Netherlands gave some €75 million to the Global Fund for combating HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis. Of the Global Fund's total spending, 61% goes to the fight against HIV/Aids, most of this being spent on inexpensive drugs to arrest the disease. If this contribution were to be halved, around 100,000 people would have no access to these medicines. For them, this easy way of cutting spending would probably represent a death sentence, as Doctors Without Frontiers has already warned in the case of cuts in the US budget for such drugs for Africa.

The Netherlands gives an annual sum of €½ billion to enable children in developing countries to go to school. Globally, approximately 72 million children still can't do so. According to the Oxfam Novib/Global Campaign for Education, around $16 billion is needed if every child is to be in school by 2015. Halving our budget would mean that around a million children will not be able to go to school in that year who would have been able to do so if the budget were to remain at its present level.

These two examples involve only 10% of the total budget. So cuts in development aid don't come free. Real flesh-and-blood people are their victims.

Ewout Irrgang is a Member of the Dutch national Parliament for the Socialist Party. This article first appeared in Dutch on June 2nd on the website  The photograph, by Holtz for UNICEF, shows an HIV-Aids education project in the Central African Republic.