Commissioner Bruce Zagers had positive meetings with several Members of the First and Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday. A delegation from Saba is currently in The Hague for meetings with the various ministries and other stakeholders.
Commissioner Zagers handed the Members of the First and Second Chamber an outline of the issues that are important for Saba: an integrated approach for poverty alleviation, a re-division of tasks with more autonomy for Saba, the wish for structural funding instead of incidental funding, and the functioning of the National Government Department RCN. Zagers said after the meetings that there was much comprehension for the Saba cause.
The Commissioner explained to the Members of the Dutch Parliament (MPs) that the Public Entity Saba would like to see an integrated approach to alleviate poverty, with not only the establishing of a social minimum with increases in the minimum wage and social benefits, but also with measures to reduce the cost of living and the cost of doing business. These measures should include: affordable electricity, affordable telecommunications and better, more affordable connections to Saba.
“The provision of electricity cannot be seen as a luxury utility but as a basic need. Investments have been made in solar energy which has reduced our dependency on diesel generated electricity. However, because of these same investments which need to be depreciated, the consumers are not seeing any relief. Currently the electricity law is being reviewed. However, the level of the subsidy is not, which we consider a wasted opportunity.”
Where it concerned telecom, the Commissioner explained that while the Dutch Government installed fiber optic cables for Saba and St. Eustatius, the envisioned improved internet and cheaper prices have not materialized.
“Currently Saba purchases bandwidth from another provider which is able to sell the bandwidth cheaper than the company that was established by the Dutch Government to manage the cable. Saba would also like to explore the possibility to have the local company Satel be supported by a Dutch national provider such as KPN,” he stated.
Connectivity is an important issue that was highlighted in the meetings with the MPs, with the high air fares presented as an obstacle. Zagers explained that a return ticket from St. Maarten to Miami is approximately US $250, while a return ticket from Saba to St. Maarten is in the range of US $200.
“A connectivity report has been made but it does not present clear-cut solutions to reduce the price of air travel and it does not mention sea travel which accounts for approximately 50% of our arrivals and departures. Cheaper transportation by air and sea allows for more economic development and more affordable imports which ultimately creates employment opportunities and brings down the cost of living.”
Saba has been lobbying for more autonomy, especially in the area of granting work permits. This has seen support from many governmental levels in the Netherlands, but the actual transfer is yet to happen and progress towards this goal is minimal, stated Zagers. Saba seeks a pilot project to have this responsibility transferred in its entirety to the local government. There is also a desire to have the Social Affairs and Labor SZW office relocated to Saba’s Community Development Department.
The Public Entity Saba would also like to see medical referrals being organized by the local office rather than the back office in Bonaire. “The local staff will know the individual circumstances and as such can bring a more humane approach when the logistics are being organized,” stated the Commissioner.
Financial management and good governance remain priorities for the Saba administration. “However, over the years we have been forced to be creative in order to achieve balanced budgets and positive year reports. Currently the Finance Department manages more than 60 projects stemming from incidental funding. This equates to over 30% of our total budget. Currently structural tasks are being funded with incidental money which is unhealthy for the organization as a whole and puts the actual programs and staff in jeopardy,” stated Zagers.
Evaluation of RCN
Critique was leveled towards the RCN. According to Zagers, the Saba Government wants a thorough evaluation to see which RCN functions are necessary, how some of these functions can be decentralized to the islands and, most importantly, to analyze how the money is being spent.
“Unfortunately, two standards of government are being created, not only in facilities but also in services, staff and staff benefits. Furthermore, Saba and our people see less investments being made by RCN as basically all are made in Bonaire and our people are wrongfully discriminated against for job opportunities because of their Dutch language levels,” stated Zagers.