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April 6, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Aid on our behalf

An accountable future for New Zealand’s aid strategy

It seems to be something of a trend for people collecting for charities to take to the streets on Fridays, and there’s always a particularly high concentration of them lurking around Lambton Quay during the lunchtime rush. Forgetting their inevitable presence, I sometimes decide to venture on to Lambton Quay for variation in my monotonous trek down from Kelburn to Pipitea at midday every Friday. As a result I have to engage in multiple avoidance tactics—I find the most effective one is to pretend to be talking to someone on the phone, although just striding past and not making eye contact is slightly less dishonest.

It is not that I have an aversion to charity. However, in my more impressionable days I got talked into signing up to make regular donations by one of these eager collectors. It became apparent that given the very modest amount I was donating each month, the printing, packaging and postage of the glossy pamphlet they sent me would almost exhaust my entire contribution. Therefore I decided to discontinue my donations and seek other ways to give back. As a result I try to avoid the Friday lunchtime guilt trip. I have, however, come up with another slightly less sheepish method of avoidance: I have resolved to explain politely to the next collector who asks, that as a tax paying New Zealand citizen I contribute to the millions of dollars in aid we send each year to the Pacific and other developing nations around the world.

This would be a less cowardly way to deal with the hoards of collectors if I was actually convinced taxpayer aid funds were in safe hands. However, recent announcements by the National Government of their intentions to reintegrate NZAID with MFAT leave me feeling a little unsure. I don’t profess to be an expert on aid or New Zealand’s foreign policy, but I attended a symposium put together by Victoria’s Institute of Policy Studies on Eliminating World Poverty: Global Goals and Regional Progress. These are some of my reflections on the issues discussed at the symposium, from the perspective of a New Zealand citizen contributing to the aid distributed every year on our behalf.

The concern over the potential reintegration of NZAID with MFAT to the NGO sector appears to be that such a move would result in the conflation of aid and trade policy; or, in other words, where and how aid is deployed will be tied to what is in the interests of New Zealand’s trade, rather than in the interests of those who need the assistance for survival. This seems to be reminiscent of the “chequebook diplomacy” practised by China and Japan in the Pacific that New Zealand has condemned in the past. Certainly in Hon. John Hayes’ (National MP and Chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defence and Trade Select Committee) short speech, he euphemistically referred to fresh thinking and a readjusted approach to aid; the emphasis was on economic growth through measures such as unlocking communally held land and removing trade barriers in the Pacific. The idea is to shift from a poverty alleviation focus to an economic development model.

I have several concerns about the suggested realignment. The framing of the debate as a dichotomy between poverty alleviation and economic growth is problematic. As Salil Shetty the Director of the UN Millennium Campaign pointed out, it is a ridiculous question to ask the poverty stricken whether they would like to have good health care or to be employed. They want both. And they have a right to both. What this means is that we should take a rights based approach to development strategy. When viewed from this angle, the lack of basic human rights in the developing world is evidence of a lot of work to be done, and aid is not just providing things but also providing support for people so they are able to genuinely exercise their rights.

Understandably there is a self-interested aspect to aid, but ultimately aid becomes not only ineffective, but also harmful if no real regard is given to the realities of those who the aid is intended to help. This is where the average New Zealand citizen—like you or I—comes into the picture. If we demand to see in human terms rather than economic models, the results of the aid programmes funded by our tax-payer dollars we can encourage transparency and accountability in New Zealand’s aid strategy. The lack of transparency and accountability, which has surrounded the debate on the future of NZAID is of utmost concern. MFAT pulled its funding from the symposium—a prime opportunity to engage the general public and those in the sector about this issue—and Hon. Phil Twyford (Labour MP and Assistant Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Development Assistance) explained at the symposium that Hon. Murray McCully (National’s Minister of Foreign Affairs) has been instructed not to address the Select Committee on the issue, and the information made available to them has been piecemeal at best. Considering the large sums of taxpayer money at stake, such a lack of consultation and open debate is very alarming.

Where there are existing inequalities economic growth has a tendency to perpetuate them. Aid and foreign policy need to be directed at dismantling these structural weaknesses, both within global financial infrastructure and in developing countries themselves. The structures of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are biased against small, vulnerable states. Before trade liberalisation can occur, such imbalances need to be addressed. In Pacific Island nations with small taxable populations trade tariffs provide an important source of revenue, the loss of which through trade liberalisation would be very damaging to their economies. Furthermore, subsistence production—an integral part of Pacific Island communities—is reliant upon the communal land tenure system. A system which Mr. Hayes wants to “unlock”, presumably to privatise and encourage the cultivation of cash crops to integrate into a market economy. Such moves will exacerbate existing problems in Pacific communities, dispossessing many of their livelihoods, devaluing the work of women who are heavily involved in the subsistence system, and encouraging the urban drift of Pacific youth. Where there are pre-existing inequalities, capacity and infrastructure need to be built before trade liberalisation can occur, and when it does an economic model which is appropriate to the realities in Pacific Island nations needs to be applied. The one-size-fits-all approach to aid policy, centered on outdated Washington Consensus market fundamentalism, which prioritises economic growth over poverty alleviation, will fail to remedy the real issues Pacific peoples are facing. We must take an integrated approach that doesn’t prioritise either poverty alleviation or economic growth, but rather prioritises the people receiving aid and the attainment of their rights.

If we intend to take a human centered, rights-based approach to aid, then we must ensure the ultimate goal of economic development is focused on the people, rather than economic growth being the end in itself. This requires, I would suggest, engaging the recipients of aid in the debate. We need to work with the people where they are, with a real understanding of and commitment to their needs and desires for the future. The deployment of aid is not an either/or question—those who live in the developing world want, need and have a right to both meaningful employment and adequate health care. A dichotomised approach to aid policy which swigs between poverty alleviation and economic growth depending on who is at the helm represents an approach to aid that is more about partisan domestic politics than a genuine regard for the well being of the recipients of aid and their fundamental human rights. And finally, if I am going to be able to use my line with conviction the next time I traverse Lambton Quay on a Friday afternoon, there needs to be transparency and accountability in our aid policy development. There needs to be consultation and genuine debate so New Zealanders can be sure taxpayer funded aid is doing more good than harm.


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  1. Kerry says:

    Excellent coverage of the various angles of the NZAid situation.

    May I recommend that anyone who feels motivated to write a letter (via e-mail, no stamps needed, cheaper than token charity on a Friday lunchtime), should address it to:

    ..clearly outlining why you think a semi-first-world country like NZ should be giving aid, particularly but not exclusively, in the Pacific Region *without* tying it to PPP investments with MNC’s looking for development capital.

    .. previously, ‘development’ aid was placed at the discretion of the community applying for it; and was frequently used on such projects as delivering clean, piped water to villiages, setting up mobile clinics which could do health checks around a wide region, equipping schools so that girls as well as boys could be educated, etc. That’s what ‘infrastructure development’ means.

  2. Gohan_Aro_01 says:

    HAH. You don’t even need postage when you’re posting a letter to an MP, Kerry. Also you’re helping to keep good honest kiwi’s in jobs by using postal services over email. Betcha didn’t think about that when you were gobbing along, dick.

  3. OB says:

    Bravo Kate!
    A well timed and necessary critique of the recent changes to NZ’s aid under National’s new leadership. Not that aid has ever been non-partisan, but you’d certainly hope that with the current global climate, National’s Washington Consensus-esque push might have been shown to be a little misguided at best.

    Certainly hope that there’s a day you be able to look those on Lambton Quay in the eye, but until then, theres always the Kelburn Parade-Salamanca-Bolton-The Terrace-Bowen-(run fast down the remainder of Lambton till you get to the Pipitea gates) route.

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