TUMBY BAY - More often than not Australian aid to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific seems to lack direction. In specific cases it can actually appear to be random, opportunistic, ad hoc and decidedly vague.
What on earth, for instance, does providing aid money for ‘good governance’ mean? This has been an Australian favourite for years but the evidence seems to be that it has been a complete flop.
Where did the ‘good governance’ aid money go? Did it end up in the pockets of the politicians and boomerang consultants? One could be forgiven for thinking that is the case.
Over the years various attempts to target aid has met strong opposition from recipients, who maintain that they have the right to decide where the money should go.
This assumes the recipients have plans that prioritise where aid money should be spent.
Despite a lot of positive rhetoric, no such plans seem to exist beyond the motherhood statements like the adopted (but failed) United Nations' millennium development goals.
However recent events in the Pacific have provided big donors like Australia with a rationale of sorts.
Australian aid to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific now seems to be driven by two factors. The first is related to maintaining its asylum seeker offshoring program and the second is related to buying influence to counteract Chinese attempts to do the same thing.
While there may be a cynical logic to this approach, it does not bode well for the ordinary citizens of the region who depend on whatever aid money might trickle down to them.
If countries like Australia and China are now delivering their aid almost entirely in their own interests, things can only get worse.
If Australia’s aid seems to be all over the place, Chinese aid seems to be even more so.
Apart from buying influence, the Chinese also seem to be intent on providing much of their aid as soft loans, thus capturing Pacific loyalties for years to come.
In anyone’s language, using aid to recruit compliant nations in your quest for world dominance doesn’t seem to have the right tone about it.
More than that, however, is that such self-interested motives not only take away the recipient nation’s control over aid money but makes sustained planning almost impossible.
In an ideal situation, Pacific nations like Papua New Guinea need to be able to present aid donors with comprehensive and well thought out development plans and require that aid funds be consistent with those plans.
The recipients should declare: “Over the next five years we want to build a road here, develop an agricultural project here, prioritise our education expenditure this way and upgrade our health delivery services this way. Please direct your aid money accordingly.”
The donors should then take these plans on board and plan their contributions accordingly.
Things like splashing aid money on talkfests like APEC and extravagances like luxury Maseratis should not figure in such plans.
Neither should the ad hoc construction that China seems to specialise in, especially when it does the building using its own labour force.
Is there any logic, apart from the self-interest, that dictates where its aid money goes? Is it based on anything more substantial than responding to individual politicians often bizarre whims and calculations about skimming cream off the top?
Aid money contributes to corruption. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Whether it is aid money from Australia to PNG or funds from the Papua New Guinean government to its provinces, corruption is always involved.
We know that Australia hasn’t worked out any sort of workable aid plan with PNG and the other Pacific nations - but what about China?
If the Chinese are following some sort of non-self-interested aid delivery, how do we find out how the plan works and what the social dividends are?
How do we find out how the aid money has been used and, more importantly, what obligations it may entail?
There is an old adage that seems relevant here. It goes something like, if you want to turn a friend into an enemy lend them money.
If you lend people money, as the Chinese appear to be doing, they are likely to end up hating you. That seems to be a very strange sort of diplomacy.
It’s almost as dumb as paying people to look after your asylum seekers.