Parliament okays World Bank deal

The Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament urged State Secretary for Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Raymond Knops (second from right) to hurry with the start of the execution of St. Maarten’s reconstruction. (Suzanne Koelega photo)

THE HAGUE–The Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament on Thursday expressed its support for the contract that the Dutch Government is about to sign with the World Bank to manage the St. Maarten Reconstruction Trust Fund. Parliament urged State Secretary for Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Raymond Knops to make haste with the reconstruction.

Members of the Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations expressed their concern that it has been taking very long to start the reconstruction programme with the new hurricane season only a few months away.

Member of Parliament (MP) Ronald van Raak said he was disappointed that “little has happened” while people were still without a roof. “A successful execution of the Trust Fund is a new beginning of the cooperation within the Kingdom, but it can also be the end if it fails,” he said.

Van Raak stressed that integrity needed to be a priority in the trajectory of recovery. “We have to help the people and we have to help them fast. But the integrity aspect is vital: we need to make sure that the funds end up where they should,” he said.

“People in St. Maarten have been deprived. We need a speedy execution of the reconstruction programme. We need to help people without a roof as soon as possible. Progress is crucial,” said MP André Bosman of the liberal democratic VVD party, who emphasised that St. Maarten as an autonomous country in the Kingdom carried a responsibility to rebuild the island, and to do so in a sustainable, hurricane-proof manner.

MP Antje Diertens of the Democratic Party D66 and her colleague Joba van den Berg of the Christian Democratic Party CDA agreed that speed to rebuild St. Maarten was important, but they also asked to pay attention to the psychological effects of the hurricane.

Diertens and Van den Berg inquired about projects in the social domain and post-traumatic assistance. “More is needed than only a roof above people’s heads,” said Diertens. Van den Berg pointed out that the projects from the Trust Fund should first and foremost benefit the local economy and the local people.

MP Liesbeth van Tongeren said she was “very much in favour” of getting aid to the people. She said that naturally, integrity and strict regulations as to the spending of the funds were important, but those aspects should not supersede the interests and the needs of the people. She urged the State Secretary to work closely together with France where it regards French St. Martin, as this would also benefit the Dutch side.

During Thursday’s two-hour debate, State Secretary Knops confirmed that the first 112 million euro tranche would be deposited in the St. Maarten Reconstruction Trust Fund when the agreement was signed with the World Bank mid-April. He also announced that the second tranche would become available in October/November this year and that the preparations had already started for this second transfer. Knops said he would be visiting the Windward Islands in three weeks.

The Dutch Government has stated from the start that it will not make the 550 million euros for St. Maarten’s reconstruction after Hurricane Irma available in one go, hence, the system to work with smaller deposits at different moments in the trajectory of reconstruction. “To throw half a billion at St. Maarten in one time is not a good idea,” said Knops.

The speed of the deposit of Dutch monies in the Trust Fund, which will be managed by the World Bank, can be changed if that is more convenient for the reconstruction process. “We can slow down or speed up if needed. We also have to keep St. Maarten’s absorption capacity in mind.”

A plan of approach to spend the first 112 million euros will be drafted by the Steering Group that will guide the execution of the reconstruction programme. The Steering Group will directly report to the State Secretary and the St. Maarten Government.

Former Dutch State Secretary of Finance Frans Weekers will sit on the Steering Group on behalf of the Netherlands. The St. Maarten Government and the World Bank will also each appoint a person to the Steering Group.

Knops said that his main goal was to spend the funds correctly and effectively, in the best interest of St. Maarten and its people. In case of irregularities in the spending of the monies, the Netherlands will keep the right to withdraw support and eliminate the Trust Fund. “That is not our intention, and I trust that this will not happen, but we had to be clear on that point,” he said.

To spread the risk, there will be a three-track policy in the spending of the Trust Fund monies. The World Bank, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations will be carrying out the projects under the responsibility of the St. Maarten Government.

Knops assured that the World Bank had standard provisions for the public tendering and monitoring. He said that the Netherlands insisted on proper spending of the funds, also because “it is a showcase.” He also said that the local people and companies would be involved in the reconstruction programme. “This is an important aspect. We have to keep others from taking away these jobs.”

Referring to St. Maarten politics and the often challenging relationship between The Hague and Philipsburg, Knops said that the contacts with the current interim government, headed by Prime Minister Leona Romeo-Marlin were good. He said he was under the impression that the interim government was doing its best.

The State Secretary has an eye on the psychological and social aspects of the St. Maarten people after the hurricane. He said the hurricane especially had a great impact on children and that therefore the project with the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF at the schools would continue.

Knops said that in the early stages the focus had been on assisting the most vulnerable. That is why the roofs of this group are being repaired first. “Our budget is not large enough to assist everybody and to tackle all needs,” he said, adding that the insurance companies also had a role to play. “People cannot just come to us and ask us to cover the rest.”

The State Secretary said that he was happy with the support of the Second Chamber. Parliament wanted clarity before the signing of the agreement with the World Bank in the latter’s headquarters in Washington DC mid-April. Thursday’s debate was called after MP Van Raak brought up the idea during a procedural meeting last week to meet with the State Secretary before the deal was signed.

The Dutch Government will be releasing the first 112 million euros for the Trust Fund when the deal is signed with the World Bank. A maximum of 470 million euros will be deposited in the Trust Fund in the next two years. The Dutch Government has allotted 550 million euros in total. It will keep some 46 million euros in reserve for support to St. Maarten that will not resort under the Trust Fund. Knops said during Thursday’s debate that the remaining funds might very well be added to the Trust Fund later on.

It has taken quite some time for the reconstruction to start. However, the Dutch Government said that the delay was not its fault. It wasn’t until late December last year that the St. Maarten Government gave formal approval to the two conditions set by The Hague: the establishing of the Integrity Chamber and reinforced border control.

Negotiations with the World Bank started in January, right after the holidays. State Secretary Knops said in an interview with de Volkskrant newspaper on Thursday that things were on schedule. That is not the general feeling in St. Maarten where people have been anxiously awaiting the start of the reconstruction programme to bring much needed investments and economic activities to the island.

Source: The Daily Herald