Solving Australia’s foreign affairs challenges

Friends, Allies and Enemies

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Allan Behm on Why Australia Should Convene a Pacific Donors’ Conference

“The countries of the Pacific want engagement … But the leadership they seek involves cooperation, dialogue, understanding and, above all, respect.”

THE PROBLEM: International aid, or official development assistance (ODA), in the Pacific too often fails to meet its fundamental objective – a better life for Pacific peoples. Funding is in decline and, in a world shaken by COVID-19 and a massive global economic slump, it won’t return to pre-pandemic levels quickly.

International spending in the Pacific also achieves far less than it should because many of the aid projects are unfocused and disconnected – both from one another and from long-term outcomes. Currently, there are more than 6000 projects underway in fourteen Pacific countries, funded by some forty countries and twenty specialised agencies. With so many players and poor infrastructure management skills in many of the recipient nations, the scope for confusion and waste is great. In April 2020, for instance, Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner to Australia, John Kali, slammed the nation’s main aid donor, Australia, for what he described as “a loss of effective and transparent engagement”.

The problem is compounded by the Morrison government’s predilection for policy by slogan, rather than by good design. The government refers to the Pacific community as “our Pacific family”, but the sentiment lacks substance. For example, the government insists on its commitment to the “Pacific step-up” despite withdrawing from the Green Climate Fund in 2018. Without that fund, Pacific island states have little chance of adapting to sea-level rises.

The Pacific step-up followed years of neglect and aid cuts, and is a thin disguise to contain China’s influence in the region. The Sustainable Development Goals – the seventeen UN-mandated targets to address poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation and injustice – have become a casualty of geopolitical rivalry. But Australia’s plan is misguided: struggling Pacific countries, desperate for cash, will take grants and soft loans where they can.

Competition over ODA is counterproductive. Even if China’s ODA activities in the Pacific are an attempt to bolster its political influence and power in the region, Australia and other key donors should engage with China, rather than risk seeming ineffectual and impotent.

Australia plans to spend $1.4 billion on ODA in the Pacific in 2019–20, which is more than the next four major donors combined, and almost five times the spend of China or the United States. As the largest donor to and neighbour of the recipients, Australia has much to benefit from ensuring that all international aid in the region is used effectively.

THE PROPOSAL: To ensure credible and effective development assistance in the Pacific, Australia should convene an annual conference for major ODA donors – both nations and organisations – and the Pacific nations that receive this aid.

This conference should be held across Pacific island capitals on a rotating basis, with Australia funding ODA recipients’ attendance. While the Secretariat for the Pacific Community – a regional development organisation headquartered in New Caledonia – has attempted to go down this path, a 2016 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade review found that it has yet to develop the financial management and programming skills to succeed.

The last thing the Pacific needs is another political talkfest, with gaudy shirts and floral coronets. This would be a forum for experts: it would bring together top ODA program administrators, designers and contractors from each major donor. Similar forums have been held elsewhere in the world – UN-backed donor conferences on Africa, for example, have been successful at coordinating aid programs, though they have been perhaps too numerous, and too narrow in their focus, to be as effective as they could be.

A Pacific conference could coordinate the delivery of aid programs and projects to ensure meaningful outcomes for the peoples of the region. It would make spending more efficient and allow multiple donors to leverage the benefits of individual projects. It would not seek to align any individual donor’s aid objectives with those of other donors, though such partnerships would be welcome were they to occur organically.

ODA must always meet recipients’ needs. The magnificent buildings that exceed the management and maintenance capacities of the aid recipients, the roads to nowhere, the professional development programs for officials that ignore rather than prevent endemic corruption, the education of health workers who lack clinics and equipment, the training of teachers who have no classrooms to accommodate their students – these failures do nothing to improve the wellbeing of Pacific communities. They can be prevented through coordination and planning.

WHY IT WILL WORK: Pacific communities, like those in South-East Asia, prefer collaborative problem solving. When ODA programs are imposed by donors from overseas, with minimal ownership or agency on a local level, the result is inertia. Donors – or their consultants – arrive, deliver what was promised, and depart, with little thought to ongoing implementation. Instead of being energised, the beneficiaries are often left disengaged.

Donors and recipients alike need to share accountability. Donors need discipline in their program planning and follow-up. Recipients must take responsibility for the long-term success of these programs. Few Pacific aid meetings focus on coordinating inputs, sharing success stories and embedding accountability.

Some will argue rightly that, despite the creation of many Pacific institutions since World War II, there is little sense of common purpose in the region, and where it does exist it is problem-focused rather than solutions-driven. But Pacific nations must be more cohesive, cooperative and proactive to survive and prosper. A focus on results, rather than on aspirational development concepts, will help to build that sense of common purpose.

Signals about intention and good faith are important in diplomacy globally, but particularly in the highly communal and locally focused cultures of the Pacific. Australia’s diplomats in the Pacific are eager, hardworking and respected by their hosts. They are good at the bilateral work. Yet despite their efforts, Australia often appears condescending and overbearing in the region, generating resigned acceptance from Pacific leaders rather than enthusiastic collaboration. The countries of the Pacific want engagement, and would love Australia to “step up” genuinely to the task. But the leadership they seek involves cooperation, dialogue, understanding and, above all, respect. Most Pacific nations are not interested in being a site for Australia or the United States to conduct their strategic battles with China. They are interested in improving outcomes for their citizens, who are among the most aid-dependent in the world.

The Pacific is a region of many players whose competitive jostling increasingly hinders economic and social progress. A multilateral initiative that brings key actors together to focus on the wellbeing of the region’s residents will meet a real need.

Should China be included in this conference? Certainly. Australia is more likely to limit strategic competition and confrontation in the Pacific through discussion and engagement with China than through ill-conceived efforts at containment. China’s participation in consultation over the Pacific and its future is far preferable to its traditional reliance on bilateral diplomacy.

In South-East Asia, consultative fora such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit work, mainly because they involve everyone, and there is a cultural preference for dialogue. The Pacific shares this emphasis on dialogue. An annual conference for donors and recipients, focusing on objectives, programs and outcomes, would substantially improve the lives of the peoples of the Pacific and clean up the mess around ODA in which the region is mired.

THE RESPONSE: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would not say whether it supported the convening of an annual Pacific donors’ conference, but noted that mechanisms already exist for promoting dialogue and coordination. “Australia participates in regional information sharing and coordination in the Pacific, including coordination of development assistance,” a spokesperson said. “The pre-eminent regional event is the annual Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, which brings together Pacific leaders including our prime minister. China is a dialogue partner and the United Nations is an observer at this event.”

Friends, Allies and Enemies

This is “The Fix” from Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.