A number of challenges remain for Saba notwithstanding the substantial additional financial resources that the Netherlands has made available and the large number of mostly infrastructural projects that will be carried out this year.
Saba Commissioner Bruce Zagers wants to use the opportunity of his visit to The Hague in late February to highlight some of the challenges that the island has been confronting in areas such as social-economic development, poverty, the high cost of living and the need for a higher free remittance.
“Despite the intrigue of all the activities and projects that will receive significant attention in 2018, there are glaring deficiencies that will not be solved with incidental funding for projects,” stated Zagers in his outlook for 2018 which was released late last week.
According to Zagers, the high cost of living, the low social benefits and low salaries are major challenges which deserve to receive urgent attention from the new Dutch Government. “We see people struggling daily, especially those who depend on a single low income, the AOV pension or social welfare. Many of these people live on a day-to-day basis and can barely live a dignified way of life,” he said.
For years politicians in The Hague, Dutch civil servants and studies initiated by the Dutch Government have acknowledged the poverty problems in Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire, stated the Commissioner. “Yet, no significant adjustments have been made to solve the obvious problems. Urging the Dutch Government that poverty is no longer acceptable on our island will continue to be to the forefront of all of our negotiations,” he said.
The study initiated by the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour SZW last year, to determine the level of the social minimum should be completed within the next few months. According to Zagers, the results of this study will “further strengthen the lobbying position” of Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire. He expected that the shortcomings with the current levels will be exposed in that study.
“Solving these problems, however, goes beyond simply increasing social benefits and salaries. There has to be an integrated approach that takes into consideration the levels, the high cost of living, the high cost of doing business and the tax structure,” he said. In his opinion, there are creative solutions that the Dutch Government “finally needs to consider” that can help bring down the high cost of living and high cost of doing business. “Some of these include the high cost of electricity, telecom, double taxation, lack of affordable housing and transport/ travel between the islands.” Applying these solutions will only be possible when the various involved Dutch Ministries assume an integrated approach, he added. Zagers said that based on the early experiences with the new Dutch Government, he was optimistic about the willingness for change that will improve the quality of life for people in the Caribbean Netherlands. “Of course we must be realistic with our approach and we have to realise that any significant change cannot be achieved overnight. The changes will take some time.”
Addressing the challenges for the local government apparatus, Zagers explained that salary adjustments for the civil servants, other than that which are negotiated between the labour unions and the government, will be minimal until the so-called free remittance (“vrije uitkering”) is adjusted to properly reflect the current situation and the necessary costs of government.
“A higher free remittance is of utmost importance to ensure that government is able to properly execute its legal obligations and provide adequate compensation for civil servants. Although government has been able to meet and exceed expectations where it concerns financial management, creating budgets with a free remittance that does not properly reflect the legal obligations and that has not been indexed for several years is becoming exceeding difficult. If the free allowance is not adjusted it will be almost impossible to balance a budget,” he stated.
Negotiating a higher free allowance will continue to be one of the focal points in the talks with the Netherlands. Also high on the agenda is the issue of transferring more tasks to the Island Government. Saba is eager to take over some of the tasks which now fall under the responsibility of the Dutch Government, said Zagers.
“We are of the opinion that when you perform well enough, you should be given the opportunity to have more responsibilities. We realise that this is not an easy problem to solve because of the legal framework governing the Caribbean Netherlands, but we strongly believe that our growth cannot be determined by the performance of another island,” he stated.
In the last week of February, Zagers will head a delegation to The Hague where he intends to put forward Saba’s challenges. “This will be the real first opportunity to highlight our issues to the new Ministers and State Secretaries.” He said that considering the increased attention that the islands have received in the past months, it was important to grasp this momentum to “discuss what works, what doesn’t and to find practical solutions.”
The Commissioner anticipated that 2018 will be an exciting year with many developments and planned projects that will enable Saba to build stronger and to be more resilient for the future. The Dutch Government will make a substantial financial contribution to make this happen.
“2018 promises to be a year that will present many opportunities which will see our Unspoiled Queen rebuild and revolve. Saba will receive substantial additional financial resources which equate to more than triple our annual budget. The amount of money that will be invested in such a short period is truly unique,” he said, thanking The Hague for its support.
When Zagers was sworn in as Commissioner of Finance in July 2007, he said that the budget would serve as government’s bible, and he reconfirmed that this would remain the case. He praised government’s financial team, the civil servant base, and also the Island Council for its support. This, he added, has allowed government to gain the reputation of being stable, transparent and an advocate for promoting strong financial management and good governance.
“Because of these core principles, a relationship of trust and respect has flourished between the Saba Government and the Dutch Government; because of this mutual trust and respect, money for Saba will come directly to Saba and will be processed and reported on by the local government. This ensures that the local administration will actually control the planning, financing, execution and reporting of the majority of the planned projects that will either begin or be fully executed in 2018,” Zagers said.
The Daily Herald.