Friday, March 17, 2006

Winston Peters: Why we must continue to be a good neighbour

The idea that New Zealand should abandon its assistance programme in the Pacific is a narrow and short-sighted one. We are a Pacific nation. This is our neighbourhood and for the good of the region we cannot ignore the struggles of our neighbours.

The Pacific is also of immense trade and economic importance to New Zealand. Trade is worth more than $1.1 billion annually and a significant trade surplus is in our favour.

Failure by New Zealand to act to assist the developing nations of the Pacific would not only adversely affect them, it would also have serious security, social and economic consequences for New Zealand and the region as a whole.

As one of the most prosperous Pacific nations, New Zealand has a responsibility to work with our neighbours to address the challenges they face, and to assist in achieving long-term solutions throughout the Pacific region.

This is in our own interests, and one of the ways we can do this is through a well-managed and flexible international aid programme.

There are commentators who write at length about their views on aid ineffectiveness in the Pacific, the corruption, the bloated bureaucracies and the ordinary people who never see the benefit of the millions of dollars poured into their economies.

Some even prescribe their own solutions and advocate the use of aid as a lever to achieve them. This is nothing more than a patronising, "we know better" approach that best practices in aid have long since abandoned.

Sound development requires an understanding and responsiveness to local contexts in the Pacific just as much as in New Zealand itself.

Anyone who doubts results can be achieved in the Pacific should pay close attention to Samoa.

Despite its absence of natural resources and other constraints, Samoa has over the last decade enjoyed unparalleled economic growth among Pacific developing countries. This growth has been assisted significantly by a programme of NZAID assistance tailored to improve delivery of social services and overall wellbeing.

Samoa should be commended, not criticised, for the efforts it is taking to ensure a prosperous and exciting future for its people.

Last week, Martin Robinson, on this page, consigned Samoa to failure due to its immigration statistics. In reality, there are half as many Samoans registered to migrate to New Zealand as Robinson would have readers believe.

The fact that there is an interest in Samoa or any other developing country in taking up economic opportunities in better-off countries like New Zealand is hardly surprising.

This is no different from any other country in the world - developed as well as developing - where people will pursue available opportunities offshore to increase their economic well-being.

Samoan migrants are great supporters of their families back home, sending them millions of dollars in remittances, export-earnings in effect. So are Tongans, Fijians, and others.

In 2005/06, NZAID, the Government's international aid and development agency, will spend $176 million on efforts to break the poverty cycle in the Pacific. This is being carefully managed to mitigate and avoid the traditional pitfalls and failures of aid.

The OECD recently reviewed New Zealand's aid programme and acknowledged NZAID as a reliable and innovative donor. Taxpayers can have confidence that NZAID is doing all it can to ensure that our aid dollars make a practical and meaningful difference.

In the Pacific, donors such as New Zealand and Australia are harmonising their aid programmes. This means donors work together to produce common strategies, processes and practices, thereby lessening the need for large aid-administrating bureaucracies.

In the Cook Islands, Australia and New Zealand have agreed to join their aid programmes - effectively creating one donor and halving the transaction burden. This approach is supported by the Cook Islands Government and is already delivering more effective and more focused aid to the tiny nation.

New Zealand has helped to pioneer new and innovative aid-delivery mechanisms in the Pacific, which take into account weaknesses while capitalising on strengths. New Zealand's aid programme focuses on finding solutions that are appropriate, realistic and offer both parties value for money.

These new approaches to giving aid create an environment where developing countries are able to actively participate in the process and own the results. Aid is no longer donors giving small grants to hundreds of projects for little return; it's about substantial investments on a large scale to achieve significant results that have a real and immediate impact on the lives of many poor people.

NZAID supports the Solomon Islands Government to provide all children basic education. Funding of $30 million is committed, but is linked to the Solomon Islands Government meeting agreed funding targets throughout the programme.

In the Solomon Islands less than 75 per cent of children attend primary school and even fewer go on to secondary school. The education system has suffered years of Government neglect and was the subject of many failed aid experiments.

New Zealand's help will put a trained teacher in every classroom, revise and update the curriculum, put a library and clean toilet in every school and ensure the costs of educating children are spread fairly between the Government, communities and parents.

The tiny island of Niue faces all the challenges of a small nation but has a population of only 1300. New Zealand assistance is helping Niue to secure its future by contributing to a multi-donor trust fund which, when fully funded, will provide a stable income source for the Niuean people.

Security of finances will mean Niue can do more to attract investment, provide social services and eventually lessen its reliance on aid.

Programmes like this show that aid does work, but it needs to be done right. NZAID's work involves much more than writing cheques; it's about research, relationships and following through.

True, good governance is critically important, but to be successful we also need to demonstrate patience and empathy. Results will not always happen quickly and in the way we want or expect, but we should always be engaged in our own neighbourhood.

* Winston Peters is the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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