Tussen zijn, in de ogen van de Eilandsraad mislukte werkbezoek aan Sint Eustatius en een stevige confrontatie met premier Jacobs van Sint Maarten moet staatssecretaris Knops (BZK) zich op Saba als in een warm bad hebben gevoeld. Dat bevestigt in elk geval onderstaande terugblik op het rondje dat hij over het eiland maakte.
State Secretary Knops: Talks on Saba always constructive, visible progress
Saba – “Visits to Saba always have a lot of content. The discussions with the Executive Council and the Island Council from the onset have been consistent where it comes to the issues and constructive in tone”, said Dutch caretaker of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations at the end of his visit to Saba on Tuesday, May 18.
“Saba is a true example of it takes two to tango. The local government and the Island Council take the initiative and assume responsibility, and we in The Hague do our part. Talks are always constructive. The mindset is always: what are the problems, and how do we solve them. I like that attitude. But they are also not afraid to be critical, and the Island Council has made it clear to me what they wanted for Saba.”
Knops lauded the level of government. “There is no unrealistic ambition, and the support that we provide is utilized in a dynamic way. There multiple examples of this: the construction of the new harbor, improvements in waste management, the way Saba handled the pandemic. Every time when I come here, I see progress. The local government thinks ahead. I like that. Besides providing the basic services for the residents, the government looks at ways to continue the development. That is no easy job, such a small island with big challenges. I always say it, and I’ll continue to say it: Saba is a prime example of good, solid governance. If you only look at the reports of the Committee for Financial Supervision CFT, you see that there is one island that scores good, and that is Saba.”
Still, financially things have not been easy for the Public Entity Saba with structural funding lacking to cover the operational costs. Research has shown that the free allowance (“vrije uitkering”) is too low to cover government’s basic financial needs. This is a fact, said Knops. “We have acknowledged this, but we have also said that we cannot immediately solve this. The claim that the Saba government has made for a higher free allowance is absolutely correct. I have tried to solve this in a practical manner by making incidental funding available. But it remains a bit like sending someone on an errand with too little money where the person has to come back to you and say, sorry I can’t perform my task with this amount. Providing insufficient means puts a strain on things from a local autonomy perspective.”
Because of the current caretaker status of the Dutch Government, raising the free allowance is currently politically not possible because it concerns new policy. Therefore, this aspect needs to be taken care of in the governing accord of the new Dutch Government, said Knops.
Knops said that it is broadly recognized in The Hague that investments are needed, that there are island-specific issues that are different from those on the mainland municipalities and that the limited size of the islands sometimes requires inefficient investments.
Convincing his colleague ministers and state secretaries to visit Saba so they could see things for themselves has paid off, he said. “They could see that good things were happening, and that things work differently on the islands than in the Netherlands.” He said he was very happy with the fact that part of the Regional Envelop went to further Saba’s sustainable, economic development.
The incoming Dutch government will need to take the next step in supporting Saba, also financially. “You cannot solve all issues in one time. But if I see what has been done in the past 3.5 years, we can definitely say that a lot has been achieved. The investments have led to tangible results. The social allowances have been increased. Steps have been taken to lower the cost of living. Infrastructure has been improved, as has education, healthcare, social housing. I have not achieved all that I wanted, but in my opinion, a number of large steps have been taken. It is now up to the new government to continue this.”
Level of confidence
The state secretary said he was happy to have built a level of confidence with the Saba people and government in the past couple of years. About his collaboration with the Saba Government, he said: “I always joke that if there is a problem on Saba, you need to act fast, because otherwise they will have solved it themselves. The self-solving capacity is very big here.” Mostly modest about its achievements, Knops called on Saba to keep radiating confidence and pride. He would like to see an increased collaboration between the Windward Islands since this would provide opportunities for all three islands.
During his visit to a goat farm in Kelby’s Ridge on Tuesday, Knops expressed support for the goat control project. He saw the workings of sustainable goat keeping and observed the erosion in Spring Bay. He was informed that free-roaming goats are key contributors to erosion, and have a large impact on the island’s biodiversity.
The goat control project fits in the Nature and Environment Policy Plan Caribbean Netherlands 2020-2030, which is about conserving and restoring the unique and important nature of the islands. This plan is vital for the restoration of the coral reefs and combating erosion, but also for sustainable economic development. Nature is an important resource for the islands as it draws tourists and it provides opportunities for local food production. Saba has pristine nature, much of which is located in the Mt. Scenery National Park. The removal of goats in this protected area has started.
The state secretary had a very positive meeting with Saba’s multi-disciplinary Outbreak Management Team (OMT) during which he was informed about the response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the effectiveness of the lockdown and the highly successful vaccination campaign with 90 percent of the adult population having been fully vaccinated. Knops lauded the OMT for its good work and dedication during the pandemic.
Knops said he could look back at, once again, a very pleasant and useful visit to Saba. Since he did not know for sure if he would be back in his current function due to the formation of a new Dutch Government, he thanked Saba and its people for the hospitality and the warm welcome that he received over the years.