The first 100 days of Liesje Schreinemacher: does the minister suffer from a blind spot?

Article: 21.04.22, Amsterdam

The honeymoon weeks are over, the first hundred days of Liesje Schreinemacher's ministry have passed. And although the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation has yet to finish her new policy memorandum, a first impression of how she intends to fulfill her role presents itself. An impression that for the time being points to a rather one-sided focus on trade interests.

Internet consultation much appreciated

Minister Liesje Schreinemacher, for example, asked ten questions in the internet consultation for her new policy memorandum on development cooperation. First of all: it is very appreciable that she is doing this. And that she also invites organizations outside the Netherlands to respond. With this, Schreinemacher sends the message that she is open to ideas about this in society. It is all the more disappointing that the minister focuses the majority of the questions on the role of the Dutch business community.

Picture by Martijn Beekman

Minister wants to support Dutch companies

In ten questions, no fewer than seven times the word company pops up, five times the word business is mentioned and three times the term SMEs. And NGOs? Not once. Civil society? Once. Citizens are mentioned twice. The same picture emerges from the twitter messages that the minister is spreading. When visiting Kenya, all the attention is focused on the business community. “We support Dutch companies to do business here, which also contributes to the prospects for the local population,” Schreinemacher describes her philosophy.

Responsible for development cooperation too

This simple 'trickle-down' theory is remarkable for a minister who is not only responsible for foreign trade, but also for development cooperation. Because in order to achieve trade that actually contributes to improving the position of the poorest, more is needed than simply helping Dutch companies to export their business models and technology. Trade does not automatically contribute to economic growth and the fight against inequality.

Tax avoidance and growing inequality

For example, not all companies pay taxes properly in the countries where they settle, as the minister probably knows. Tax avoidance by multinationals costs developing countries 100 billion annually in tax revenues, according to United Nations calculations, more than the entire European Union spends on development aid. And in corona time, we have seen the trend when it comes to equality: according to Credit Suisse's 2021 Global Wealth Report, the share of wealth that ends up with the richest 10 percent of the world has again increased by about 1 percentage point last year, at the expense of the rest. We also know plenty of examples of companies that were found to be violating the rights of local communities. Recognition and attention for this in the minister's new policy memorandum is a requirement.

The importance of a strong civil society

Moreover, corporate responsibility in low and middle-income countries is not always easy. A strong civil society that can act as a discussion partner, co-developer and as the thorn in the flesh for the business community, is crucial for sustainable and equitable economic development. I am convinced that most companies don’t want to go wrong, cause damage and risk their reputation. The Netherlands has traditionally been strong in organising civil society and forging partnerships. There are plenty of organisations, including Simavi, that are happy to share their knowledge and expertise with the minister. So let that be the focus of the minister and her policy memorandum in the next hundred days and beyond. And not a permanent blind spot.

Ariette Brouwer, managing director Simavi

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