Thursday 13 Aug 2020 | 21:10 | SYDNEY
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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

Developing PNG’s cybercrime policy: Local contexts, global best practice

With Papua New Guinea's national elections just over three months away, attention has turned to the government's legislative record. Last August the Papua New Guinean government passed the Cybercrime Act into law (despite the act being passed into law six months ago, it is not yet available for the public to read on the government’s website; a draft copy circulated in early last year can be found here). This act has had and will have major ramifications for the role the internet plays in PNG society.

With information becoming an increasingly valuable commodity, and the rising importance of network security and data integrity, it's positive to see cyber security is being taken seriously in PNG. Coincidentally, however, the law was introduced at a time when the government faced significant criticism online, raising concerns the act is simply government censorship under the pretence of security.

The Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime (ratified by 52 countries, and also known as the Budapest Convention) describes cybercrime as offences relating to computer-related data, fraud and network security, as well as copyright infringement. Cybercrime legislation and policy are established to protect citizens from such crimes and prosecute offenders, as well as to regulate and promote positive growth within the ICT sector. It is important for PNG to take local contexts into account alongside global standards, such as the Budapest Convention, as cybercrime offences often span both local and international jurisdictions. This includes best practice in both the policies and processes for drafting and enacting cybercrime legislation.

The fact that the PNG government has recognised the importance of cybersecurity is significant, given that cybercrime legislation is fairly patchy within the Pacific region. The draft bill outlines offences and penalties relating to data and network security, including cybercrime offences as recognised by the Budapest Convention such as unauthorised access, data and system interference. The policy also covers traditional offences committed via computer, such as electronic fraud and forgery (likewise recognised in the Budapest convention). This is relatively common practice; more and more personal information is held and transactions are carried out via electronic means. This particular element of cyber legislation could be criticised on the grounds that fraud and forgery are already crimes regardless of whether they are carried out online or not – while keeping concerns over potentially creating another level of bureaucratic legality in mind, the components of the legislation relating to data and network security are all quite reasonable.

It is when the draft legislation deals with content-related offences that lines become more blurred and concerns about censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression arise. Articles which may be interpreted as suppressive include 'offensive publications' and 'defamatory publications', among others. The Act thus may deter online dissent to government action, a view aired by prominent blogger Martyn Namarong (who has since shut down his blog in protest). An online defamatory publication, which the legislation defines as using an electronic system to intentionally make publicly available material that may harm the reputation of another person, could potentially land someone in prison for decades, if the punishments prescribed in the draft bill remain intact in the final legislation.

However, Zinia Dawidi, a lawyer who helped draft the document, has stated these were ceiling penalties and that the actual penalty applied could range from zero to a maximum of the figures stated. It is unclear how this policy will apply to whistle-blowers or those that reveal confidential yet criminally compromising documents. One other article that stands out refers to cyber unrest, which the bill defines as the use of electronic media to incite any form of unrest and various other criminal actions defined in PNG's criminal code act. More clarity should be provided around what sort of cases can and cannot be tried under these articles, and emphasis placed on the protection of the right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest.

The other issue that has drawn criticism from domestic commentators is the process with which the act was drafted and passed, and in particular the lack of emphasis on consultation and public awareness. There has been much concern about the timing of the bill being passed into law – the months preceding its passing saw widespread protests organised through social media against the government, culminating in a shooting at the University of Papua New Guinea in June.

However, though the bill was not passed until August last year, the policy was launched in October 2015. The International Telecommunication Union also notes that there was a public consultation held in Port Moresby in December 2012 regarding cybercrime policy upon request from the government. There is little else to suggest a thorough consultation and public awareness campaign, but it clearly has been discussed for some time. Broader community consultation would strengthen PNG's cybersecurity strategy.

Despite the passing of this new legislation, PNG faces considerable challenges with regards to its cyber maturity, as reflected in its rankings in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's 2016 report on 'cyber maturity' in the Asia-Pacific. The same report notes that 'countries with lower cyber maturity continue to approach cybercrime as a means through which to implement strong online censorship'.

Taking the initiative to legislate against cybercrime is an important first step from the PNG government. However, there are areas where PNG can strengthen its approach to cybersecurity. With persistent concerns about censorship hovering over the policy, further definition around certain articles is needed to prevent exploitation and cyber censorship. This should be done in consultation with stakeholders from business, civil society and academia and involve international organisations that work towards enhancing global cooperation on cybersecurity. Harmonisation and effective implementation of cyber legislation will help protect citizens against cybercrime and contribute to stability and growth in a changing global economy.

LGBTQ+ refugees in Australia’s offshore detention centres

Asylum seekers who have fled states that outlaw their sexuality or gender identity are escaping the threat of abuse, imprisonment and even murder, but the public debate over asylum seekers and offshore detention centres largely overlooks their plight.

LGBTQ+ asylum seekers detained in centres on Manus Island and Nauru are especially vulnerable to violence. The Refugee Council of Australia notes that 'there have been consistent and alarming reports of abuse (sexual and otherwise), including of those living in the community in Nauru and of gay and lesbian people'. Similarly, Human Rights Watch noted in their recently released World Report 2017 that 'gay asylum seekers on Manus Island have reported being shunned, sexually abused, or assaulted by other asylum seekers'.

Homosexuality is still criminalised in Papua New Guinea, and if LGBTQ+ asylum seekers were released in Papua New Guinea, they would face a strong likelihood of experiencing 'violence, intimidation, imprisonment and possible death', according to Human Rights Watch.

The murder of a gay Papua New Guinean man, Harry Peter, in Alotau in October 2016, allegedly targeted because of his sexuality, highlights the potential danger to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in PNG (and is a sad reminder that local LGBTQ+ people in the Pacific face similar threats and challenges every day). Advocates in the Pacific condemned his murder and claim the crime has not been properly investigated by local police. As in most countries, there are slightly safer neighbourhoods for LGBTQ+ people in Papua New Guinea and attitudes are changing in some sectors of the community, but homophobia is still predominant.

There are parallels in Nauru, where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 2016 and homophobia is similarly prevalent. There are currently two Iranian refugees detained in Nauru who are in fear for their lives after being physically and verbally abused for their sexuality and their relationship with each other. While their story was picked up by Australian media last year around the same time as Mardi Gras, this issue generally goes all but unnoticed.

In Australia, there is a general culture of tolerance, as demonstrated by the majority support for marriage equality, but the unintended consequences of our actions in the Pacific are often not considered. Most Australians would likely be appalled to learn of the situation of these vulnerable refugees. Dennis Altman, a leading academic and campaigner for queer rights, recently discussed the fact that, while the majority of Australians now accept LGBTQ+ rights and support same-sex marriage, most are not aware of this issue, even within the LGBTQ+ community in Australia:

It's interesting how many people have leapt on the bandwagon (supporting same-sex marriage) but remain silent about the fact we are holding men in detention in Papua New Guinea who have fled because of their sexuality. Were they to be released in Papua New Guinea, which the government says they could be, they face huge possibilities of violence, intimidation, imprisonment and maybe death. While I understand the passion of people who want to get married, I think sometimes a bit of humility is called for – a bit of recognition that for most people in the world this is not the most important issue.

The 1951 Refugee Convention focuses on political persecution and does not include discrimination against sexual and gender-based identity groups. This is still a developing area for both human rights and migration discourse. However, Australian refugee policy should ensure the safety of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, in line with our culture of tolerance and protection of sexual and gender minority groups.

There should be improvements to the current processing system to appropriately assess LGBTQ+ applicants in a manner that does the least harm. When seeking asylum in Australia, applicants have to prove the well-grounded fear of persecution as part of the process. Sexuality is undoubtedly particularly challenging to prove for both the applicant and the host country. But LGBTQ+ applicants should not have to declare and prove their homosexuality in the current manner. This reflects an institutional culture of suspicion and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the complex and deeply personal nature of sexual and gender identity.

Any LGBTQ+ asylum seekers should be moved to countries that welcome and protect LGBTQ+ people. They should not be considered for release in states that criminalise homosexuality or possess the harmful homophobic attitudes that these asylum seekers are trying to escape in the first place.

Pacific links: PNG loses UN vote, kava bars, Air Vanuatu’s female pilot, Tanna and more

  • Papua New Guinea has lost its United Nations General Assembly voting rights as it has failed to pay its annual contributions, joining Vanuatu as one of six countries suspended for non-payment. Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato said the non-payment was an administrative error that had been sensationalised by foreign media.
  • The Oakland Insitute has published a new report on foreign logging companies in Papua New Guinea, alleging that they are continuing to operate in areas where logging should have finished.
  • Low media turnout at a controversial speech by Papua New Guinean opposition leader Don Polye to the PNG National Press Club has raised concerns about coverage of the upcoming election. 
  • Henry Sherrell from DevPolicy has applied new research from Dani Rodrik on inequality to Australia and Papua New Guinea and concluded the poor in Australia are better off than the rich in Papua New Guinea, at least from an income perspective.
  • Fiji’s shadow minister for defence has called for Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho to apologise on behalf of the police force for the death of an 18-year-old in custody, who was arrested for breaching a domestic violence restraining order.
  • The EU has lifted fishing restrictions on the Solomon Islands, following the example set by Papua New Guinea whose restrictions were lifted in 2015. The move has boosted the confidence of the South Pacific fishing industry.
  • Tonga’s Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva has survived  a parliamentary vote of no confidence by 14 votes to 10.
  • The growing growing popularity of Kava bars in the US and Europe could help drive modernisation of kava cultivation in Fiji.
  • Air Vanuatu is welcoming its first female international pilot, Katura Marae, who previously represented Vanuatu at the 2004 Olympic Games at the age of 14.
  • Tanna missed out on the top prize in the best foreign film category at the Academy Awards but the people of Vanuatu remain proud of the film’s achievement.


Aid & development links: Famine in Sudan, universal basic incomes, fighting cholera and more

  • Famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan, with the UN calling for an additional $4.4 billion in humanitarian support in the next month to avert catastrophe. Donations can be made to UNICEF or your international NGO of choice.
  • The Guardian has a photo-essay on how food aid has worked to date in South Sudan.
  • Meanwhile, it turns out the world spends more on ice cream than on humanitarian assistance. (h/t Devpolicy)
  • The NY Times has a multimedia feature on the emergence of cholera in Bangladesh, and the critical role the country has had in developing a treatment against it.
  • At the Centre for Global Development, Todd Moss discusses the idea of a universal basic income in India, raised as a prospect in their Ministry of Finance’s most recent annual economic survey.
  • The NY Times magazine also visited a Universal Basic Income Village in Kenya being tested by Givedirectly where the entire village has been lifted from poverty.
  • Devpolicy provides a summary of the highlights of the recent 2017 Australasian Aid Conference, which includes a section on our recently released report 'Strengthening the Asian Development Bank in the 21st Century'.

Pacific links: Fiji one year after Winston, Tonga Post, PNG's LNG protest and more

By Harriet Smith, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program

Pacific Island links: Alternative Russia, Australia's coal, women in politics, and more

    Pacific links: PNG's schools, Rugby World Cup, regional feminism and more

    By Harriet Smith, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

    • The outcomes document from the 2016 GE Aus-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue is now available on the Aus-PNG Network website. You can view a photo essay of the Dialogue here.
    • Human Rights Watch has released its World Report for 2017, which highlights Papua New Guinea's failure to adequately address a number of human rights violations. Read the full chapter on Papua New Guinea here.
    • With the PNG national election mid-year and Rugby League World Cup matches in Port Moresby later in 2017, politics and sport will dominate life in that nation this year. Get the full lowdown in this interview with the Lowy Institute's Jonathan Pryke on the ABC's Pacific Beat.
    • Still in Papua New Guinea, this Devpolicy blog post explores delays in school funding. The problems with the O’Neill government’s flagship Tuition Fee Free (TFF) policy have prompted some to wonder if this fourth attempt at free education will go the same way as the previous failures.
    • The Solomon Islands government is expanding its urban agenda to address the rapidly growing informal settlements in Honiara caused by high land and housing costs.
    • Activist and PhD candidate Jane Alver believes 'coalitions across diversity' are one way to progress gender equality in the Pacific. Read here how she saw these playing out at the inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum in Suva, Fiji, last year.
    • In the World Bank’s Pacific Possible campaign, one of Fiji’s youngest leaders, Latileta Qoro, explains how greater gender equality can help end poverty in Fiji.
    • Latileta attended the 2015 Melanesia New Voices conference, from which an outcomes document was published by the Lowy Institute.


    Main photo of PNG school students courtesy of Flickr user Asian Development Bank


    The benefits and challenges of ICT in PNG

    Access to information and increased communications capacity bring major benefits to a society. New business opportunities emerge, as do opportunities for education. Access to ICT can broaden opportunities for capacity building and increase workforce productivity.

    The adoption and use of information communication technology in Papua New Guinea has increased significantly in the past decade. The penetration of mobile phone usage is one well-documented example of this rise, with coverage growing from about 4.7% in 2007 to 47% in 2015. Internet usage -though gaining - is significantly lower. World Bank statistics suggest around 7.9% of the population is now online. While the rate of growth is the highest in the region, the percentage online remains the lowest; progress is encouraging but there is still a long way to go.

    But how does increased connectivity translate to perceivable development improvements in PNG? For key development indicators such as adult literacy and GDP growth, it is still a little early to tell. As growth continues and uptake in various sectors improves, we should see trends emerging.

    It's useful to look at other countries that have had greater ICT and internet usage for a longer period of time. A 2011 report by the McKinsey Global Institute that examined the G8 economies and those of Brazil, China, India, South Korea, and Sweden found that internet ‘accounts for a significant and growing portion of global GDP’ – so significant that if the internet and its surrounding business and transactions were seen as a single sector, it would be greater than that of agriculture or energy. Global GDP expansion brings local benefits: the telco industry has forecast the expansion of mobile telecommunication will create 16,000 new jobs across the Pacific Islands, contributing a 6.2% rise to GDP in the region.  

    The benefits of ICT for development are not only economic in nature. Education is one sector that can dramatically benefit. Caribbean countries which, as small island developing states face similar challenges to many Pacific nations, have used ICT to help bridge the gap in education provision that existed between them and more developed countries. ICT has also proven critical in humanitarian responses to crises, particularly as older technologies such as short-wave radio services are phased out. In Vanuatu during Cyclone Pam and its aftermath ICT was pivotal in coordinating relief efforts and restoring normalcy. This benefit is particularly important in a region that is one of the most prone to natural disasters in the world.

    While the benefits of further ICT development in PNG may be clear, many expansion and adoption challenges remain. Of all the countries in the Pacific, PNG is among the most populous with about 7.3 million, 87% of whom live in rural areas where challenging terrain makes further mobile penetration and uptake difficult. Being the largest, most mountainous island in the region, infrastructure has always been an issue for development within PNG.

    Internet access costs in PNG are also a substantial barrier. These are among the highest in the world. Even if rural communities are able to receive a mobile internet signal, the cost to access may be prohibitive. This can deter small business owners looking to improve their business but who may not have the budget for internet. With 3G and now 4G coverage increasing, and an internet exchange point planned (which should improve the quality and, to a degree, lower service costs), cost rather than accessibility is likely to be the major barrier for further urban uptake. Improved service quality would also help encourage PNG businesses to adopt ICT innovations, provided costs can be brought down. Further government and development agency investment in ICT, particularly to help reduce costs, would therefore go a long way and be well received by the public, given the trends in uptake.

    A further challenge to be reckoned with is the disruptive impact ICT can have on existing industries. A notable example is PNG’s domestic media, which is being overtaken by social media and blogs that often operate with little oversight. A 2014 study from ABC International Development on access to information in Papua New Guinea, reported a decline in radio listenership. This was attributed, at least in part, to increased interest in the internet. As developed nations have discovered, few sectors are immune to technology-enabled disruption. This cannot be avoided but it can be anticipated. For this reason, the relevant offices and agencies need to plan carefully when developing strategies involving ICT.

    It is encouraging to see that the rate of growth in internet usage within PNG has ticked up so significantly and spawned new opportunities, but there is still a lot of work to be done. PNG is not alone in this endeavour, as illustrated by discussions at the Small Island Developing States Roundtable hosted by the Internet Governance Forum. A good starting point for PNG would be to collaborate with global organisations charged with promoting good internet governance for the betterment of society. Such organisations, including the ITU, ICANN and APNIC, are well-placed to promote best practice policy development in developing states. The multi-stakeholder, bottom-up approach to governance is much favoured within the internet space. Taking this approach would go a long way to ensuring various sectors’ interests are taken into account in future policy development to promote growth in ICT and consequently advance PNG’s sustainable development goals.

    Pacific Island links: 2017 predictions, PNG uni places, internet cables and more

    How the ABC can avoid tuning out the Pacific

    This week the ABC announced it would end shortwave transmission services to the Pacific region early next year, delivering an estimated $2.8 million in savings. It’s unclear exactly how much of these savings will be ring-fenced for the ABC’s already stripped-back Pacific services.

    I have a lot of sympathy with the ABC's position. Given the budgetary limitations facing the ABC’s international broadcasting services, it’s fair to argue that resources should be focused on the FM and digital services that have the most market penetration. The proliferation of ICT and mobile telephones across the region is not to be understated; you’re more likely to find a phone signal than running water or consistent electricity supply in rural PNG. There’s also a new generation of middle class Pacific islanders who get their news almost exclusively from social media. Freeing up resources to better tap into these markets seems like a reasonable decision.

    But it’s the most disenfranchised in the Pacific, those in extremely remote communities that cell towers and FM radio still can’t reach, who are going to be deprived. Exactly how many people will lose out from the closure to shortwave (often a remote community’s only connection to the outside world) is hard to say, but I would hope that it’s information the ABC collected before making such a decision.

    Weighing the arguments, it is understandable that the ABC made the decision to focus on FM and digital services. But it is profoundly disappointing that such a decision needs to be made at all. The gutting of Radio Australia has already made the ABC’s Pacific broadcasting a shell of its former self. With no other broadcaster poised or incentivised to fill the gap in the Pacific, we are witnessing a serious deterioration of international media engagement in the region.

    It’s particularly hard to reconcile the cuts when you put $2.8 million into context. Our government is sending over $1.1 billion to the Pacific in 2016/17 alone. We have more than $20 billion invested in the region (see table 5 here). Compared to those numbers, the cost of maintaining the ABC’s shortwave presence is a rounding error.

    The cut is particularly disappointing when considering Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rhetoric about the need for a step-change and a scaling up of all elements of our engagement in the region, and considering that the announcement was made at the same time as a prominent (and very welcome) high-level bipartisan political tour of the region.

    This isn’t to say that blame for this decision should fall at the Coalition’s feet. The ABC isn’t exactly on great terms with the Coalition government, and the ABC may well be culpable of failing to both recognise and justify to government the vital importance of their international services, especially in the Pacific.

    Still, the call has been made and the plug will soon be pulled. It provides the ABC with an opportunity to re-engage with the Pacific in new and exciting ways. This should start by setting aside the $2.8 million in savings for more Pacific programming. The ABC has been particularly vague on how these savings will be reprioritised. When addressing the Lowy Institute in August, ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie outlined a focus on:

    …exploring new distribution channels to reach people and an expanded content offering for the region that would include English and Tok Pisin (or pidgin English) audio content and an enhanced Pacific Beat News service.

    The first step towards reaching this target is a firm commitment to reinvest the shortwave savings back into Pacific programming. There are any number of ways in which this injection of resources could be effectively used, but I have three suggestions:

    1. The ABC should rebuild its journalistic capacity to get out to the region more and investigate more in-depth stories. The Pacific Beat team does a valiant job but as they operate on a shoestring budget they pull their content together from their base in Melbourne and aren’t able to travel to the region extensively. Such efforts would have the added benefit of further developing domestic media across the Pacific through working side-by-side with seasoned ABC journalists.

    2. The ABC should follow through on its commitment to investing in FM receivers throughout the region and expanding their syndications and partnerships with a growing domestic media. Of course, a patchwork of FM towers across the region won’t provide the full coverage that shortwave currently does, so investments would need to be made strategically in order to cover the largest number of people. There should be a focus on those in remote cyclone-prone areas that rely on the ABC’s broadcasting services for safety alerts. The ABC should provide a timetable of this rollout to ensure that as much as possible of their shortwave audience tunes back in once services are again made available.

    3. The ABC should invest in significantly enhancing its social media presence in the region. Anyone who has spent any time in the Pacific will know that the majority of young urbanites now consume information through Facebook. Tapping into this market, as well as feeding Pacific Beat content into the vibrant blogosphere and social media news groups, would help to greatly increase the ABC’s audience in the region.

    The ABC plays a critical role in a region starved of international journalistic attention. By pulling the plug on shortwave services it runs the risk of tuning the Pacific out entirely. That would be a grave mistake, and a significant own goal for Australia’s soft power reach in the region. I can only hope that the ABC’s executives recognise what’s at stake, and back up Guthrie’s rhetoric with a solid commitment to further fund Pacific-oriented services. Our nearest neighbours deserve that much.

    Photo: Wikimedia/EGuide Travel


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