New Zealand’s Aid and Development Policy is Fundamentally Flawed

Kevin P Clements


I’ve just attended a meeting organised by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade . It was a workshop on   the Partnerships Fund which is the only competitive development fund in New Zealand . The workshop, provided Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials with an opportunity to talk with Development NGOs, Academics and others about their Aid and Development strategy in the Pacific, in South East and Sth Asia and in Africa.

I joined a large number of NGOs and a few private development companies at the meeting. They were all eager to see how they could competitively position themselves for access to the funds.

The opening session set the pace for the rest of the day. The Deputy Secretary for International Development gave a totally tedious introduction at which he noted :

“The Purpose of New Zealand’s aid is to develop shared prosperity and stability in our region and beyond, drawing on the best of New Zealand’s knowledge and skills”

This policy document is not supposed to supplant the 2011 Strategy statement which includes some passing references to equality and poverty reduction but the flagship priorities outlined by the Deputy Secretary had very little to do with justice, equality,or sustainability.

The top three flagship priorities were to:

(i)Expand access to affordable, reliable and clean energy-one sub focus is on improving “energy sector planning and asset management with a focus on least cost plans,cost minimisation through whole of asset lifecycle management and appropriate technology” . There is not a lot of scope here for OXFAM, Caritas, Christian World Service, Family Planning to engage in a joint partnership…!!!

(ii)Increase economic and food security benefits from agriculture. The second flagship programme, is all about “promoting market led agriculture by identifying key constraints and opportunities along value chains and investing in commercially sustainable solutions.Facilitating market access through improved biosecurity and food safety systems and supporting initiatives that build resilience and tackle food security and nutritional challenges” . Again this priority didn’t seem to be within the bailiwick of most of the development NGOs at the workshop. It is a priority aimed at Agricultural research, supporting NZ INC, and Fonterra etc. It is resulting in some daft projects like support for dairy projects in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pacific Island countries. I thought we had critiqued externally driven agriculture in the 1970s and 80s but now its right at the heart of New Zealand’s 21st century Development policy.


(iii) Expand ICT connectivity, access and use in the Pacific. The focus areas for this priority are to “Improve access to affordable telecommunications and internet ; to provide appropriate infrastructure and applications for users. Enhance delivery of eGovernment services;Maximise associated business opportunities by providing ICT tools to SMEs and increasing the presence of private sector operators in the Pacific . Invest in skills and capability development through school curricula,vocational training in ICT and improving literacy for user groups”.

This objective also doesn’t provide much scope for development organisations interested in sustainable development, poverty reduction, closing inequality and injustice gaps, or enhancing the resilience of local communities, building civil society etc.

If you want to get a project selected by the partnerships fund it would be very wise to try and fit it into one of these top flagship categories. There are another 9 priorities but most are market driven and heavily dependent on NZ private/public/NGO partnerships. The Minister of Foreign Affairs wants to ensure that New Zealand INC benefits as much, if not more, from these development initiatives as the recipients.

The other priorities include sustainable fisheries and aquaculture in the Pacific; Increased economic benefits from tourism in the Pacific; increased economic benefits from trade and labour mobility in the Pacific; the strengthening of economic governance in the Pacific alongside improving law and justice systems, health and basic education. The last two priorities are the strengthening of resilience against natural disaster and response to humanitarian emergencies.

There is nothing in this agenda about women, young people or the youth bulge across the whole Pacific. There is nothing here about domestic violence in the Pacific which is staggeringly high. There is nothing here about economic and social sustainability or social and economic justice. There is nothing here about poverty eradication, serving the needs and interests of the poorest of the poor. There is nothing here about corruption, failing states, locally driven development initiatives. There is nothing here about development and peacebuilding or the building of harmonious as well as resilient communities. There is nothing here about the downside of tourism; the depletion of fish stocks, nothing here about political and development accompaniment and locally driven development agendas.

Its all about sharing NZ expertise with   the poor people of the Pacific, the poor countries of South East Asia, three countries in South Asia and a clutch of countries in Africa. MFAT claims that the agenda is demand driven. From my experience in Asia  and Africa and the Pacific I can never recall people in  any of these regions asking me to  approach NZAID  or any other development agency for energy, market agriculture or ICT tools.

Because of this , I asked the first question of the Deputy Secretary. My question was “Is this agenda command driven or demand driven and what is the evidence base for any of the top priorities?” I also added that from my experience this agenda had been well and truly critiqued in the 70s and 80s. He seemed to blanche at the question and stammered a response that did not sound convincing to anyone in the room.

The fact is this is a totally political neo liberal development agenda. It has failed in the past and it will fail in the future. NZ Aid, which had done some wonderful work in the past , was decimated by Murray McCully when he became Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The experienced development experts left the department when it was reincorporated into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they have been replaced by economists and others with limited development and field experience.

Two NGOs were asked to describe their work. One project on providing clean water supplies and latrines in Tanna (Vanuatu) was a partnership between UNICEF and Pearce Consulting. It seemed to be working Ok but there was no guarantee that when the NZ experts left or their locally trained staff were poached by others that there would be continuity. The second NGO was Caritas which has a reputation for social justice, and doing courageous work in difficult situations. But this project on Strengthening Technical Rural Training in the Solomon Islands seemed to me to be falling into many of the traps that   had afflicted many technical assistance programmes in the past. Caritas was the lead agency but to get a Partnership grant they had to partner with three NZ commercial partners to deliver the training. The presenter of this case said that this posed interesting challenges   not least of which was trying to find a place for Caritas in the legal contract. They hit on the brilliant idea of including its religious and development purpose in the Appendix!!! . This is a $2.7 million contract. There is a rule that 80% of the funding should be spent in the Solomons. It was clear from the presentation, however, that most of this in country expenditure was being spent on NZ teachers and experts . These funds would return to New Zealand in the form of salaries, consultancy and training fees.

So my question was, “What percentages of the $2.7 million budget end up in the hands of the 4 NZ private/public partners? And was this an example of 21st century boomerang aid?” Again the answer was inconclusive but it seemed clear to me that this was another example of NZ Aid primarily benefiting the implementers rather than the beneficiaries.

What I found most disturbing, however, was that the very bright Ministry Officials implementing this new policy were completely cowered by their political masters . They tried to defend the indefensible    publicly but were privately embarrassed. There is an OECD DAC review of New Zealand’s development policy due in June. I hope that it is critical of the strategy because it flies in the face of much DAC wisdom. It is highly probable , however , that the Paris drafts will have been completely sanitised by the officials who were publicly promoting the policy on Friday.

The other disturbing element of this meeting was that all of the Development NGOs that were in the room had to go along with policies that they know to be contrary to modern development wisdom.If they oppose them they will not receive partnership funding. So very experienced development professionals were   self censoring their questions; trying to put difficult items on the agenda without irritating the officials or their political masters. I was saddened by this because this sector is also intelligent, experienced and savvy about what development strategies are most likely to work in all sorts of adverse circumstances.

I left feeling depressed that New Zealand government officials and the New Zealand development community were being forced by their political masters into the development and implementation of strategies that have nothing to do with the Millenium Development Goals or the new Sustainable Development Goals. They are policies that will do nothing for the poor, nothing for inequality, nothing for robust and lively civil society, nothing for expanded political accountability and nothing for locally driven sustainable development strategies. They are serving a neo liberal development agenda that has more to do with serving New Zealand interests and promoting New Zealand expertise than tackling poverty and injustice in the world. These strategies will deliver dependent rather than emancipatory relationships between donor and beneficiary and bring NZAid into disrepute. I hope that there is more enlightened thinking going on   in the Opposition Parties but I have seen little evidence of this as yet.