In the current climate of electoral desperation in Australia, it is difficult to get a true picture of the reality of Australia's aid program in PNG because it's so misunderstood even when the spotlight isn't shining on it. Very few people actually understand that there is a genuine effort on the part of Australian aid officials to respond to PNG's development priorities, priorities that are agreed to by both governments. That's what the PNG-Australia Development Partnership signed in 2008 is all about. And that's what its predecessors, the Development Cooperation Treaties, were all about.

PNG governments have traditionally not liked the confines of the treaties and partnership because they attempt to hold PNG to its word about what it will achieve in meeting the development objectives for the country. It would be easier for them if Australia either (a) handed over the money or (b) simply built things. But experience in PNG shows that the medium- to long-term development objectives like better health for all and good education aren't met that way.

A sober assessment of what this latest asylum seeker initiative means for the aid program has been done by Stephen Howes on the Development Policy Centre's blog.

What Howes describes is the reality: there's a core aid program, which keeps on keeping on trying to support PNG's own development priorities. And then from time to time, like now, along comes a big political train which says 'we want to do this, find the money and do it now'.

So the program gets shuffled around a bit to find the money to do what the train requires BUT (and this is important) at the same time, there is an effort to maintain some sort of development integrity so that the shared long-term development objectives can still be met. It's not perfect or even excellent but the sad reality is that without AusAID working with parts of the PNG Government and across the country, particularly in health and education, the situation for the ordinary Papua New Guinean would be worse.

Photo of the PNG parliament by Picasa user Pat Morin.