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Australian aid: re-colonisation by default?

November 10 2006 at 12:42 AM
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By Mark Thomson <>;

posted Thursday, 9 November 2006

In recent years Australia has imposed a governance aid strategy in the South Pacific and the issue has come to the fore in recent weeks with media reports of disagreements between Prime Minister Howard and the leaders of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

I believe it is a mistake for aid to be granted to small dependent nations conditional on their acceptance of policies that serve our national interest, nor should it be about weaker countries bargaining away their national sovereignty on the grounds of our aid generosity, nor should it be about stepping in to take over the operation of poor-performing post-colonial administrative systems on national security grounds.

With the best of intentions, we do not get local ownership and sustainable outcomes this way. We can have the effect of disempowering key actors and home-grown processes for positive change if we take over management leadership.

Despite the potential for short-term security and governance gains, we can easily undermine the confidence of counterparts that they can manage their own business in the longer term. The temptation for weak governments to agree to this approach is strong as there is a perception that financial and other resources will flow as a consequence.

Australia should be looking for opportunities to revise the current mindset, in terms that underline we are serious about partnerships and that our engagements are for mutual benefit.

The standard aid language of "sustainable development" and "poverty reduction" - noble objectives in the right context - are somewhat nebulous notions in providing a framework for partnership with developing countries.

The benchmarks for measuring progress are often loaded with assumptions and values that smack of paternalism, cultural projections and economic modelling that should make us uncomfortable. In the process we run the risk of applying stereotypical definitions and development formulas to diverse societies that defy simplistic analysis.

For example, Australia takes little account of the role of the local community in defining our aid relationship with these countries. Traditional village-based societies retain complex communal structures, customary land ownership systems and traditional social strategies that sustain people without reference to the organs of state. They can and do define and measure development and poverty in differing ways.

As a genuine development partner we need to operate from a profound understanding of the fundamental underpinnings and aspirations of these countries. This requires the application of serious scholarship in the formation of policy and strategies.

Our bilateral aid programs should assist partners to manage their own business, through developing their capability to meet security, legal, institutional and administrative needs and to train personnel systematically at every level (national and sub-national) in the requisite skill sets. We should take every opportunity to enable civil society and government to interact for the benefit of local communities.

The term "aid" is really a misnomer - even in the case of small island states our engagement should be about development partnerships to shore up mutual interests. Investments in these areas should be explained to the Australian people in these terms. Any instability in our region is a threat to our geo-political and economic interests. Even the small countries command large sea areas open to misuse.

The whole notion of aid in this context is paternalistic and outdated. It presumes that along with the wealth of resources we have in abundance, the legal and institutional framework we have inherited from European forbears, we have all the answers for those unfortunate enough not to have our resource base or our institutional heritage. I would
suggest that recent history more than debunks that myth.

A huge divide exists between enabling people to run their own lives, to make their own mistakes and to determine their own futures, and the paternal controller mode that sees centralist systems managing and delivering all government functions.

This is especially so when the controller mode is grafted on and reinforced through external interventions. In Papua New Guinea the poor performance of the post-colonial administration, which is a confused hybrid of centralised and decentralised systems, combined with low capacity levels of public servants, has left a populace that distrusts
central government. Community disillusionment and a sense of disempowerment are growing. This feeds civil unrest and crime.

The centre can provide a coherent and efficient policy and budget management platform, but it is fruitless if good governance principles and resources are not applied locally and if local user groups cannot engage government.

A pivotal role for civil society and government interaction is to legitimise and manage central resource planning and distribution. By contrast, the current aid strategy can be characterised as imposing more central governance, global market prescriptions, more white faces, more police and what was the question again?

The outcome is a form of re-colonisation by default, which can sap the confidence of local people to run their own country. Efficient and fair central resource management is vital, but only in as much as it facilitates local participation and accountable and equitable service delivery on the ground. It is important to get palpable improvements
for local people to legitimise the process in their eyes.

The crux of the Melanesian problem is weak institutions and chronic lack of working systems, poor management and training capacity and a lack of bridges to the people in their villages.

Through an insidious form of cultural imperialism there is a risk of whittling away respect for Melanesian identity. For instance, there is a tendency on the part of many Australians operating in Melanesia to over-simplify, undervalue and even demonise wontok or reciprocity systems, but these are the cement that binds customary society. Reform
processes must work within these cultural parameters, not outside them.

A failure to value traditional culture has seen the baby go out with the bathwater, with young people in particular feeling disenfranchised. This cultural devaluing process can alienate young people from their communal moorings, leaving them disengaged, owing allegiance to nothing and measuring success by the acquisition of material cargo.

An integrated approach is needed to strengthen systems and resources management at all levels of government. It is essential to emphasise and value local participation and ownership, to strengthen home grown training capacity and to focus a large slice of Australia's program on the hard yards of service decentralisation and local user group engagement.

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