Development assistance underpins New Zealand’s Pacific engagements. But COVID is changing its focus. The long term is murky and challenging but it’s worth asking some hard questions.
Looking forward New Zealand’s aid budget is similar to previous years (see here). Country allocations are set out here. But details of expenditure are opaque. Some projects are continuing, but closed borders and shattered economies create problems for existing long term development projects, especially those that rely on overseas experts travelling to work with local counterparts. Zoom helps with programme consultation and support but it can’t substitute for in-person contacts. Broadband internet connections in the Pacific are slow and very expensive.
In addition, Pacific countries have experienced a COVID-induced drop in government revenues, especially those heavily dependent on tourism for government income and livelihoods. These include Fiji, Cook Islands and Samoa. COVID has exacerbated PNG‘s fiscal issues. New Zealand provided an initial NZ$50 million package of support to prepare health systems, and address wider health, economic, governance and social challenges arising from the pandemic. Ongoing funding has helped to ensure supplies of medicines, food, PPE and vaccines, especially for those Pacific counties experiencing COVID outbreaks. The need is enormous and will be protracted. An independent Pacific focused organisation providing analysis, visibility and advocacy for New Zealand’s Pacific relationships and supporting policy development would help us move forward.
Going forward, the Pacific's development programme needs will be different post-COVID. Thinking should start now even if there are more questions than answers. Have border restrictions and isolation meant that Pacific nations have become more accustomed to self-reliance? One group of Pacific scholars have made this argument with some considerable evidence in relation to humanitarian assistance. It’s an intriguing thought. Development partners often under-estimate the human capacity that exists in the Pacific. They could consider e.g. the establishment of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Vessel Day Scheme.
Pre-COVID, Pacific representatives travelled frequently and afar. Border restrictions now keep them at home. What impact on governance has this had? Economic management has changed in developed countries, based on stimulus spending, debt-funded budgets. Economic reform programmes are taking a back seat as is explored here. Development partners transfer their economic approaches into their development programmes. What impact will this have on development programmes?
Pacific countries have sought partner support beyond simply funding in-country projects. Demand for supportive interventions that require policy relationships, not just funding, is growing. The Griffith Asia Institute has raised these issues here as has Michael Wesley in this China Matters Policy Brief.
The Recognised Seasonal Employee Scheme (RSE) is an example. Demand is now exploding. In New Zealand it comes up hard against closed borders, limited places in Managed Isolation and new policy approaches that seek to place responsibility for New Zealand’s low productivity on migrant labour.
Oddly, these approaches place heavy emphasis on capped 14,400 Pacific RSE places restricted to horticulture. No comparable focus exists on the more than 70,000 young people in New Zealand pre-COVID on Working Holiday Scheme visas, many of which are uncapped numerically and unrestricted by sector. The uncapped WHS schemes are all from European countries and US. This can give an appearance of a return to migrant choice by nation, which does not sit well with our values. Pacific relationships and the values we espouse must be given appropriate priority in decisions about migrant labour.
We need to be innovative in our thinking about policy interventions and relationships that support both PIC and New Zealand capability. Travel bubble possibilities for implementation when the time is right should be revived. How is tourism revived? We should double down on support to education at all levels, but recognise that in many Pacific nations there are not enough jobs for educated people. What solutions will support Pacific people to contribute at home and raise productivity in both New Zealand and the Pacific?
Some Pacific nations will need direct budget support for the long term. What does a true partnership approach that also reflects New Zealand interests and values look like?
Values expressed at home and in our Pacific relationships are at the centre of New Zealand’s Pacific relationships. COVID has changed the context in which these are expressed. Our Pacific engagements need to encompass innovative thinking that incorporate Pacific considerations in domestic policy, maximise Pacific capabilities and move beyond existing concepts of local capability and in-country projects.
Marion Crawshaw is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies and a former New Zealand High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.