Australian aid isn’t getting to where it needs to be

The hospitality of the Pacific people is well-known, but they need help to lift themselves out of poverty. AAP/Torsten Blackwood

It’s easy for the tourists thrilled by the beauty of the Pacific Islands to miss the flourishing squatter settlements just away from their resorts and buzzing nightlife. Many of the friendly islanders, upon whom the region has built its reputation, are struggling to get by. And Australian aid projects simply aren’t helping them.

Australian aid is a multimillion-dollar enterprise, providing business and non-government organisations contracts for country and regional projects and programs.

The government’s response to the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness is expected later this month.

The size of the aid program

The Australian aid program is a multimillion-dollar enterprise, providing business and non-government organisations contracts for country and regional projects and programs. The review looked at just how our tax dollars are being spent.

The program has doubled in size over the past five years to $4,836 million in the current 2011-12 budget. The Pacific region will receive $1,160 million (24 percent of the total 2011-2012 aid budget), of which $482 million will be allocated to Papua New Guinea.

On current economic projections, the aid program will double to meet the Government’s commitment to increase Australia’s aid to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015-16.

A growing urban problem

With the average rate of urbanisation in the order of 50 percent of populations living in Pacific towns and cities and steadily rising, escalating squatter and informal settlements, combined with rising urban poverty levels, loom as the major Pacific development challenges of the new millennium.

What receives little recognition is that squatter and informal settlements are not only a permanent feature of all Pacific towns and cities, but they are increasing at unprecedented levels.

They are most prevalent in the countries which form the geographic sub-region known as Melanesia, which takes in the island countries directly to the north and east of Australia’s eastern seaboard.

In Port Moresby, for example, some 50 percent of the estimated city population of 700,000 people lives in squatter and informal settlements.

In the Solomon Islands, some 35 percent of Honiara’s population lives in such settlements on the city’s edge.

Similar trends exist in Port Vila in Vanuatu, while in the greater Suva Nausori metropolitan area in Fiji, estimates of the number of urban squatters range from 15 to 40 percent of the greater Suva population.

These squatter and informal settlements are here to stay. They are not transitory populations, or temporary built forms which are going to disappear.

Set against a background of mediocre economic development and management at the Pacific country level, these settlements will take over as the dominant form of housing and land development in the Pacific urban landscape in the next 10 to 15 years.

Aid not helping

Sadly, the urban sector in the Pacific region does not figure in the Australian Government’s development agenda.

Urban based programs and projects have been marginalised in the programs of AusAID and its predecessors for the last fifteen years.

Lead regional organisations, such as the Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, of which Australia is a primary funder, exhibit the same trend.

Targeting a cross sectoral “urban” theme does not fit with AusAID’s designated priority thematic areas of support such as economic growth, education, health, human rights, rural development, mine action, disabilities and food security.

UN goal ignored

The Millennium Development Goal target 7D, namely, improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers.

Pacific region progress reports ignore this target primarily because there has been no progress. It’s simply seen as “too hard” to address.

There is no reference to urban based programs or plans to deal with squatters or informal settlements in the Pacific region in the Australian 2011-2012 budget for international development assistance.

Despite the emphasis on health, education and economic development, Australia’s development assistance in the Pacific Region remains anchored in rural development activities.

The social, economic and environmental conditions of the urban sector and opportunities for assistance in the context of Pacific island national development, are still not recognised.

Why the government needs to act

Some of the submissions to the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness argued the importance of the condition of Pacific towns and cities as an indicator of national development, asking why rural poverty is seen as more important than urban poverty in Australia’s aid program.

It’s a valid question: in 2010, the United Nations Development Program in Fiji estimated that eight out of twelve Pacific island counties had greater urban poverty levels than rural poverty.

While there are many reasons for Australia’s current position, the stance by AusAID aligns with a wider Australian and global trends for governments to disengage and step back from involvement in land and housing markets in urban areas.

We can only hope that there will be some good news in the government’s response to the report to ease the plight of the Pacific urban poor.