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Beyond Aid towards a ‘Pacific Union’

Josie PaganiJosie Pagani
Director
Council for International Development

There’s been a lot of talk about a ‘Pacific Reset’ recently and for New Zealand’s international NGOs working in the Pacific, this could be transformational. Our members are excited.

First there’s the promise from Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters to increase the aid budget. We’ll see what happens in the May budget, but if anyone can get extra money, it’s Winston! New Zealand has had one of the lowest aid budgets (just 0.22% of GDP, well below the OECD average of 0.4%, and our commitment to give 0.7% in aid to the poorest countries).

But more importantly, there’s the possibility of a complete rethink of how we do aid and development; a shift away from a ‘welfare model’ where donors like New Zealand ‘donate’ money to aid ‘beneficiaries’, to a partnership model that moves beyond aid.

And there’s an acknowledgement from the government that the Pacific is not the benign environment we once thought it was. It has become a playground for geopolitical power struggles, and New Zealand and Australia are now just two of many donors in the region jostling for influence.

That’s why it’s more important than ever that New Zealand’s role in the region is strong so we can advocate for good development practice, and values like partnership, good governance, human rights and protection of the environment and the oceans.

We have something that no other donors in the Pacific have: while the Chinese will always have more money to spend than us, we have a Pacific diaspora who identify as both New Zealanders and Pacific people.

These communities have already re-set the old aid relationships. They have the template for a Pacific Reset, and are waiting for governments to catch up. They are Pacific business groups based in New Zealand, health organisations, Pacific women’s groups, New Zealand NGOs, and iwi organisations.

They want to move away from the old welfare model of aid to think about our role more in the way we think about regional development.  Just as we want New Zealand regions like Northland or the East Coast of the North Island to be strong because stronger regions make a stronger New Zealand, likewise, a stable prosperous Pacific is good for New Zealand because, well, we’re the Pacific too.

About 2000 people live in Niue, while 24,000 Niueans live in New Zealand. 15,000 live in the Cook Islands and about 62,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand. Already one in five New Zealanders have Maori or Pasifika heritage, and the trend is growing.

The Pacific is not ‘foreign’ to us. It’s family.

In any week, New Zealand-born Pacific business people connect investors with opportunities across the Pacific. Educators or climate change experts travel from New Zealand to work in the Pacific region. A New Zealand health specialist goes to Niue, gets wider experience and helps to up-skill local medical excellence.

Those that travel these ‘corridors’ of cooperation do not feel less Tongan if they are New Zealand-born Tongan. A Samoan-born New Zealander does not feel less Samoan.  Both islands are home.

New Zealand NGOs are also modeling a different kind of relationship. Increasingly, our NGOs don’t see ourselves as ‘doing aid’ to others, but building up locals to run their own programmes.

For example, Trade Aid supports local producers globally in developing countries to scale up, meet bio-security standards and find buyers in New Zealand. They have plans for a ‘plant to the plate’ system in the Pacific, sourcing products from multiple small producers and connecting them to retail outlets in New Zealand.

We don’t give aid only for what New Zealand ‘gets out of it.’ We help because we are good global citizens, and we help in the Pacific especially because of our family ties.

While the money is important, we need to make changes – to coordinate better, devolve more decisions and create mutual relationships.

Over thirty New Zealand government organisations are active in the Pacific, dozens of non-government organisations, and multiple New Zealand businesses in construction, engineering and much more.

Re-setting our relationship needs better mapping of what everyone is doing so that all these actors know more about each other.

Ultimately we could see a Pacific Union, modelled on Europe, where labour and capital move more easily from country to country. And Pacific nations share common standards and legislation making it easier to export goods and be economically independent so they don’t need aid.

In the spirit of reciprocity, Pacific states could commit to other global standards, just as countries wanting to join the European Union have to prove their commitment to democracy. What better way to promote our values of human rights, freedom of expression, democratic institutions, gender equality, workplace standards and access to health and education for every child?

China’s increased Pacific presence provides urgency. There is no better way to balance China’s influence than our ability to promote mutual accountability and an economically independent Pacific.

New Zealand NGOs recognise this growing independence. We are still needed, but we know our role is changing.

The old way of doing aid talked about the Pacific as victims, as if we were trying to save the Yellow-Eyed Penguin.

Pacific communities have moved on, and governments need to re-set the relationship to catch up.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/