Wednesday 27 Jan 2021 | 17:50 | SYDNEY
What's happening on

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

Predicting PNG’s election

The PNG national elections are upon us, and for a brief moment the attention of regional and global media will be focused on this vibrant and costly celebration of democracy. The issues leading into the elections have been well documented by myself and others. Bal Kama's recent piece for The Interpreter is one of the best yet.

PNG's elections are famous for their diversity, high cost, logistical complexity, and security issues. They are a true marvel of the democratic process. The elections are also famous because they are incredibly unpredictable. There are no polls in PNG, and with 44 political parties and more than 3000 candidates contesting 111 seats, a prospective pollster wouldn't know where to begin. On top of that, PNG elections routinely boot out half of the country's sitting MPs.

It takes a brave or foolish person to predict the outcome of a PNG election. Here goes nothing.

How it could go right for Peter O'Neill

Prime Minister O'Neill has significant advantages coming into the election. He has marginalised the opposition to only 18 seats, and his own party (the People's National Congress) at last count held 54 seats in parliament, almost enough for a majority in its own right. O'Neill will be the first PNG Prime Minister to make it through a full term, and over that time he has proven to be a master at using the levers of politics and funding to maintain a broad coalition government.

Given his considerable advantages leading into the election, there is a very real chance that his party will succeed in being invited to form government. If O'Neill becomes the first declared winner in the election he can quickly move on to the real job of coalition-building. A low turnover of MPs (highly possible, given how subdued cash campaigning has been this year) will benefit O'Neill, as he can bring back more of his key allies and members of his own party. As his base builds he can continue to marginalise key opponents, and quickly get within striking distance of the magic number of 56, which would make a second term with O'Neill at the helm a foregone conclusion.

How it could go wrong

Prime Minister O'Neill is not as invincible as he was when commodity prices were soaring in 2014. The people of PNG have been disappointed on a number of fronts, and the dangerous state of the economy is impacting all parts of the country. There has been civil unrest in urban areas, and the outstanding corruption cases against the Prime Minister have tarnished his reputation. A 'coalition in opposition' has already formed hoping to grab the reigns from O'Neill, which includes major names such as Don Polye, Gary Juffa, Ben Micah, Patrick Pruatch, Kerenga Kua and former prime ministers Michael Somare, Julius Chan and Mekere Morauta. O'Neill has certainly been battered, but he is nowhere near beaten. There is, however, an opening for change that one might not have thought possible even a year ago.

The wheels could start to fall off for O'Neill back in his home electorate. While O'Neill is confident he will win quickly, an insurrection is being led against him by one-time protégé Stanley Liria, who has campaigned heavily. If Liria splits the vote in the Ialibu-Pangia seat then an outcome may take some time, distracting O'Neill from the task of building a coalition. If the turnover of MPs is unprecedentedly high, as it was in 2002 when 75% of MPs were booted out, then existing allegiances and party ties will count for far less. O'Neill nearly doubled his party membership from 27 MPs in 2012 to 54 over five years, but opportunism will pose a difficult test of that loyalty.

A lot will need to go right for this scenario to play out, and even if O'Neill is hamstrung in building his own coalition, it is still unclear which leader will take charge of the 'coalition in opposition'.

What will happen?

With all the variables at play this is an educated guess, but my money is on O'Neill. Say what you will about his policy track record, he is clearly a master at the game of politics. Whoever comes into power, however, will have urgent challenges to address – first and foremost, the dire state of the economy. As the count takes place and coalition negotiations drag on, the stakes for the new government will only get higher.

Pacific links: Resilience, US engagement, marine health and more

  • Jenny Hayward-Jones discusses the limitations of resilience in the Pacific Islands context.
  • Greg Colton cautions that President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may be the beginning of the end of US influence in the Pacific Isands region.
  • The first Pasifika musical to be staged in Australia, 'ReHavaiki', explored identity and belonging for young Pacific Islanders living away from their homelands.
  • Solomon Islands is launching a Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan.
  • Vanuatu announced it will not sign the PACER Plus trade agreement, alongside Fiji and PNG.
  • Bal Kama writes on the challenges faced by the O'Neill Government in PNG over the last five years leading up to this election.
  • Michelle Nayahamui Rooney unpacks a recent political cartoon about female candidates in the PNG election, and offers suggestions to address the media's problematic treatment of women.
  • The 'PNG Speaks' initiative has collected extensive interviews with ten prominent Papua New Guineans, documenting their memories of PNG's independence in 1975.
  • The UN Oceans Conference has ended and, after years of lobbying by Pacific nations, all 193 member countries are supporting an action plan to restore marine health.


Pacific links: Ocean economies, PACER Plus, Robin Nair and more

Aid and development links: M-Pesa in Kenya, Blockchain, Paul Romer and more

  • The New York Times discusses the success of M-Pesa leapfrogging conventional banking in Kenya and how it is continuing to innovate.
  • 'Blockchain' is getting thrown around a lot in development circles this year. Duncan Green provides a handy primer of what it actually means.
  • As the Trump administration threatens dramatic cuts to the US aid program, Steve Radelet once again addresses the age-old question of whether foreign aid actually works. NPR also tackles the subject.
  • Reports have emerged that the World Bank’s new chief economist Dr Paul Romer is being sidelined from his management duties as he tries to force them to communicate more clearly. Romer has responded to the reports on his personal blog.
  • According to a World Bank survey of more than 10,000 ‘influencers’ in more than 40 countries, concern about governance has increased rapidly in recent years and reform in this area is now regarded as the most important development priority. 
  • Branko Milanovic talks about why focusing on inequality is important for The Guardian.
  • Scientists have mapped the changes in night time lighting between 2012 and 2016, teasing out some interesting conclusions that are discussed in this National Geographic article.
  • Terence Wood has written on the rise and fall of the New Zealand aid program following the recent budget. He has also tracked how the Pacific fared during the McCully era.

Pacific links: Churches and climate change, PNG election, Fiji and Clause 24, and more

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.


News & Media