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Pacific Islands: Overcoming the aid mind-set

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COMMENTS

7 January 2008 16:20

The previous government’s hectoring of Pacific Island leaders and politicians, which led to the image problem identified by Cynthia Banham in today's SMH, received surprisingly little scrutiny in Australia. The Pacific is our region; we should understand it, we should have positive and enduring relationships with the governments of the region and broad-based people-to-people links. Are Australians satisfied that despite the millions of dollars in development assistance the government has poured into Pacific Island countries for more than twenty years, our relationships with key regional counterparts have been in disarray and our diplomatic influence has been on the wane?

An article by Richard Dowden about Britain’s response to recent events in Kenya had a similar message about the need for understanding and diplomatic skills from large powers in their relationships with troubled developing countries. Dowden observed that the British government had reduced its capacity for understanding Africa after it adopted the aid agency view of the continent that all it needed was aid.

There are some commonalities in the way the Australian Government manages its development assistance program in the Pacific. AusAID's dominance in the official Australian interest and presence in the Pacific Islands and particularly in Melanesia has resulted in the region being viewed in Australia largely through a development perspective. Pacific Island politicians and officials have been regarded as aid clients rather than as equals, and therefore apparently deserving of public criticism from donor governments.

The general poor knowledge in Australia of the vibrant but complex cultures and languages of Pacific Islands has also hindered the development of diplomatic skills relevant to the region.  It is different in South-East Asia, where Australia’s interaction with governments and civil society is not dominated by questions of aid, and where, not coincidentally, much effort has been expended by the Australian government in understanding cultural norms and learning languages.  Serious reflection of Australian interaction with Pacific Island states, outside the realm of the aid program, is long overdue.

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