Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search - 25 May 2007 - 25 May 2007

A Weekly Report from the Keyboard of Murray McCully MP for East Coast Bays

Our Aid Budget

A substantial increase in overseas aid was supposed to have been one of the key announcements in last week’s Budget. A special slot was identified in one of Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ increasingly brief visits to New Zealand to make a formal announcement. The usual congratulatory press releases were choreographed in advance with the grateful aid recipients. And no-one noticed. So busy was the Government losing its majority in Parliament, and losing its former ministers to bribery and corruption proceedings, that there was little space for ministerial pontification over worthy overseas aid announcements.

Last year New Zealand spent $369 million on overseas aid, spread across about 100 different countries. According to the Budget, that amount will this year increase to $439 million, with further significant increases foreshadowed in subsequent years. According to Mr Peters, half of this year’s aid will go to the Pacific. But the incomprehensible and inadequate jumble of MFAT figures supplied makes this assertion impossible to verify (which was almost certainly the intent). What is clear is that the biggest winners are countries like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomons. And given the challenges faced by each of the three right now, the Government’s self-proclaimed Budget generosity involves a large element of making a virtue out of necessity.

Some weeks in advance of the Budget announcements, the National Party spokesman on Foreign Affairs presciently forecast an increase in overseas aid. An increase would not be unwelcome, he said, provided such increase was not a substitute for re-prioritising the existing $369 million so that New Zealanders could be assured they were receiving value for money.

Three years ago the Government commissioned a review of overseas aid by Professor Marilyn Waring. In a nutshell, the report (released last year after the Government had sat on it for a year) recommended a dramatic thinning down of the current 100 nations receiving NZ aid, so that a more focused programme of assistance could be delivered into our own Pacific neighbourhood. All of which makes a good deal of sense.

New Zealand taxpayers will be delighted to hear that last year’s $369 million purchased, for example, a programme to promote gender equity in the greater Mekong Region. Another far-sighted and highly relevant initiative involved “poverty elimination” amongst indigenous people in rural Nicaragua. “Poverty elimination”, you see, is a catch-all phrase adopted by pompous MFAT officials and self-serving NGO, (non-government organisation), bosses to confer some form of immunity from political criticism on their activities. Who would dare to criticise something styled “poverty elimination.” And Nicaragua, we assume, was identified for sentimental reasons, as the venue at which the majority of the Cabinet will have attended Socialist International Conferences during their formative political years.

Last year’s $369 million also purchased, on behalf of New Zealand taxpayers, “poverty elimination” programmes in the western states of China. Mr Peters and his colleagues appear not to have paused to consider the significant irony of pumping New Zealand aid money into China, which in turn is pumping its own aid money, in increasingly lavish doses, into the Pacific.

And if you really want to get Mr Peters looking prickly and defensive, just ask him about the $500,000 cheque he authorised to be spent in the Palestinian Authority in March last year soon after Hamas had won the national elections. Yes, that would be the same Hamas that was still promising to wipe out Israel and threatening to use violent means to achieve this objective.

So, before asking Cabinet to sign up to a $70 million increase in aid this year, you would expect that Mr Peters would have called his officials in and insisted that dubious or wasteful, or even just lower priority activities, should be quietly curtailed. And that work should commence to implement the key recommendations of the Waring report: like a thinning down of the number of intended aid recipients and a drive to undertaking really meaningful work in our own region.

But all of the indications are that none of that important work has been done. Indeed, there is every indication in the scanty MFAT figures that gender equity programmes in the Greater Mekong, and poverty elimination programmes in rural Nicaragua will do rather better out of this Budget than its predecessor. Mr Peters and his colleagues have thrown another lump of taxpayers’ money at the aid budget without any serious attempt to secure better value for money from the existing, already substantial commitment.

The goal, of course, is to move New Zealand closer to the UN objective of 0.7% of GDP being spent on overseas aid. As we move towards that statistical target, Ms Clark and Mr Peters can be guaranteed slightly lengthier and more enthusiastic rounds of applause at forthcoming UN gatherings and NGO conferences. But it is a goal that will be increasingly hollow and meaningless until there is a serious attempt to prioritise our budget and focus on undertaking meaningful projects with measurable outcomes in our own Pacific region.

The United Nations

So how much, would you imagine, will New Zealand spend in grants to the United Nations and its affiliate bodies in the year ahead? Easy. There were three voluminous books of Budget documents and numerous tables released this year. Let’s just turn to the relevant page and have a look, right? Wrong.

Part of the game played by officials at Budget time is to obscure the spending of taxpayers’ cash in any areas where it might attract unwanted Parliamentary scrutiny. Spending on the United Nations is such an area. So, unable to find a simple Budget table to answer the question, the worldwide headquarters of resorted to the Parliamentary Library (probably the only institution in our Parliament that consistently provides MPs with truly excellent and timely service).

Having scanned the pile of Budget documents and made a few assumptions based upon previous Budgets, the Parliamentary Library had an answer. Somewhere around $35 million will be spent on grants to UN bodies over the coming year. Which is actually quite a lot of taxpayers’ cash. And it is time that our Parliament started to become a little more insistent that we should receive value for money.

In recent years the demands for reform of the increasingly bloated and creaky United Nations have gained force. Events like the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia on the United Nations watch and the Oil for Food programme abuses have highlighted the need for substantial improvements. Very modest proposals for reform were advanced by the previous Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Even more modest changes were adopted.

Part of the problem is that it has been the United States that has been at the forefront of demands for reform. And those demands have been associated with strong suggestions that the very substantial US funding of the United Nations will be cut back unless changes are adopted. That has gotten up the noses of many of the smaller players, which have resisted important and sensible reforms as a result.

How much better it would be if a smaller nation, with an excellent track record in domestic and international affairs, was to take more of a leading role in the move to reform the United Nations. One with a good human rights track record and well established democratic traditions. A small country, for example, like New Zealand. And perhaps, one day, if we elect a government that is not populated by persons who aspire to cushy UN positions in their post-Parliamentary careers, this will actually happen.


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