Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters’ recent ‘Shifting the Dial’ speech brought some welcome clarity to the new government’s foreign policy, complementing Prime Minister Ardern’s first foreign policy speech of a few days earlier. Delivered in Sydney, Peters’ speech focused on New Zealand’s neighbourhood: Australia and Pacific Island Countries. What did the speech signal for New Zealand’s development cooperation efforts under the Ardern government?
The most interesting part of the Minster’s speech was the ‘shift of the dial’ in working with the Pacific. New principles now underpin New Zealand’s “shared destiny” with Pacific Island Countries: understanding, friendship, mutual benefit, collective ambition, and sustainable results. Underpinning these principles is the assertion that New Zealand has a common identity with the Pacific, and therefore similar interests. This is the analysis that led to the integration, about a year ago, of MFAT’s Pacific Division and the Pacific Aid Programme. The Minister’s speech is a clear articulation of what this integration can mean in diplomatic terms.
But there are reasons not to get too carried away.
First, the Pacific is not the Pacific. ‘The Pacific’ is a concept that we all employ, but it does not withstand the scrutiny required to create effective development cooperation policy. The Pacific region is notable for its diversity: in culture, people, history, politics, and economies. As Mr Peters himself points out, when he speaks of New Zealand’s Pacific identity, it is predominantly a Polynesian identity. “There is greater interconnectedness between New Zealand and the countries of Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, Tokelau and Tonga, than any others in the world, with the possible exception of Australia”. It is here where the ‘new Pacific diplomacy’ seems the most pertinent.
Second, while no doubt there are many positive possibilities, the concept of ‘mutual benefit’ has yet to be tested. For some development gains, there may be vocal groups in New Zealand that could experience disadvantage (whether perceived or real). Will New Zealand exporters acquiesce to losses if Pacific governments ban imports of New Zealand mutton flaps due to their non-communicable disease crisis? Will Mr Peters himself accept a potential loss of support from his anti-immigration voter base if the governments of Kiribati and Tuvalu take-up the World Bank’s suggestion and request that New Zealand provide open labour market access to i-Kiribati and Tuvaluans?
Third, at least in the short-term of a parliamentary cycle, a preoccupation with achieving ‘mutual benefit’ may distract New Zealand from the hard graft of achieving meaningful, sustainable results (highlighting the tension between some of the new principles). Several Pacific Island Countries have severe development challenges, such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Here, New Zealand simply needs to concentrate on engaging in policy dialogue, and delivering country-specific, effective and efficient Official Development Assistance (ODA).
The Minister’s commitments on ODA levels were welcome. Come May we will know if he has been successful in arguing for increased funding. After an erosion of MFAT capability over the last nine years, including in its Aid Programme, and an increasingly complex and demanding global environment, greater investment is needed – in both operational and programme spends.
While affirming the importance of investing aid in economic development (an obsession of the previous government), Mr Peters also emphasised a much-needed return to good governance, transparency, human rights, and women’s empowerment. The current Aid Programme strategic plan projects economic development expenditure to be approximately 45% of aid by June 2018 (p. 7). At that level, economic activities begin to crowd out funding for important social and environmental issues. Given it can be difficult to alter aid funding commitments, the Minister will need to actively engage to promote his new priorities.
Mr Peters’ speech was light on New Zealand’s aid role in the wider world. A Pacific focus is necessary, but not sufficient, for New Zealand’s development cooperation to match our global reputation. The Minister mentioned multilaterals, but only in passing. The ‘Listening to Leaders Project’ highlighted how much other countries value New Zealand’s focus on quality relationships, and our robust win in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat campaign testified to other states’ good opinion of New Zealand. One hopes the Mr Peters can see the opportunities to deepen New Zealand’s multilateral engagement, particularly building on the significant strengths built-up during our time on the UNSC. Further, New Zealand has great potential to improve its development cooperation efforts in Asia, where the acutely poor and the ‘strugglers’ (earning $4-$10 a day) are not well-served in New Zealand’s development efforts.
In her speech to the NZIIA on 26 February, the Prime Minister emphasised that New Zealand values decency, freedom, democracy, a rules-based global order and standing up for what we believe in. With these values, a world suffering increased isolationism and nationalism needs New Zealand to be an active internationalist. Foreign Minister Peters’ has nudged the dial in New Zealand’s long-standing and ever-evolving Polynesian country relationships. He could turn the dial further yet to amplify New Zealand’s global development cooperation diplomacy, to the benefit of all of us.
Joanna Spratt is a Visiting Fellow in the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University.
Image credit: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets workers from Northpower Ltd who are in Tonga on a six week deployment to support the restoration of electricity, funded by the New Zealand Government. From the NZ High Commission in Nuku'alofa Facebook page.