What a difference a decade doesn’t make to the lives of Pacific Islanders

Ten years after the UN pledged to address poverty and poor health and education levels in the Pacific region, the shameful results mock the aid industry, says Helen Hughes in The Weekend Australian, 12 June 2010.

A few kilometres from Port Moresby, Honiara and other South Pacific capitals, living standards in local villages are worse than when the first Europeans arrived. All measures of development have deteriorated since the high point was reached early in the era of independence after World War II.

Immunity from the introduced diseases that had decimated the Pacific Islands was slowly acquired towards the end of colonial rule. Traditional gardens, hunting and fishing still flourished, missionaries had introduced hospitals and schools, roads led to markets for cash crops, and job opportunities had increased in towns and mines.

With their rich natural resources –– fertile soils, oceans full of fish, forests, minerals and incomparable tourist sites –– and their excellent location near rapidly growing East Asian markets, the 1960s were a time of hope.

But independence sowed the seeds of the Pacific nations' demise because aid flows per capita became the highest to any developing region.

By the 90s it was clear population growth was higher than economic growth. Members of parliaments and senior public servants were appropriating all the gains of limited growth. Disproportionate shares of aid went to pay Western expatriates (boomerang aid) and the rest was absorbed by wealthy urban elites in the capitals. Little assistance reached the villages. Living standards declined in hamlets and shanty settlements on the outskirts of towns.

Egregious corruption became the norm, mirrored by high crime and rural violence. Port Moresby became a crime capital to rival Nairobi and Port au Prince. Fiji, with relatively high living standards at independence, collapsed into dictatorship. Farmers were marginalised and their children fled abroad.

Once it was obvious that aid agencies and their many expatriate consultants were central to Pacific economic stagnation and political collapse, Alexander Downer, then the Australian foreign affairs minister, sought to push the government's AusAID back to the growth policies that had led to the remarkable economic and social development of East Asia. These efforts were negated by the UN.

In 2000 the UN's Millennium Development Goals took over the international aid agenda. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the UN Development Program and other multilateral and bilateral aid agencies, including AusAID, failed to persuade Pacific politicians to make the decisions essential for economic development. Incapable of managing development projects that would improve living standards, refuge was taken in the hyperbole of the Millennium Development Goals: “end poverty; universal education, gender equality, child health; maternal health; combat AIDS; environmental sustainability and global partnership’.

Ten years later, life in the villages and shantytowns of the Pacific demonstrates the abject failure of every one of the Millennium Development Goals.

* ‘The ending of hunger’ amounts to a stock diet of sago and stringy sweet potato. Population pressure, plus the erosion of hunting, has led to a decline in nutrition. Limited cash crops rarely provide enough income for food supplements.

* Pacific nations claim primary education is almost universal. That classrooms are rudimentary structures is tolerable; that teachers are not literate or numerate is not. In whole villages no one is able to read or write. Literacy rates are estimated to be less than 20 % in rural Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and several other independent islands.

* Females work –– in the gardens, cooking food, carrying water and looking after children –– but males don't. With limited hunting to do and with modern tools to cut down trees for shifting agriculture, there is little to keep men productively occupied. Boys grow to be men without education, without meaningful employment and without income. There are more than a million underemployed and unemployed men in the Pacific. Deeply frustrated, they smoke and drink, and frequently relieve their stress by perpetrating violence against women.

* Men who drift into a town cannot find work and often contract HIV–AIDS, resulting in an epidemic of African proportions. If they cannot join a criminal gang of “rascals’ they drift back to the village where they infect their several wives. There is no diagnosis, let alone retroviral drugs. Women are widely blamed for spreading HIV–AIDS, often with horrific consequences.

* Children and villagers in general suffer from malaria, fungal infestation and other diseases. Diarrhoea spreads quickly if children attend school because there are no proper toilets. In random villages, mineral explorers hand out a few mosquito nets that are easily torn in the low village dwellings. In East Asia economic growth eliminates malaria because families live in decent houses with water and electricity and insect screens on their windows.

In Pacific villages, clothing is burned to get rid of fungal disease. Without changes of clothes and washing facilities, the fungus is soon back. In PNG villagers and shantytown dwellers can afford to buy only second–hand clothes collected by Australian charities.

* Women build humpies in the bush, away from the village, to give birth to children. Maternal and infant death rates in PNG and Solomon Islands are among the highest in the world.

* PNG and Solomon Islands are ideally suited to growing palm oil and cocoa. Malaysia's wage levels are too high to compete in the Chinese and Indian rapidly expanding markets. Palm oil is lower in saturated fats than the ghee, sesame and other oils it replaces. Palm oil plantations are carbon sinks. But even on already cleared land, environment non–government organisations oppose palm oil and other commercial tree production where islanders could earn real incomes and boost the island's development.

The final irony is that in those islands subject to continuing colonial rule, such as Guam, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, so–called imperial administrations have delivered much higher standards of education and health, transport and other infrastructure, to the extent that economic growth exceeds population growth.

The Millennium Development Goals were initiated by non–government organisations with social entitlement agendas. They believe growth–oriented economies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in East Asia, Botswana and Mauritius in Africa and Chile in Latin America set a bad example. They claim that ‘trickle down’ from growth did not work. China, India, Vietnam and Mongolia are nevertheless following growth strategies, though India struggles with an “entitlement’ socialist lobby that is making further pro–growth policy reform difficult for Manmohan Singh's government.

The Millennium Development Goals are the type of policies embraced by failing economies, mainly in sub–Saharan Africa.

The UN has created failed economies wherever it has been the chief architect of development in countries, including Haiti and East Timor.

In the Solomons, the few educated islanders who have not been displaced by expatriates from the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands are hoping that when logging of exploitable forests ends in the near future, the islands will be able to move to a productive economy.

But they expect no help from the assistance mission, which has made no positive contribution to economic development.

Tonga and Samoa have markedly higher living standards thanks to strong emigration combined with effective primary and secondary education.

There is also a trickle of emigration from PNG to Australia through the Torres Strait Islands. PNG parents are also making desperate efforts to educate their children to secure their futures. But with the economy all but stagnant (excepting the construction of apartments for Western workers on new gas developments) a stream of migrants across the Torres Strait is likely. Perhaps a wave of Papua New Guinean boatpeople will wake up Australia to the failure of its Pacific aid policies.

Regardless of the reality of aid in the Pacific, cadres of aid officials continue to enjoy privileged, well–paid positions with lavish international travel entitlements. Their additional fringe benefits also include a great deal of power. Non–government aid organisations with political agendas enjoy a similar suite of extraordinary privileges. The advisers who created the Millennium Development Goals aid strategy have become millionaires by exploiting the aid industry.

It is in keeping with this state of affairs that an aid–supported conference on the Millennium Development Goals is being held in Sydney at the Sheraton on the Park hotel this week.

Participants in this talk–fest would do well to ponder this shocking fact about under–development in the Pacific, over cocktails at the very least: why is it that after a decade of implementation of the Millennium Goals, backed by billions of taxpayers' dollars, women in PNG villages choose to breastfeed piglets because pigs are more valuable than children?

Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.