Wednesday 27 Jan 2021 | 18:34 | 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

Pacific Island links: Calls to cancel APEC in PNG, dengue fever outbreak and more

Principled engagement: Rebuilding defence ties with Fiji

In this Lowy Institute Analysis, Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos argue that Russia’s sale of arms to Fiji underlines how the security orthodoxy in the Pacific Islands region is changing. Unless Australia and New Zealand adapt to these changing strategic circumstances they will lose influence in the region to external players.

Photo: Commonwealth of Australia/Department of Defence/ABIS Chris Beerens

PNG shootings are not a Tiananmen moment



The reporting on the tragic confrontation between students and police at the gates of the University of Papua New Guinea on Wednesday reminded me of a comment made some years ago when I was covering a landslide in the PNG Highlands.

Initial reports out of Port Moresby this week quoted students as claiming police had shot dead four unarmed students. By the evening news, the number who died was back to zero, although at least seventeen were wounded.

The comment in relation to the Highlands landslide was that Papua New Guinea must be the only nation in the world where the death toll falls rather than rises as more information becomes available. That is not always the case, of course. My early reports on the Aitape Tsunami on the north-west coast of PNG in 1998 had eleven dead, but that rose to well over two thousand as we found out more about that terrible disaster.

What is going on in Papua New Guinea at the moment is tragic. And if the trouble spreads through the Highlands it will become very messy.

Peter O'Neill is not the quintessentially evil character his critics brand him as. But by closing down Task Force Sweep (which he had set up primarily to tackle corruption) and refusing to allow the police to question him over serious corruption allegations, he has allowed the perception to become common belief that he has placed himself above the law.

That is very dangerous in a country like Papua New Guinea, which is teeming with people with a grievance.

It is indicative of how few Australian journalists have any real knowledge of PNG that Rowan Callick had to write an analysis item for The Australian from Beijing, where he is once again the China correspondent. The Brisbane Courier Mail is so short of people who know anything about PNG that one of its headline writers decided the shootings had happened in the Indonesian province of Papua, not Papua New Guinea.

In the first few hours after the initial reports of the police shootings reached Australia, I was inundated with calls from the ABC to go live on various programs to comment. I declined, saying I did not feel I knew enough about what exactly was going on.


It concerns me that much of the reporting said the students were 'unarmed' and 'innocent'. I am sure some of them were, and my sympathy goes to those wounded. The use of live rounds by the police is appalling. But I have covered enough demonstrations in PNG to know that, when it comes to violent confrontations, 'innocent' is not a complete description for those on either side.

The students have been striking for weeks and were about to be bussed to the Parliament to demonstrate in support of Opposition attempts to bring on a No Confidence Motion against Peter O'Neill. O'Neill has the numbers to defeat such a motion at present, and there are those who are desperate to foment chaos to bring him down anyway they can.

Back in 2001, several university students were shot dead in Port Moresby in a confrontation between police and students protesting over the Mekere Morauta Government's implementation of an economic stringency program recommended by the World Bank. One report back then claimed Morauta was the one to blame and that it was 'PNG's Tiananmen Square'. It was not.

That comparison was raised again this week. Again, I cannot see the similarities.

Photo: Getty Images/PNGFM News

Pacific Island links: PNG protests, InterOil takeover, Vanuatu's female MP quota and more

  • Student protests across Papua New Guinea continue as Prime Minister O’Neill has refused  demands to step aside. Four weeks of protest has forced UPNG to suspend the teaching semester, with the Vice-Chancellor demanding students vacate the premises in 48 hours. Unitech remains hopeful that the Semester can still be salvaged. Meanwhile, students argue that they cannot back down.
  • Protests are also beginning to spread through the country, with a rally of over 6,000 people in Kundiawa, the capital city of the Simbu province in the PNG highlands, making similar demands to the students.
  • PNG’s opposition leader Don Polye has been reinstated to Parliament by the Supreme Court, which has ruled that several ballot boxes from the 2012 election must now be recounted to ensure he is the elected representative for the Kandep Open Electorate.
  • Elsewhere in PNG the InterOil board has approved a $US2.2 billion takeover by rival Oil Search. Hailed as yet another coup by Oil Search CEO Peter Botton, the deal has been slammed by a former InterOil CEO and is being questioned by the head of the ICCC, PNG’s corporate watchdog.
  • The date for the Bougainville referendum has also been set for June 15, 2019.
  • The Vanuatu government says it will pass a constitutional amendment to reserve seats in Parliament for women, months after a national election in which none of the nine female candidates were successful.
  • New reporting shows the Solomon Islands government set a record deficit of SBD$172 million (US $21.5 million), or 2% of GDP, largely driven by paying down domestic debt.
  • A new World Bank report argues that the business as usual approach to tourism in the Pacific will not result in substantial growth of the sector. With careful planning, however, the report argues that tourism in the region can generate 'as much as US$1.8 billion per year in additional revenues and create up to 128,000 additional jobs by 2040'.
  • And in case you missed our panel last week looking at new approaches to tackling gender based violence in PNG, the podcast is available here.

Pacific Island links: Manus Island, PNG's constitution, MSG postponed, Pacific Islands Forum and more

  • Following the unanimous ruling by the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court that the detention of people at the processing facility on Manus Island is illegal, the question of responsibility for the 850 asylum seekers and refugees is under negotiation. The time frame for these negotiations is unclear, as the Australian Federal Budget has allocated AUS$55.4 million in funding for Manus Island and Nauru according to Sky News.
  • The Economist ran a useful explainer on the regional processing issue last week.
  • Lisa-Marie Tepu argues that the PNG Supreme Court decision provides an opportunity to reform the legal framework for the treatment of asylum seekers and to reassert the primacy of the Papua New Guinean constitution. A copy of the Supreme Court's decision can be found below.
  • Also, Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow Sean Dorney discusses the enduring strength of the Papua New Guinean constitution in extraordinary times.
  • The uncertainty around Papua New Guinea's police anti-corruption unit continues, with the Supreme Court ordering the Police Commissioner to reopen the unit as the closure is affecting criminal cases before the courts.
  • The 2012 election victory of Don Polye, leader of the opposition in Papua New Guinea, has been stayed by the National Court. Polye has since stepped down as opposition leader.
  • The much anticipated Leaders' Summit of the Melanesian Spearhead Group has been postponed, leaving the issues of leadership of the Secretariat and potential Indonesian and West Papuan memberships unresolved.
  • The nature of the Pacific Islands Forum could change significantly with the drive for full membership for New Caledonia and French Polynesia gaining support from New Zealand. The two French territories would be the first non-independent entities to attain full membership.
  • Vanuatu Infrastructure Minister Jotham Napat is to travel to China to negotiate further Chinese assistance in road construction.
  • Allan Bird writes for The Interpreter on why many Papua New Guineans are occupied with issues other than Manus Island.

Australian aid tumbled in 2015

With the first Turnbull Government budget this week, it is important to take stock of the impact the Coalition government has had to date on Australia's aid program. 

Perhaps the largest foreign policy legacy of the Abbott Government has been the impact it had upon Australian aid. Presiding over the biggest aid cuts in Australia's history, and a now-irreversible merger of AusAID into DFAT, the aid landscape in Australia today is vastly different from 2012 when, under Labor, aid flows were at their highest ever levels and projected to continue to grow.

In many ways this has been a return to trend for Australian aid and there has already been much discussion about the impact it has had on the aid industry. What has only recently become apparent, thanks to new statistics from the OECD, is the impact these cuts have had on our international donor standings. What's been happening in Australia comes into sharp contrast when compared with the rest of the world. 

Overall, 2015 was another bumper year for international aid flows, with official development assistance (ODA) from OECD countries rising for a third straight year to US$131.6 billion in 2015. After adjusting for inflation and the appreciation of the US dollar, this represented an increase of 6.9% in real terms, the largest single year increase ever achieved. Even when excluding expenditures relating to in-donor country refugee support —  Australia was a trailblazer in this kind of aid financing — aid still grew by 1.7% in real terms. This is surely good news for the international aid community, and those impoverished and in desperate need whom this industry ultimately serves. One country that cannot share in this revelry is Australia.

Figure 1: Falling out of synch with the aid industry

Source: OECD QWIDS database. Dataset here.

This chart highlights the collapse in Australian aid we were all expecting, one that is completely out of synch with global aid trends. When looking at a calendar year, Australian aid peaked at US$4.8 billion in 2012 before tumbling by 19% to US$3.9 billion in 2015. Given this is a calendar year measure, it doesn't even fully encapsulate the A$1 billion cut implemented in 2015/16 budget, or the expected 5% cut in next week's budget.

Table 1: How far we've slipped

Future decline aside, Australia's international standings have already been significantly impacted by the existing cuts. In each of the measures listed in the table above, the first assessing volumes of aid, the second a country's aid generosity, and the third a country's ability to give aid, Australia has dropped three or more places. Given there are only 28 countries in the OECD donors club, this is a significant drop, especially considering Australia had the 8th largest economy and 4th highest GDP per capita of this group in 2014, according to the World Bank

Many would argue that we shouldn't compare ourselves to other countries as we all face different and competing domestic constraints. Another approach is to look back at our performance in the past. Compared to past years, however, our current efforts do not stack up particularly well. Based on Australian budget figures and after adjusting for inflation between 1971-72 and 2017-18, Australian aid will have increased by 68% while global aid more than tripled. Between 1980-81 and 2017-18, our aid per capita will be roughly 6% lower, implying our ability to give has remained about the same or, put differently, the amount we give has kept up with population growth. However, where our aid contributions have not kept up is when compared to the growth of our economy. As the graph below shows, by 2017-18 our generosity, as measured by aid as a proportion of gross national income, will be at an all-time low in 2017-18.

As we have become wealthier, our generosity has more than halved. 

Figure 2: Historical low points for Australian generosity

Source: DFAT Australian aid statistical summaries. Forward estimates based on these calculations.

For aid stakeholders and those that see Australian aid as an effective diplomatic and development tool, this is a sad state of affairs. One could argue that, given our geographic proximity to numerous developing nations, we now have an unbalanced set of foreign policy budget priorities. It could also be argued that voters, by and large, are supportive of the cuts. Our own Lowy Poll last year affirmed that sentiment, noting that 53% of Australians were in favour of the cuts. However more recent polling suggests Australians' enthusiasm for further cuts has waned, and also that the way the question is asked can have significant impact on respondents' answers, particularly when comparing Australia's effort to other countries. 

Whatever the case, Australia's international standings in the aid community are falling, and along with them our capacity to influence the regional aid architecture and global development debates. Not to mention the capacity of the government to do good in the region. 

We'll wait to see this week how much further pain the sector will suffer in the year ahead. I'll be taking a more forensic look at the 2016/17 budget figures as they are revealed, so keep your eyes glued to The Interpreter. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Pacific Island links: NZ foreign policy, death penalty in PNG, Somare dynasty, Bishop in Fiji and more

  • New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully addressed New Zealand's international priorities in a speech at the Lowy Institute. The minister discussed the importance of economic development, renewable energy and disaster readiness in the Pacific and talked about New Zealand's relationship with Fiji and with Nauru.
  • Nauru's government has continued with electoral reforms, raising the candidate fee from $100 to $2000. Opposition MPs argue the fee is an unfair barrier for prospective candidates.
  • In Papua New Guinea, Deputy Opposition Leader Sam Basil has criticised the government's handling of the economy. Political alliances are being formed with an eye on next year's election.
  • The first Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, announced that he will retire from politics at the 2017 election. Sir Michael's daughter is considering standing for parliament.
  • The Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission says public opinion is against the reintroduction of the death penalty. The Commission will recommend completely repealing the death penalty.
  • One year on, damage caused by Cyclone Pam still challenges Vanuatu. Recovery Committee chairman Johnny Koanapo says the country is moving from the humanitarian to the rebuilding phase.
  • Foreign Minister Julie Bishop toured cyclone-hit Fiji to inspect Australia's relief support and meet with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and disaster relief officials.
  • I wrote for The Interpreter on the foreign policy implications of the Cyclone Winston relief effort in Fiji.
  • Medical teams in Fiji are combating the threat of infectious diseases, with mosquito-borne illnesses a key concern.
  • Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Dame Meg Taylor discusses Pacific regionalism, the priorities of the Forum and the role of women in leadership in this interview on Devpolicy's blog.



Vanuatu's neglected international airport

By Jonathan Pryke, Research Fellow in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program and Matthew Dornan, Deputy Director of the Development Policy Centre

Vanuatu is the 9th most tourism-dependent country in the world. The tourism sector accounts for between 40% and 65% of GDP (measures vary by year and source), and creates a third of all employment in the country. So the alarm caused by the decision of Air New Zealand, (and soon after) Qantas, and Virgin Australia, to cancel flights/tickets to Vanuatu in January was understandable. The decision was blamed on the poor condition of Vanuatu’s main international runway at Bauerfield International Airport in Port Vila. While Air Vanuatu, Fiji Airways, Solomon Airlines, Air Niugini and Air Calin are still running routes into Vanuatu, the lack of seats, reputational damage, and importantly, the loss of advertising by the Australian and New Zealand airlines, will no doubt have an impact on tourism arrivals. 

The cancellations have come at a bad time. They follow the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, which left more than 70% of Vanuatu’s 277,000 people displaced with lost output and damaged property valued at roughly 61% of Vanuatu’s GDP. The IMF has estimated that reconstruction costs add up to 40% of GDP, of which around half will be paid by the public sector. Funding the reconstruction effort was always going to be a daunting task for government, irrespective of whether the economy performed well. Without a strong tourism sector, that challenge will be all the greater.

Vanuatu has already suffered a decline in tourism arrivals in 2015 as a result of Cyclone Pam and the negative publicity associated with the disaster (not many people travel to places recently hit by a cyclone). Air visitor arrivals in 2015 were down almost 19,000 on the previous year, cruise ship arrivals were down almost 23,000. We’ve made some very rough estimates as to what this downturn in tourism means for the Vanuatu economy as a whole, drawing on a 2007 baseline study of tourism expenditure in the country. We estimate that the decline in tourism arrivals in 2015 (with air arrivals spend on average six times more than cruise ship arrivals) will cost the sector approximately $40 million in revenue (adjusting for inflation). That's roughly two thirds of Australia's total aid budget to Vanuatu, and equivalent to about 4% of Vanuatu's GDP in 2015.

Enter Underlying working and full dataset available here

While such declines in tourism arrivals are nothing new in the wake of disasters, fortunately they do tend to be temporary. The Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority had flagged in 2015 that it would pursue an aggressive marketing campaign in order to draw tourists back to the country and repair the damage to the ‘Vanuatu brand’ caused by Cyclone Pam. That recovery has now been put in question by the negative publicity associated with the cancellation of air services to Vanuatu by three Australian and New Zealand airlines. The cessation of advertising of Vanuatu as a destination by these companies will be equally damaging.

So what happened? How did Vanuatu, a country that is so reliant on tourism, fail to maintain its main international runway?

Bauerfield airport, the country’s main international airport, has been in need of repair and rehabilitation for years. Airports Vanuatu Limited, which is responsible for management of the airport, has been unable to fund major airport works using the (insufficient) fees it collects — in part due to its management of several other (loss-making) airports in Vanuatu. Poor management and a politicised board have also been a problem at various times. As a result, Airports Vanuatu Limited has been reliant on government funds (or donor funds negotiated by government) for major rehabilitation work.

There have been numerous false starts to rebuilding or rehabilitating Vanuatu’s airport, with each new government appearing to have its own opinion on what should be done. In 2013 a deal to the tune of US$350 million (involving no initial outlay by government) was struck with ‘Vanuatu Trade Development’, a Singapore-based company with no aviation experience, to upgrade Vanuatu’s airports and run them for 50 years. A change of leadership saw the proposal dumped (probably prudently), with the new government agreeing on a US$59.5 million loan agreement with the World Bank. Unfortunately, another leadership change led to this deal being squashed with the incoming Prime Minister instead pursuing a deal with a Shanghai-based consortium.

Some in Vanuatu claim that the condition of the runway is an excuse made by the airlines to cancel their services. According to this argument, the decision was actually made on commercial grounds, with the routes no longer profitable given the decline in arrivals post-Pam. An independent assessment of the airstrip clearing it for commercial use provides some backing to this claim, but it also calls for urgent repairs in the next 12 months. Whatever the case, it is clear that the airport was in need of urgent attention; attention that the Vanuatu government failed to provide.

Underlying the indecisiveness surrounding work to the airport has been political instability. In October last year Vanuatu’s Supreme Court took the unprecedented and remarkable action of convicting more than a quarter of the country’s legislature on charges of bribery, disqualifying them from office. Attempts to pardon themselves failed, with the impasse leading the President to dissolve parliament, forcing a snap election early in 2016. This resulted in a new parliament and Coalition government under the leadership of Charlot Salwai. Mr Salwai will be Vanuatu’s eleventh Prime Minister since the country gained independence in 1980, and the fifth in less than six years, just beating out Australia as the most turbulent democracy in Oceania. This revolving door of leadership is in stark contrast to Airports Vanuatu’s line of Vanuatu having 'a thriving economy and a stable political environment'. While political instability is not always associated with poor policy, in this case, the link is clear.

Fortunately, the seriousness of the problem has now been recognised. The new Coalition government has appointed a well-regarded Minister for Infrastructure and Public Utilities, who has taken rapid action to rehabilitate the airport runway. Short-term remediation work is already underway. Longer-term rehabilitation work is planned. This will not spare Vanuatu’s tourism industry from feeling the effects of reduced passenger numbers in the short-term. Hopefully, in the long-term, all three of the Australian and New Zealand airlines that cancelled ticketing/flights will again begin servicing Vanuatu. Although this is by no means guaranteed, Virgin Australia has provided a good sign by indicating that it will recommence flights to Port Vila starting on 2 May. If nothing else, the unfortunate episode will hopefully be a wake-up call for Vanuatu’s political leaders. Jostling for political power is part of the game, but it should not come at the expense of good (or in this case, simply adequate) governance.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user lirneasia

Pacific Island links: Cyclone Winston devastates, aid arrives in Fiji, PNG's SABL controversy and more


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