Australian aid: re-colonisation by default?

Australian aid: re-colonisation by default?


November 9th, 2006, 3:42 pm #1

By Mark Thomson <;

posted Thursday, 9 November 2006

In recent years Australia has imposed a governance aid strategy in the South Pacific and the issue has come to the fore in recent weeks with media reports of disagreements between Prime Minister Howard and the leaders of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

I believe it is a mistake for aid to be granted to small dependent nations conditional on their acceptance of policies that serve our national interest, nor should it be about weaker countries bargaining away their national sovereignty on the grounds of our aid generosity, nor should it be about stepping in to take over the operation of poor-performing post-colonial administrative systems on national security grounds.

With the best of intentions, we do not get local ownership and sustainable outcomes this way. We can have the effect of disempowering key actors and home-grown processes for positive change if we take over management leadership.

Despite the potential for short-term security and governance gains, we can easily undermine the confidence of counterparts that they can manage their own business in the longer term. The temptation for weak governments to agree to this approach is strong as there is a perception that financial and other resources will flow as a consequence.

Australia should be looking for opportunities to revise the current mindset, in terms that underline we are serious about partnerships and that our engagements are for mutual benefit.

The standard aid language of "sustainable development" and "poverty reduction" - noble objectives in the right context - are somewhat nebulous notions in providing a framework for partnership with developing countries.

The benchmarks for measuring progress are often loaded with assumptions and values that smack of paternalism, cultural projections and economic modelling that should make us uncomfortable. In the process we run the risk of applying stereotypical definitions and development formulas to diverse societies that defy simplistic analysis.

For example, Australia takes little account of the role of the local community in defining our aid relationship with these countries. Traditional village-based societies retain complex communal structures, customary land ownership systems and traditional social strategies that sustain people without reference to the organs of state. They can and do define and measure development and poverty in differing ways.

As a genuine development partner we need to operate from a profound understanding of the fundamental underpinnings and aspirations of these countries. This requires the application of serious scholarship in the formation of policy and strategies.

Our bilateral aid programs should assist partners to manage their own business, through developing their capability to meet security, legal, institutional and administrative needs and to train personnel systematically at every level (national and sub-national) in the requisite skill sets. We should take every opportunity to enable civil society and government to interact for the benefit of local communities.

The term "aid" is really a misnomer - even in the case of small island states our engagement should be about development partnerships to shore up mutual interests. Investments in these areas should be explained to the Australian people in these terms. Any instability in our region is a threat to our geo-political and economic interests. Even the small countries command large sea areas open to misuse.

The whole notion of aid in this context is paternalistic and outdated. It presumes that along with the wealth of resources we have in abundance, the legal and institutional framework we have inherited from European forbears, we have all the answers for those unfortunate enough not to have our resource base or our institutional heritage. I would
suggest that recent history more than debunks that myth.

A huge divide exists between enabling people to run their own lives, to make their own mistakes and to determine their own futures, and the paternal controller mode that sees centralist systems managing and delivering all government functions.

This is especially so when the controller mode is grafted on and reinforced through external interventions. In Papua New Guinea the poor performance of the post-colonial administration, which is a confused hybrid of centralised and decentralised systems, combined with low capacity levels of public servants, has left a populace that distrusts
central government. Community disillusionment and a sense of disempowerment are growing. This feeds civil unrest and crime.

The centre can provide a coherent and efficient policy and budget management platform, but it is fruitless if good governance principles and resources are not applied locally and if local user groups cannot engage government.

A pivotal role for civil society and government interaction is to legitimise and manage central resource planning and distribution. By contrast, the current aid strategy can be characterised as imposing more central governance, global market prescriptions, more white faces, more police and what was the question again?

The outcome is a form of re-colonisation by default, which can sap the confidence of local people to run their own country. Efficient and fair central resource management is vital, but only in as much as it facilitates local participation and accountable and equitable service delivery on the ground. It is important to get palpable improvements
for local people to legitimise the process in their eyes.

The crux of the Melanesian problem is weak institutions and chronic lack of working systems, poor management and training capacity and a lack of bridges to the people in their villages.

Through an insidious form of cultural imperialism there is a risk of whittling away respect for Melanesian identity. For instance, there is a tendency on the part of many Australians operating in Melanesia to over-simplify, undervalue and even demonise wontok or reciprocity systems, but these are the cement that binds customary society. Reform
processes must work within these cultural parameters, not outside them.

A failure to value traditional culture has seen the baby go out with the bathwater, with young people in particular feeling disenfranchised. This cultural devaluing process can alienate young people from their communal moorings, leaving them disengaged, owing allegiance to nothing and measuring success by the acquisition of material cargo.

An integrated approach is needed to strengthen systems and resources management at all levels of government. It is essential to emphasise and value local participation and ownership, to strengthen home grown training capacity and to focus a large slice of Australia's program on the hard yards of service decentralisation and local user group engagement.


November 9th, 2006, 3:52 pm #2

Drought, pockets of poverty, a need to put in place a water delivery infrastructure, a run-down hospital system, senior citizens in need of dental care, carers being paid as little as 64cents per day, native refugees in one of the territories etc. Australian aid needs to find its way to Australia.

Posted by Sage, Thursday, 9 November 2006 9:18:28 AM

Agreed, not that this means much in our present democratic set up.
A media run effort with the media controlled in many ways by the Government, a media quite prepared to use emotional inaccurate headlines for profit whose ideology is the market not people, in part fed by a Government whose attitude is typified in this article.

New or is it reimposition of old Colonialism.

Reminds me of a previous Governor General, “I will not be de de de deterred ”

Similarly we shall impose democracy and law in the interests of free trade and local security. Australia’s. As we have helped do in Iraq after defanging a hyped up tyrant, after finding no remnants of the WMD’s, the West had in the main supplied.
Here a before hand study of tribal religious and racial structure was made in great depth before embarking on our Crusade! The consequences of this study are with us still!

Comes to a crunch corporations interested may employ mercenaries to achieve our purpose as is happening in Iraq.
Nothing two way about it!

Posted by untutored mind, Thursday, 9 November 2006 11:37:02 AM

Mark Thompson’s second paragraph is naïve, if he really believes in his criteria for foreign aid; or, he is saying that no aid should be given.

Foreign aid is a much for Australia’s benefit as it is for the basket case countries receiving it. So, take away the requirements that Thompson believes should not be attached to aid, and there will be no aid.

Given the insults and ineffectiveness of Australia’s aid to mendicant countries in the Pacific, no aid would be a good idea. The money saved could be transferred to the defence budget to better protect Australia when sinister regimes more to the liking of Somare and Co. provide foreign aid with their conditions attached.

Foreign aid is about Australia’s security in the region. Let’s have some honesty and take steps to protect ourselves from belligerent oafs and concentrate on real defence rather than tolerating the nonsense currently coming out of PNG and East Timor, and giving them aid on top of it

Posted by Leigh, Thursday, 9 November 2
006 11:59:23 AM

Mark, well said!
The pure dry logicians at Canberra are detached from reality. Furthermore, the think-thanks that the Howard Government relies on are more concerned with "devilopment" instead of "development" that results in "progress and mutual respect" at the end of the day.

We cannot continue to be kiddened anymore. Keep your AID for the drought and water crises back home. The subsistence people of PNG and other Pacific Islands countries will live happily off their land, sea and whatever there is left to it.
Posted by Forever Optimist PNGean, Thursday, 9 November 2006 3:38:35 PM
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The shadows of colonialism are still upon us superior Westerners whether we like it or not?

1. In the Middle East we are still trying to push our superiority there in the guise of aid, or as with the Americans in Iraq, making a mess of promises of Western democratic ideals. That is why we Westerners resent Iran so much which being Persian, not Arab, is successfully going it alone with only technical help for a time from the West. But help from little Westernised Israel - No - especially as Israel has been made a far bitter enemy of Iran by America allowing the Israelies the use of nuclear weaponry. All what is now known as Western neo-colonial tactics, Choose your colonial partners.

2. Neo-colonialisn is also upon us Australians because it still haunts Melasia as well as island nations like Fiji, where more educated persons from India were and still allowed to a certain extent, clerical jobs, and even command positions in preference to native peoples. And islands like Fiji being such exciting places for tourists, it is understandable that many of those of original island stock would be more concerned about foreign command positions, than making tourist dollars.

3. Our mature-age study group has also been told by an Australian nurse who was working in Saudi-Arabia, how there is preference even among the Saudi leaders to bring in Westerners for most skilled positions rather than using their own. As bin Laden is or was a Saudi, it should give us an inkling into the reason for his rebellious activities. Overdone to our Western minds, naturally.

4. Neo-colonialism is also shown by corporate giants acting not much different to colonial collossals like the Hudson Bay and East India Companies, the latter which finished up running the whole of Ceylon with a hundred thousand British-trained native troops under company control. The American trained Contras in Sandinista were under a style of corporate control also.

When we think deeply about it, us superior Westerners haven’t really changed much, have we

Posted by bushbred, Thursday, 9 November 2006 4:51:19 PM

It doesn't look as though Dr.Thompson managed to accomplish much during his ten years in PNG if the current state of affairs is any indication.
It seems to me that all the aid that is given to these countries ends up in the hands of the people at the centre of the government, so we might as well just turn them loose to manage their own affairs as they did before we inflicted ourselves upon them. Then they will have no one to blame but themselves for what goes wrong or conversely they will be able to pat themselves on the back if things turn out all right.
I am not holding my breath though.

Posted by VK3AUU, Thursday, 9 November 2006 10:24:14 PM