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About the project

A focus on Pacific Islands has been a central component of the Lowy Institute’s work for more than a decade. We research contemporary challenges facing the Pacific islands region in areas including geostrategic competition, sustainable economic development, governance and leadership challenges, poverty alleviation, and Australia’s relationship with Pacific countries and organisations. We also hold major conferences, workshops, dialogues and exchanges. We have produced influential work on Australia’s Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, the 2006 Fiji Coup, normalising Australia’s bilateral relationship with Fiji, Australia’s bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea, the future development challenges of Papua New Guinea, the economic benefits of greater labour mobility between Australia and the South Pacific, security and resilience dynamics in the Pacific, and foreign aid flows in the Pacific.

The Institute manages four major projects focusing on the Pacific:

The Pacific Research Program (PRP) is a consortium partnership between the Lowy Institute and the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Development Policy Centre, with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The PRP is designed to be a globally pre-eminent centre of excellence for research on the Pacific. More details are available here.

The Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and is designed to enhance aid effectiveness in the Pacific.

The Australia-PNG Network is a project supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, designed to foster people-to-people links between Australia and Papua New Guinea. More details are available here.

The South Pacific Fragile States Project was a project supported by the Department of Defence to produce independent research and forward looking analysis on the key drivers of instability in the South Pacific and the associated security challenges for Australia and the wider region. More details are available here.


The Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map is an analytical tool designed to enhance aid effectiveness in the Pacific by improving coordination, alignment, and accountability of foreign aid through enhanced transparency of aid flows. The Pacific Aid Map has collected data on close to 13,000 projects in 14 countries supplied by 62 donors from 2011 onwards. All data has been made freely available on this interactive platform, allowing users to investigate and manipulate the information in a variety of ways. The Pacific Aid Map is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Lowy Institute Pacific Aid map is available here.

Country profiles from Pacific Islands countries can be found here.

See the Chinese Aid in the Pacific map here.



Latest publications

Pacific links: Manus Island asylum seekers told to move on, the rubbish-filled Henderson Island, PNG's informal economy and more


Pacific links: Australia’s budget, shortwave services, the Pacific test, and more


Australian aid budget: It could have been worse

A $300 million cut. That’s what the headlines will say about the impact of this year’s budget on the Australian aid program. But that cut won't happen for another two years and there will be an election between now and then. In the meantime, this year the Federal government's spend on aid will increase - a negligible increase it's true but it will be the first such since the Liberal-National Coalition came to power in 2013. For advocates of a robust and reputable aid program, this year's budget is not a great result but, given the Coalition’s track record, I expected worse.

Two years is a long time for the Australian aid program, where forward estimates have never been reliable. The former Labor government couldn’t keep up with the breakneck speed at which it committed to scaling up the aid program, while the Coalition has not kept its 2013 election commitment to increase aid spending in line with inflation. Now the Coalition has deferred cuts to an election year, it has laid down a challenge for Labor which, post-Kevin Rudd, has had a lacklustre commitment to its own earlier promises on aid.

It was interesting that no reason for the cuts could be given at the budget lockup on Tuesday other than that the savings would be used to fund ‘other policy priorities’ within the department’s portfolio. The Australian’s scoop that it would be used to fund Australia’s spy agency is the best we have to go on.

For an aid program that has been so badly mauled over the past few years, an $84 million increase does not go very far. Humanitarian assistance and the Middle East are the main areas to get a boost. Bilateral allocations have barely changed, while some multilateral commitments have come due. No other substantial policy allocations were made, with the government’s commitment to matching funding with performance clearly still not showing itself at the country allocation level.

Notwithstanding the extra funds this year, aid advocates have plenty of reasons to be angry. This government has consistently cut the aid program. As Stephen Howes notes, aid funding has been reduced, when adjusting for inflation, by one-third while all other expenditure is increasing by 16% over the same period. While it is hard to understand why the Coalition is so focussed on finding ‘savings’ at the expense of aid, it's clear there aren’t many in this government prepared to defend it beyond Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

The cuts look even more severe when aid expenditure is expressed as a percentage of gross national income. This measure now sits at 0.22%, its lowest level since first recorded back in 1960. If the current forward estimates hold, it could fall to 0.2% by 2020-21, sending us further down world rankings of aid generosity. According to the OECD we are now in 18th position. On current trends, by 2020-21 we will be in the bottom third of the 32 OECD donors. Meanwhile total global aid flows continue to grow.

What’s most baffling about our aid program’s reversal of fortunes is that we have such a remarkable economic story to tell. Now entering our 26th year of uninterrupted economic growth, Australia has not had to deal with the austerity programs that most of Europe has has to face. The UK is the most obvious counterpoint where the Cameron government, despite major pressure from its own backbench and while many areas of spending were slashed, legislated a minimum 0.7% aid spend.

The UK example demonstrates the importance of political champions. David Cameron was a true believer in the aid program and he held the line against internal pressure, dragging his party along with him. Public support for the aid program here and in the UK isn’t discernibly different but it's clear that public support isn’t enough to sway a government that does not view aid as an election issue and obviously does not see the value of a robust, reputable and effective aid program.

In 2005, nine years into its eleven-year reign, the Howard government committed to doubling the aid program by 2010. True, the budget was in surplus at the time and a slew of traumatic events in our near region (Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, the 2004 Tsunami) had hammered home the importance of a robust Australian aid program but that decision shows there is precedent for a coalition government to change its tune on aid.

Advocacy efforts with all major political parties should be redoubled to demonstrate why our aid program is both in our national interest and an important reflection of our morality and values. We’ve only got two years.

Aid & development links: Australian Federal budget primer

The Australian Federal Budget 2017-18 will be handed down on Tuesday, 9 May. This is the most important date on the national aid and development calendar and has major implications for the volumes of foreign aid that will be delivered by Australia.

  • It’s been a tough few years for the Australian aid program. It has tumbled in the international rankings as a result of the largest cuts to the aid program in our history.
  • Last year’s budget did show signs the aid program was starting to find its feet again within DFAT but, according to the OECD, while development aid worldwide hit a new peak of $US146 billion in 2016, Australian aid continued to fall in the overall rankings.
  • The aid budget was expected to be increased this year at the rate of inflation, leaving the budget in real-terms at the same level as 2016-17. There have been recent reports, however, that the aid budget may again be cut to fund other priority areas.
  • Getting beyond the volume of the aid program, Bob McMullan and Robin Davies have provided five suggestions about how Australia’s finite aid budget should be more effectively allocated.
  • Jack Corbett has taken a long-term view of how decision makers over the past 40 years have struggled to justify the Australian aid program in his new book Australia’s Foreign Aid Dilemma. You can read a summary here.
  • When it comes to community perceptions of Australian aid, Terence Wood and Camilla Burkot draw on new survey data to argue that the best way to build Australian support is to sell the aid program on Australian values, not national interest.
  • The Campaign for Australian Aid ran an impressive campaign surrounding the public submissions to the Australian foreign policy white paper. Close to 700 submissions from individuals and organisations on the white paper have been made public, but an additional 8500, also publicly available, were submitted as part of the campaign in support for Australian aid.  
  • Equally as important as the volume of Australian aid is its performance, and last week DFAT released its scorecard of the aid program for 2015-16. The major reported headline was that the aid program (barely) missed its target of 80% of aid projects addressing gender inequality.
  • More worrying should be the revelation that more than a quarter of Australia’s aid programs are considered ‘at risk’ of not meeting their targets (38% in the Pacific). A certain degree of failure is to be expected; delivering effective aid is difficult. But these results also marginalise the justification of ‘doing more with less’ with Australian aid.

The Interpreter will post detailed analysis of the 2017-18 Budget later this week.

Harnessing Papua New Guinea’s rugby league obsession

You don't have to spend much time in Papua New Guinea to realise that the country is obsessed with rugby league. The atmosphere in Port Moresby on a State of Origin night could rival the most devout regions of New South Wales or Queensland. Rugby league is considered PNG's national sport. In a country of eight million people and 800 languages it has a unique power to bring Papua New Guineans together across cultural divides. Rugby league also has significant untapped potential to build the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The highlight of PNG's rugby league calendar is an annual clash against an Australian select side, the Prime Minister's XIII. The experience is a much-needed eye-opener for the visiting Australian players, many of whom have little perspective of the popularity of the sport outside their own country. Recently, PNG has also established itself in the Australian rugby league landscape through the success of the PNG Hunters, the only overseas team in the Queensland Cup. Independently funded with very little support from Queensland Rugby League or the Australian NRL, the Hunters have made a splash in the competition, acting as fantastic ambassadors for PNG across Queensland and cultivating a sense of national pride among Papua New Guineans who would often identify with their home province over their home country. As of writing, they have won seven out of nine games this season, a remarkable feat for a team in its fourth year in the competition.

As the Hunters start to hit their stride, the potential for talent development in PNG should become more evident to the Australian NRL. The Pacific is already seen as one of the major talent pools for the sport – 42% of professional players are of Pacific Island heritage, a number only forecast to grow. And yet of these players only a handful are Papua New Guineans, even though PNG makes up roughly 75% of the population of the Pacific states and Papua New Guineans are the most fervent supporters of the sport in the region.

New Zealand's Pacific migration system is a significant contributing factor to the prevalence of Polynesian players in the Australian NRL. A number of Polynesian countries have migration access to New Zealand and therefore, as a result of the open border policy with New Zealand, Australia. That means more Polynesian players than Papua New Guineans have access to training systems in Australia and New Zealand from a young age. For the majority of players to reach the elite level of the sport they need to be in in these high level training programs by the age of 16 or 17. Targeting youth is essential to growing the numbers of professional Papua New Guinean players.

With the right support and investment Papua New Guinean athletes would be an asset to Australian rugby league. Providing Papua New Guinean players with more opportunities in Australia will also have flow-on benefits for the sporting landscape and ecosystems in PNG, meaning that more Papua New Guineans who want to have a career in rugby league can achieve that without having to leave PNG.

PNG's rugby league fan base also presents commercial opportunities for Australia. NRL jerseys are a national uniform, and Papua New Guineans pride themselves on their encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport and its superstars. Already most Papua New Guineans who travel to Australia will make sure they find the time to attend a match during their trip. Both the NRL and the tourism sector should take advantage of PNG's growing middle class and their passion for rugby league, and target this market in their commercial strategies.

Rugby league tourism also has huge potential in Papua New Guinea. In 2017 PNG will host three Rugby League World Cup games, and the country also regularly hosts PNG Hunters home games for the Queensland Cup. Rugby league and tourism bodies should be collaborating to ensure that a variety of packages are available and easily accessible for fans around the world who want to attend a match and experience PNG's unique tourist attractions. Rugby league tourism can also spark new interest in PNG among Australian rugby league fans to build new people-to-people links between the two countries, while also supporting PNG's economic development.

Finally, there a number of innovative programs making use of the sport's popularity to achieve important development outcomes in PNG. These include League Bilong Laif ('League for Life'), a sport for development program launched in 2013 that uses rugby league as a basis for school and community activities. The program comprises outdoor and classroom sessions, features rugby league-themed reading resources, and promotes the importance of education and messages of respect and inclusivity. One of the most striking results of the program has been a growing realisation among children, teachers and parents that rugby league is 'not just a man's game'. In a country with staggering rates of gender-based violence, seeing women in unexpected roles such as teaching, playing and coaching rugby league seems to be having a wider impact on perceptions of women in society, and changing girls' own views about what they are capable of.

It is clear that there is momentum in many parts of the rugby league relationship between Australia and PNG, and it's a good story to share. But more can be done to build on the successes achieved to date. These organisations and programs often operate in silos and don't have enough opportunities to come together. On March 28 the Lowy Institute, through the work of the Aus-PNG Network, did exactly that. We assembled sport administrators, male and female rugby league players, journalists, tourism professionals, private sector managers, NGO founders, researchers, coaches, sports diplomacy and foreign affairs representatives for a day of discussion to tease out these issues and discuss new connections and pathways. The outcomes document from the day can be found here, and a podcast interviewing some of the workshop participants is available here.

Pacific links: Samoa's constitutional Christianity, Fiji's plea to Trump, tuna and more

  • Samoa is amending its constitution to formally declare itself a Christian country; on Devpolicy, Bal Kama considers the regional context and implications.
  • On the ASPI Strategist site Geoff Heriot makes the case for the continued relevance of international broadcasting in the Pacific.
  • This Devpolicy post outlines 'a partial solution' to the contentious issue of aid-funded, non-citizen technical advisers in PNG.
  • The University of Papua New Guinea's acting chancellor Nicholas Mann has defended the decision to introduce a 600 kina (about $250) graduation fee, telling ABC's Pacific Beat it is 'not too much'.
  • Conflicting reports have emerged about the health of Vanuatu's Prime Minister Charlot Salwai. Local media say the PM is recovering from a minor stroke while government representatives say he is back at work.
  • Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has urged US President Trump to stand by the Paris Agreement.
  • On World Tuna Day on 2 May, Pacific representatives met to form a collective response to illegal fishing by boats from Vietnam.


Pacific links: Trade deals, French elections, malaria in PNG and more

Pacific links: Teresia Teawia, PNG’s budget, Fiji Times sedition charges and more

Pacific links: PNG election database, the solar-powered island of Ta’u, longboards and more


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