Analysis – By Helen Hughes
The villagers of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, together with those of Fiji’s military dictatorship where living standards have been dropping precipitously, make up most of the population of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. They are now among the very poorest people in the world.
Women and their babies die in childbirth in the bush. Children are wracked by diarrhoea and chest catarrhs. HIV/AIDS in PNG compares with Mali and Burkina Faso. Illnesses no longer evident in most of the world plague adults.
Cholera outbreaks in Madang and Lae threaten Australian travellers. Drug-resistant tuberculosis has crossed to Australia’s Sabai and other Torres Strait islands.
The gardens worked by women still ensure sufficient food but, because agriculture has not developed, more than a million men hang out without work, bored, dispirited and seething with frustration.
Pacific village women are among the most world’s most deprived. Economic stagnation has been followed by social breakdown so that rape has spread from towns. Female teachers are often not safe and girls cannot walk to school. Violence is held at bay only by the presence of Australian policemen in the Solomons.
It is endemic in the PNG highlands where it is still common to see women breastfeeding piglets because they are more valuable than children!
Only 60 percent of voters are enrolled in PNG. Elections mean a changing roster of “Big Men” to exploit parliamentary power. Senior public servants share in the spoils.
The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands presides over a stalled economy and fraught politics.
In the Fiji economy, the pickings are more constrained, but all island elites enjoy wealthy lifestyles, travel abroad and shopping. Their real estate includes escape-hatch mansions in Australia and further afield. They have very considerable investments abroad. They educate their children in Australia and fly to Brisbane if they are sick.
Leading Vanuatu families send their children to the Sorbonne. Pacific elites dine and play golf with Australian associates who have benefited from Pacific ventures.
These entrepreneurs support the bureaucracy in Canberra, which is more concerned with Pacific votes in the United Nations than with how villagers live.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute is following the calls of Australian business lobbyists with property in Fiji in calling for a thaw in relations with Voreqek Bainimarama.
Everyone should have decent living standards. Every country needs a private sector and a middle class. But Pacific elites have appropriated the bulk of aid, mineral, forestry and other incomes to become immensely wealthy at the cost of villagers.
The Pacific islands have minerals, forests, agricultural land and marine wealth. They have remarkable tourism potential and are situated near the fast-growing east Asian markets.
They could have been the most rapidly growing developing countries in the world. Instead their elites have created their economic and political stagnation, and Australia, with New Zealand’s help, is also responsible.
Since the 1970s the Pacific has received the world’s highest aid per head of population. Australia has been by far the highest donor, with aid to the Pacific now running at more than $1 billion a year.
PNG, the Solomons and Vanuatu are the largest recipients. Aid transfers have not been monitored and aid has not supported development. Australian advice has largely been limited to macroeconomic stability to avoid short-term upheavals on our doorstep. Island attempts to reform land tenure to kick-start agriculture have not been backed. Not surprisingly, aid is regarded as “cargo” to be rorted.
The vacuum created by economic and political stagnation is making the Pacific into a Chinese lake. In the absence of local business, Chinatown shopkeepers from Taiwan and China provide goods and services for the rich and for armies of highly paid aid workers.
The Chinese government is interested in minerals and influence — Bainimarama has followed North Korea and Burma in turning to China for patronage. Chinese public and private investment is flowing into Fiji with Chinese workers replacing the skilled emigrants — Fijian and Fijian Indians — who are fleeing in large numbers.
Ministers of foreign affairs can make a difference.
Bill Hayden’s Jackson Committee turned an arm of a defunct colonial department of territories into an aid agency. Against the formidable opposition of a minister of education, Hayden persuaded the Hawke government to create a foreign student industry that not only contributed substantially to export and tourist income, but provided economies of scale for graduate studies and research.
Despite instances of laziness and greed, students from the Pacific and other neighbouring countries who have had the opportunity to study in Australia have greater goodwill towards Australia than that created by all foreign affairs expenditures.
Alexander Downer fought for economic development in the Pacific, only to be repeatedly swamped by the international aid industry’s cargo-cult priorities.
After years of efforts to have Australian aid used effectively, he took the brave step of moving some dollars from PNG to Indonesia.
Kevin Rudd, immediately on becoming prime minister, visited Port Moresby not only to reinstate this aid, but to begin a round of partnership agreements to weld the Labor government to the exploitative elites of PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Hopefully, Bob Carr will take time from his preoccupation with Australia’s influence in world affairs to spare a thought for the Pacific. Peter Ryan, who as a teenager fought behind the Japanese lines in PNG when World War II nearly came to Australia’s shores, has been a lone voice for the villagers who saved his life.
Carr will need to go to knowledgeable people such as him, outside the Canberra bureaucracy, and to Australian businessmen with Pacific investments to learn about the misery that Australia has wrought in the Pacific.
Helen Hughes is a senior fellow at Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies. She developed a Pacific programme at the Centre for Development Studies at the Australian National University and served as deputy chairwoman of the Jackson Committee to Review Australian Aid. Her Pacific papers are here.