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The good news is that no one dies of hunger in the Pacific.
But the bad news is downright scary: high child and maternal mortality rates, the world’s fastest growing rate of HIV infection and an escalating level of income poverty.
Relative to the size of their economies, Pacific nations receive more development aid than any other region of the world.
It’s a conundrum that is at the forefront of Deakin’s Professor Mark McGillivray’s research.
"We have this perception of the Pacific being this tropical paradise, but that’s actually a long way from reality," says Professor McGillivray, Research Professor of International Development at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute.
"Most people would think that the poorest nations in the world, those with the highest poverty levels and the greatest governance problems, are located in Africa.
"That’s true, but the Pacific is not far behind."
While there are several exceptions, (such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone), in general, poverty in Africa is decreasing. If current trends continue, Professor McGillivray predicts the Pacific Islands will, in the foreseeable future, be the world’s poorest region.
So what is going wrong in the Pacific? The issues are complex, with local government complacency, political instability and the sheer challenges of being small, isolated nations all contributing to the difficulties facing our island neighbours.
In 2000, all United Nations General Assembly members, including Australia, committed to helping the world’s developing nations achieve the first seven of the eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Principal among those goals is a commitment to halve the proportion of people living in extreme income poverty.
As part of this commitment, the Australian Government promised to more than double the size of its aid program, from around $3 billion in 2008, by 2015. But the May Federal Budget saw the Australian Government cut $2.9 billion in planned foreign aid, effectively pushing back this target to 2016–17.
Only one Pacific nation, Vanuatu, is on target to meet the poverty goal, with many facing increases in poverty.
"Instead of poverty being halved, poverty in the region as a whole is increasing," says Prof. McGillivray.
"So we’re pouring in aid money and on face value there is little to show for it."
This is not to say that foreign aid is not helping Pacific Islands. As former Chief Economist with Australia’s official aid agency AusAID, Professor McGillivray has seen first-hand the benefits that foreign aid brings.
"Pacific countries would be in a worse situation than they currently are if they did not receive development aid," he says.
"But there are limits to how much of a difference we can make with aid.
"When we provide aid to countries we’re actually asking quite a lot of their governments in terms of government involvement.’
Professor McGillivray gives the example of the Kiribati. The nation’s Foreign Affairs Department, with which he worked as part of his role with AusAID, consisted of just four staff members, its National Statistics Office just two or three people.
"It’s unrealistic to expect that we can just pour more money through these administrations and expect that money to be consistently used effectively," he says.
But there are other options.
Professor McGillivray has identified seven types of assistance that wealthy nations can provide to Pacific Island nations. They are efforts to promote: aid; trade; migration; private investment; security; the creation and dissemination of new technologies; and the promotion of environmental sustainability in the region.
His project seeks to create an index of these development tools and use this to measure the contributions being made by wealthy nations.
Professor McGillivray says these alternative forms of assistance include examples such as opening up labour markets to allow Pacific Islanders greater access to work in rich nations and send remittances home; encouraging investment by wealthy companies in the Pacific; and promoting efforts to expand trade capacity in the region.
Another is promotion of security, of which Australia’s involvement in providing security forces to the Solomon Islands is an example.
Other examples include encouraging the development and accessibility of new technologies, such as mobile communications or alternative types of energy generation (in Tonga all electricity is generated by diesel powered motors – making the nation particularly vulnerable to fluctuating commodity prices); and taking actions to reduce the impact of environmental factors, such as rising sea levels, on vulnerable developing nations.
The three-year research project has been funded by an Australian Research Council grant, Deakin University Strategic Research Funds, and by independent development consulting firm Sustineo.
The first stage is well underway and involves identifying and measuring the effectiveness of each type of assistance.
Once this is completed Professor. McGillivray will assess the performance of each nation against these criteria.
Professor McGillivray hopes that the index – to be called the ADRI-Sustineo Pacific Index – will be a useful tool with which to lobby governments to provide the most effective type of assistance.
It is no coincidence that the index is set to be finalised in the lead up to 2015. As we approach the Millennium Development Goals 2015 deadline the world’s attention will focus more keenly on the success or otherwise of developing nations and those that pledged to assist them.
"For Australia, whether we like it or not, we are judged in the international community on the basis of the state of affairs in the Pacific," says Professor McGillivray.
"It’s seen internationally that Australia has a responsibility to assist countries in its own backyard."
Professor McGillivray hopes to capitalise on this focus to lobby for Australia, and other wealthy nations, to provide the best possible assistance.
"We want to identify and champion those countries that are doing well, but we also want to shine a spotlight on those countries that aren’t doing well."
More information about the Alfred Deakin Research Institute.
2015 Millennium Development Goals