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  • Writer's pictureJames Cox

Becoming a 'partner of choice' in the Pacific

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has just launched Australia’s new COVID-19 driven aid strategy, Partnerships for Recovery. It is a clear statement of intent: it focuses on Indonesia, Timor Leste, the Pacific and certain fragile contexts, targets women, girls, people with disability and other vulnerable groups, and prioritises action on health security, stability and economic recovery. Unfortunately no new funding is attached, but the strategy is overall a necessary recalibration that recognises that in this new environment the aid program must change significantly, and that everyone’s capacity and capability has changed.

Partnership is a significant theme of the strategy, encompassing relationships with partner governments and local civil society, other donors, and in Australia, other departments, NGOs and the private sector. However despite the partnership rhetoric, the strategy clearly and sometimes quite aggressively remains focused on the delivery of ‘our’ aid program. This sits uneasily beside a determination to become a ‘partner of choice’:

We will aim to be a partner of choice for our neighbours in responding to the pandemic throughout the response and recovery phases, and in building longer-term resilience. (p9)

This is a laudable ambition and this moment, when so many established ways of working have been set aside, is a good time to do it. But for this to happen Australia needs to change a lot about its approach to development and foreign affairs. Critically, even as the aid program remains ‘ours’, DFAT needs to be ready to cede more of that ownership. For example, in discussing localisation of aid, the strategy struggles with the idea that it might be better to support local initiatives than to mobilise those local resources for DFAT’s own ends (my emphasis):

We will place a strong focus on the localisation of our assistance through partner government systems and local organisations in both the response and recovery phases. This will ensure our efforts are informed by local knowledge, support local priorities, and contribute to local capacity and accountability. (p20)

Consider this alternative wording:

We will support the initiatives of partner governments and local organisations in both the response and recovery phases. This will ensure that local knowledge and priorities drive our support, and contribute to mutual development of capacity and accountability”.

Australia must of course bring its own priorities and experience to the table, but more willingness to be led by partners in pursuing those priorities would be a welcome development. This is especially important in the Pacific. As Peacifica’s recent research for the Whitlam Institute showed, Pacific islanders from across the social spectrum genuinely want Australia to fulfil its promise as the region’s friend and champion, but they are frustrated by Australia’s failure to engage as true partners. Their critiques range from feeling disrespected and mistrusted to straight out accusations of rasicm:

Australia hasn’t done enough. They still see us in the Pacific as people to be helped…that we have nothing of value to offer. [Research participant, Fiji]
Why are you asking us to be partners with you if you are keeping an eagle eye on us as if we are not capable? [Research participant, Solomon Islands]

An important critique was that Australia just doesn’t ‘get’ the Pacific:

You can ‘understand’ the politics and the context, but it’s actually understanding the cultural context, the social context, even the faith-based context, that is important. And in order to understand that you need to give the space and voice to Pacific people. [Research participant, Fiji]

How then should Australia’s relationships with the region change? The Pacific Perspectives on the World report includes a wealth of suggestions from the research participants, as well as some specific recommendations. Chief among these is for Australians to get better at listening to local needs and priorities, and better respect existing local capacity. Enhancing ‘Pacific literacy’ among Australian policymakers and the community generally is an important aspect of this, as we will listen better when we know them better.

There are several other specific things that can be done, many of them quickly:

  • Invite the Pacific island states and the Pacific Islands Forum into negotiations around an expanded ANZ-Pacific travel bubble

  • Ease the administrative and financial burden on Pacific islanders wishing to travel to Australia

  • Actively encourage the importation to Australia of an expanded array of Pacific goods, through local assistance with producers, easing of import restrictions and active promotion

  • Encourage dialogue between Pacific islanders and Australians of all backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

  • Emphasise partner priorities in localisation over donor imperatives

  • Commit to low carbon post-COVID reconstruction in Australia and the region

The Partnerships for Recovery strategy asserts that “The Pacific is where we live” and invokes the historical ties that bind us together. Far more than the Step-up, this moment of collective response to a shared crisis is perhaps our best opportunity to transform that assertion into a reality. We can do this.

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