By Matthew Scott*
A special feature moved in association with the Asia Pacific Report.
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (IDN) — The beach is vanishing, one day at a time. The sea approaches the coastal village. It will not be negotiated with. With seawater flooding the water table, crops that have fed the islanders for centuries are losing viability. The problem is invisible, under the people’s feet. But it demands change.
Each year, the cyclones have seemed to get more volatile and less predictable. What used to be a cycle of weathering the storm and rebuilding has become a frenetic game of wits with the elements.
In 2012, 3.8 per cent of the total GDP of the Pacific Islands region was spent on the rebuilding efforts needed after natural disasters. In 2016, that number had risen to 15.6 per cent.
The effects of climate change are increasing the volatility and unpredictability of tropical cyclones in the Pacific. That number has nowhere to go but up.
This story is playing out all over the Pacific, where economically vulnerable nations are some of the first to become victims to the encroaching climate crisis. Countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu, which have contributed least to the carbon emissions driving climate change, are on the brink of becoming its first casualties.
With millions of lives in the balance, this is a moral issue. South Pacific’s richest country, New Zealand has responded according to its conscience. Or at least it appears so.
The New Zealand Aid Programme sends 70.7 per cent of its aid to countries in the Pacific. As such, New Zealand is inextricably entwined with funding and encouraging processes of climate adaptation and mitigation in the region.
However, recent findings from the studies of Professor Patrick D Nunn from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, suggest that the most common forms of climate aid to Pacific nations breed economic dependency and fail to help them create a sustainable and self-reliant future.
On the surface, New Zealand’s climate aid policies seem like a life preserver to its drowning neighbours. But when the programme is considered in the long view, does that life preserver come with a dog collar?
Ruined sea walls line the beaches of the South Pacific, a visual reminder to the people of the islands that the promise of help is sometimes broken.
New Zealand’s Custodian Role In The Pacific
New Zealand has long played a custodial role in the Pacific. A shared colonial history and geographical location has created a familial bond between New Zealand and countries like the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga.
Employment opportunities stimulated immigration to New Zealand after World War Two, when the NZ government opened its doors to the Pacific to fill labour shortages. Soon, the industrial areas of New Zealand (NZ) cities were centres of the Pacific diaspora. Nowadays Auckland is the biggest Pasifika city in the world.
But there was always a two-faced element to NZ’s treatment of the Pacific. It welcomed Pacific people in on the one hand, but then punished them and sent them away with the other.
Norman Kirk’s government introduced the Dawn Raids in 1973, when crack police squads stormed homes and workplaces looking for overstayers—countless migrants from the Pacific were separated from their families, lives and livelihoods.
Between 2015 and 2019, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided $200 million in climate aid to the Pacific. “People argue that aid is buying influence,” says Professor Nunn. “I don’t think they are far off the mark.”
New Zealand’s motivations for climate aid in the Pacific are murky when the communication within the government bodies responsible is studied.
“The region is also that part of the world where our foreign policy ‘brand’ as a constructive and principled state must most obviously play out,” wrote NZ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) in its October 2017 Briefing to an Incoming Minister.
The MFAT website says that strengthening NZ’s national “brand” is in order to promote New Zealand as a “safe, sustainable and stable location to operate a business and to invest”.
Where is the money going?
But that doesn’t mean that New Zealand’s climate aid in the Pacific cannot have altruistic effects. However, it is still necessary to examine where New Zealand’s money is going.
A 2020 study from Professor Nunn and a group of other academics casts doubt on whether current modes of climate adaptation can effectively promote long-term solutions for the Pacific Islands.
“It’s unhelpful in the sense that it’s implicitly encouraged that Pacific Island countries don’t build their own culturally-based resilience,” Professor Nunn says. “It’s encouraged that they adopt global solutions that aren’t readily transferable to a Pacific Island context.”
One of the more visible examples is the ubiquitous sea wall. Sea walls protect coastal communities from rising sea levels throughout New Zealand, so it seems obvious that they could do the same job for Pacific neighbours.
But New Zealand invests in building its walls to stand for the long-term, and the country has access to the capital and human resources needed to maintain them. This is not always the case in the developing countries of the South Pacific.
“Usually there’s not enough data to inform the optimal design of sea walls,” says Professor Nunn. “So the sea wall collapses after two years. Then the community struggles to find funds to fix it because they are not part of the cash economy.”
Academic and journalist Professor David Robie, the recently retired director of the Pacific Media Centre, sees NZ’s relationship with the Pacific as neo-colonial.
“We build sea walls where as they would plant mangroves,” he says. Mangroves, of course, don’t require upkeep, and they are a solution that people in the Pacific have used for centuries. “They might not always fulfil the urgent interventions required during the climate crisis, but as New Zealand seeks to advance our “brand” in the Pacific, do we give them due consideration, or do we fall back on our own western solutions by default?”
“It would have been better to not have had such a neo-colonial approach,” says Professor Robie. “We could have encouraged the Pacific countries to be a lot more self-reliant.”
For countries that consist of primarily low-lying atolls such as Kiribati, leaving their ancestral homeland will one day sadly be the only option.
Other nations such as Fiji and Samoa have the capacity to weather the storm if development is focused in the right direction – the gradual relocation of population centres inland, away from the risks of increasing flood frequency and rising tides.
Examining NZ’s aid
In July 2019, an inquiry was launched by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee into NZ’s Pacific aid. The committee examined every facet of how the lion’s share of New Zealand’s foreign aid budget is spent. With Pacific aid, this means a discussion of climate change is inevitable.
Their findings were released last August. They recommended that the aid programme take steps to “more deeply engage with local communities, ensuring all voices within those communities are heard, and their viewpoints respected.”
They also suggested that MFAT places a heightened emphasis on social inclusion step up efforts to make sure development is centred around the locally-owned industry.
“Pushing New Zealand values into the Pacific—particularly when tied to monetary support—could be viewed as a renewed form of colonialism,” submitted one anonymous member of the public. Another raised that “greater engagement is needed with local communities to ascertain both their values and needs, and for aid to be appropriately tailored.”
These criticisms are not definitive proof of missteps on the part of the ministry. However, they are talking points that the ministry themselves seem unwilling to address.
“Four principles underpin New Zealand’s international development cooperation: effectiveness, inclusiveness, resilience and sustainability,” said an MFAT spokesperson when asked if there was a risk of breeding economic dependency via NZ forms of aid.
“Their purpose is to guide us and those we work within our shared aim to contribute to a more peaceful world, in which all people live in dignity and safety, all countries can prosper, and our shared environment is protected.”
When New Zealand signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, Prime Minister John Key pledged to provide up to $200 million in climate aid over the next four years. Most of this was focused on the Pacific.
The Paris Agreement recognised that the Pacific was indeed one of the world’s most vulnerable regions when it comes to the effects of climate change. Small populations reliant on a narrow array of staple crops and food sources put the people of the Pacific in a particularly precarious position.
In their 2019 paper “Foreign aid and climate change policy”, Daniel Y Kono and Gabriella R Montinola claim that while foreign aid for climate adaptation and mitigation is on the rise, the manner in which it is employed may render it toothless and unable to make changes for the people of the Pacific in the long term.
The main reason for this conclusion is that there has been little to no evidence that foreign climate aid in Pacific nations can be correlated with Pacific governments enacting policies addressing the crisis.
It is arguable whether foreign aid can be expected to affect the policies of recipient governments. However, it is undeniable that solutions to climate change require synchronised action from both suppliers and recipients of this aid.
In order to plant the seeds for long-term viable responses to climate aid, NZ’s approach needs to consider the worldview of people in the Pacific.
Professor Nunn sees this as another form of developed countries employing neo-colonial tactics in order to build relationships of dependency with countries in need.
“You cannot take your worldviews and impose them on people who have different worldviews and expect those people to accept them,” he argues.
Practitioners of foreign aid need to show cultural competency if their approach is going to be picked up by the people of the Pacific.
“You’ve got to understand why your interventions are failing,” says Professor Nunn. “You go in there and argue on the basis of science. Nobody in rural Pacific Island communities gives a stuff about science. What they understand is God. To ignore that and pretend that it’s not important is just going to result in a continuation of failed interventions.”
Understanding is the route to developing a system of long-term and sustainable examples of climate change adaptation and mitigation in the Pacific.
“Empowering Pacific Island communities means understanding them,” says Professor Nunn. “Not just what their priorities are, but also how they’ve reached those priorities.” [IDN-InDepthNews — 29 April 2021]
* Matthew Scott is a new graduate from the mass comm program of Auckland University of Technology. Meanwhile, an Auckland-based journalist, he is a contributor to Asia Pacific Report.
Photo: Many Pacific nations are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Image: In the Eye of the Storm.
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