Pacific Scoop

McCully’s Pacific aid slashing ‘whim’ angers grassroots disaster team


Samoa cleanup

Cleaning up in the wake of last year's tsunami in Samoa. Photo: Jane Ussher/Oxfam

While Canterbury had both its nerves and its heritage buildings rattled by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and Samoa paused for the anniversary of last year’s tsunami to remember the death and destruction, a policy decision in New Zealand has delivered its own shock wave around the Pacific.

Pacific Scoop
Report – By Kim Bowden

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully’s recent curb on New Zealand funding for a regional project targeted at helping Pacific communities increase their resilience towards natural disasters has left non-government organisations reeling with shock.

The project, overseen by Suva-based Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific (FSPI), works with grassroots development organisations in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu to reduce the impact of disasters such as tsunamis, cyclones and floods.

New Zealand pledged to commit $500,000 a year for three years but now funding has been cut after only one year.

According to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the decision is part of the “reprioritisation of the New Zealand aid programme”.

The Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT) is one of the regional partners working to implement the FSPI natural-disaster-readiness programme. The focus of their effects is on Simbo Island, most hard-hit by the 2007 Solomon Islands tsunami.

According to project director Jennifer Wate, the work so far has been well received by the local community. First aid training was provided and Wate says these are valuable skills people have been able to take back to help their families and wider communities.

“It’s really working for them. They are really happy.”

Plans on hold
Pipeline-plans are now on hold. “This month we are supposed to implement a mock [tsunami] drill,” says Wate. “We are unable to do this despite the fact we have told the communities we will.”

Wate says there are “ripple effects” from funding decisions like that made by McCully and it is the grassroots organisations on the delivering end of the aid that bear the brunt of it.

“We are the ones on the frontline who people are dealing with. It is us, people are pinpointing us as not doing what we say.”

Wate says overseas funding decisions also have an impact on staff turnover, and says funding cuts are often detrimental to a local organisation’s capacity-building.

Pacific Scoop was only able to talk to Winch Garae, the youth programmes co-ordinator at the Vanuatu branch of the FSPI about what the funding cut meant for their disaster risk management programme – Peter Kaloris, who had invested a year’s work in managing the project is out of a job.

Losing faith
Despite the funding “hiccup”, Wate says she does not “want the people we have been working with to lose faith in our projects”. The SIDT is looking for alternative funding sources.

Stewart Serawe, who co-ordinates the disaster preparedness project under the FSPI banner in Papua New Guinea, is also on the look-out for fresh aid opportunities.
He has been working with a coastal community vulnerable to flooding and damage caused by king tides and strong winds.

“When we first entered the community they were expecting relief supplies. Yes we provide relief but we want to explain it is best to prepare for future disasters,” says Serawe.

With the first year of New Zealand’s planned three-year funding, Serawe worked with villagers to develop a mangrove nursery along the coastline to protect their homes from the unforgiving lashings of the high seas, as well as re-teaching traditional food preservation techniques to ensure adequate supplies in adverse growing or fishing conditions.

In light of the funding cut, all future plans for the project are now on hold, says Serawe. “Basically if funding has ceased we have to stop. Everything comes to a complete stop.”

Abrupt exit
The MFAT spokesperson says the ministry is currently in discussion with the FSPI about the timing of New Zealand’s exit from the current arrangement to help ensure there is “an orderly transition”.

Serawe says his organisation “got a shock” when they heard of the funding decision as they had provided a project report last September which they received no response to.

When the anticipated funding did not arrive earlier this year, Serawe says the disaster management programme was propped up by $27,000 of funding actually allocated to other projects the organisation is working on.

“The project partners in Fiji have informed us NZAid is willing to reinvest for the period they kept us in the dark.”

Wate says the Solomon Islands-based organisation also received no notice of the funding cancellation and she cannot understand why such a decision was made without someone looking into the work already undertaken during the project’s first year of operation.

“We understand the decision is a result of a change in policy however it would be good to have an evaluation carried out so there is a clear picture to see if money sent is actually having an impact on the people.

“It’s a lesson learnt for NGOs that when there is a problem like this you have to face it. But at the same time there is an obligation for donors to inform us some months earlier so we are able to co-ordinate.”

‘Duty of care’
Dr Kenneth Jackson, a development studies professor at the University of Auckland specialising in aid effectiveness, says although he doesn’t know anything about the specifics of this particular project the abrupt decision to cut funding “on the face of it, doesn’t seem good”.

He says there is a “duty of care” that comes with giving aid and while assessing the effectiveness of aid contributions is important, it needs to be balanced against the needs and expectations of the organisation at the receiving end of the payout and the community they serve.

“A contract for three years leads to some expectations and it is a matter of continuing with your obligations.”

Jackson says he would expect a commissioned project not to be completed only when “something pretty terrible”, such as corruption, had gone on.

Phil Twyford

Labour foreign affairs spokesman Phil Twford condemns government failure to honour aid commitment. Photo: PMC/archive

Labour’s associate foreign affairs spokesperson Phil Twyford has condemned the government’s decision to pull out of its funding commitment for the FSPI project.

He says the FSPI is simply the latest casualty of a shift in policy that has seen the minister slash aid delivered through non-government organisations without any real assessment of the effectiveness of their work.

“New Zealand made a multimillion dollar commitment over several years, had made one payment and then withdrew from the commitment and cut the support for the project on what really seems to be the whim of the minister.”

‘Unaccountable policy’

Twyford, who worked for humanitarian and development agency Oxfam for 15 years prior to becoming a Member of Parliament, says the foreign policy direction being taken by McCully when it comes to managing New Zealand’s overseas aid programme “is very unprofessional and unaccountable”.

“The fundamental principles of good development practice are that you try as hard as you can to measure the effectiveness of the work to see if you are making a difference to people’s lives and to see if you are meeting your goals and that kind of analysis and evidence should then inform the decision making.”

When contacted by Pacific Scoop, McCully was unavailable to comment on his decision to cull the FSPI’s funding.

However earlier this month, while leading a delegation to the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Samoa, he launched a strong attack on Pacific aid organisations saying they were not meeting the practical needs of the region.

According to a Stuff report, McCully was “unapologetic about the fact that we are reshaping our policies to better meet the needs.

“In fact we have got to get more focussed about getting more practical things on the ground.

Stuff reports McCully says the FSPI’s tsunami relief programme had been inadequate and its work on tsunami warnings piecemeal and ad hoc.

New programme
A spokesperson for the minister says during last month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Vanuatu McCully hinted that New Zealand would shortly announce a new programme – worth nearly $4 million – that will offer a more comprehensive tsunami warning system that would meet the needs of the people of the Pacific.

Twyford acknowledges that “from bits and pieces that the government has said they are looking at a new approach to New Zealand’s response to disasters and emergencies in the region”,  but he says the lack of transparency around this swing in funding direction is not acceptable, especially to the Pacific-based NGOs whose work has been sacrificed in the process.

Kim Bowden is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.

Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International in Fiji