Pacific reaches crossroads, calls for new humanitarian engagement

Posted​ on Friday, 1 June 2012

By Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia

For many Australians when they think of the Pacific they think of island paradises, cruises, and white sandy beaches.

The reality, for the people of the Pacific, is starkly different. Some four million people across the Pacific, almost half of the entire population, are living in poverty. And tragically in some countries the numbers of child deaths and malnourishment near those of sub-Saharan Africa.

Even in countries such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, which are thought of more for idyllic beaches and world famous diving, poverty, malnutrition and high rates of preventable child deaths are rising.

Now, many countries in the Pacific are approaching a critical crossroads in their development and many continue to face threat to political stability.

Elections in Timor-Leste and looming elections in PNG and Vanuatu, the winding-up of the RAMSI protection force in the Solomon Islands, the influx of revenue from oil and gas and the changing nature of foreign aid flowing into the region are all conspiring to create new opportunities and new threats to the region.

It is for this reason that World Vision is re-thinking the way it works in the Pacific. The organisation – the largest aid and development agency working in the region - has moved to double its annual investment in PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste from $15 million to $30 million over the next four years. A new office in Brisbane has also been launched to coordinate Pacific programs.

Australia has strong links to the region not only due to our proximity but also a friendship forged in theatres of war such as Kokoda. And this is never truer than for Queensland which represents the front line in our dealings with the Pacific.

Queensland has large populations of Pacific Islanders living in the state. It has strong trade and cultural links. The State is also impacted more than most by events in the Pacific, such as a potential outbreak of disease like tuberculosis which poses a threat to our disease controls.

Unfortunately recent efforts to curb poverty in the Pacific appear to be failing. The Pacific – along with sub-Saharan Africa – is making the slowest progress towards the Millennium Development Goals which are the world’s blueprint for tackling chronic poverty, a blue print adopted by all the countries of the United Nations.

Overall levels of poverty and hardship in the Pacific are increasing, health gains are in danger of being reversed and every year 18,000 children die of preventable diseases.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, traditional Western colonial powers, are scaling back their aid to the region. The World Bank recently cut its funding to the region.

At the same time, new donors such as China are showing a greater interest and are increasingly willing to invest in the region to garner both influence and access to resources. Experts have warned of both the benefits and the perils of these new donor dynamics.

Australia remains the biggest global donor to the Pacific. Over the next four years, Australia plans to increase aid to the Pacific region by around 37 percent, from $1.17 billion in 2012-13 to $1.60 billion by 2015-16.

There is also increasing interest from Australian corporations in the region, led by the extractive industries and massive projects in PNG and in the Timor Sea. A key to World Vision’s operations will be to provide a bridge between Australian corporations and private donors on one side and communities in need in the region.

The Pacific is too close and too important to be allowed to fail. Development progress in the region is hard because of its small population spread across difficult terrain and differentiated by a myriad of different languages and cultures.

But effective, targeted aid does make a difference, it does save lives. It is my hope that World Vision, together with private and corporate partners and the work of our government and other agencies, can overcome the challenges and profoundly impact the lives of people in the Pacific for the better.

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