Lowy Institute
1 of 7 This post is part of a debate on What's the purpose of Australian foreign aid?

2012 will be remembered as a year of sluggish international policy debate. Ken Henry recently said he couldn't remember a time in the last 25 years when the quality of public policy debate had been as bad as it is right now. In my opinion, Australia's aid debate is no exception.

Australia's public discussion on our role as an aid donor is patchy at best. The debate is sustained by ANU's Stephen Howes (who runs the Development Policy Centre) and the Lowy Institute's Annmaree O'Keeffe, while Hugh White keeps things interesting. News Limited's Steve Lewis writes a quarterly article for the Daily Telegraph exposing perceived aid waste.

Australian NGO heads do a good job of keeping the focus on poverty and humanitarian aid by getting out in the media during times of disaster and famine, or when it looks as though the aid budget might be cut. But few stay regularly engaged in public debate about Australia's aid strategy and the future of the aid program.

For some NGO figures, this is likely a deliberate strategy. Budget discussions are tense in Canberra. Few supporters (and recipients) of the aid program will want to continuously remind the Australian public, and the Treasury, of the $5.2 billion annual aid budget. As the Government continues to cut spending to achieve its promised budget surplus, foreign aid is an increasingly obvious target.

Last week, Australia's development community got a serious funding injection which has the potential to shake up and wake up the lethargic aid debate. The Harold Mitchell Foundation gave a $2.5 million grant to the Development Policy Centre, a university think tank which undertakes aid and development analysis. This grant, which will be matched by ANU, will give the Centre breathing space and independence from the very institution whose policies it will need to critically analyse and inform – those of AusAID.

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The fact that this is such big news in Australia's small development community tells you a lot about the environment Australia's aid budget is operating in. Australia is not blessed with a collection of research institutes that provide Australia with informed analysis on international development issues, and hence inform and shape Australian aid policy. As a comparison, the UK aid agency DFID is surrounded by institutes which provide high quality research and engage in a dynamic public debate which helps inform the British public on the pros and cons of an international aid program.

Australia's weak aid debate is odd given the size and scope of Australia's aid program and considering the aid budget has more than doubled since 2006-07. Over this period, the Australian Government, civil society, and to a lesser extent the business community, have paid little attention to building Australia's capacity and knowledge on international development issues.

A frail and weak aid policy dialogue is bad news for those who support a sustainable and predictable aid program. A weak policy debate means there is one less obstacle to potentially diverting aid funds to other priorities. Sure, keeping a low profile and remaining disengaged from the public debate helps minimise the effort required to defend the aid program from criticism and keeps the Foreign Minister's office happy. But a weak aid debate also means that much of the policy and strategy surrounding Australia's aid program remains undiscussed, untested and misunderstood.

Too often in Australia, when the money stops the thinking starts. Earlier this year the Government slashed the defence budget by 10%. Subsequently, a vacuum of debate on defence policy has been filled with voices from both in and outside the ADF. A weak aid debate will prove detrimental to the sustainability of the Australian aid program. Does Australia have to wait until the aid program faces cuts before we can expect an informed and lively debate on Australia's role as an aid donor?

Photo by Flickr user sbluerock.

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5 of 9 This post is part of a debate on Digital Pacific

Thanks to Dr Tess Newton Cain for giving me an opportunity to delve into a few details of my recent research paper Digital Islands.

Firstly and briefly, in distinguishing between telecommunications 'liberalisation' and 'deregulation' in the Pacific Islands region, I don't want to get caught up in a niche debate on terminology, but in order to liberalise and open up markets, you must first deregulate them and implement certain reforms to create an environment for competition. I think both are apt descriptions of what has occurred in many countries across the region, so let's delve into the more interesting points of Dr Newton Cain's post.

Dr Newton Cain emphasises 'that the use of ICTs (information and communications technologies) is a tool to enable policy responses; it is not a policy response in itself.' True, digital technologies are only as effective as the people using them, and Dr Newton Cain points out, it is important to manage expectations about the limitations of ICTs. A mobile application that connects patients with doctors over SMS text, no matter how innovative, is not a silver bullet. In no way can such a tool replace or duplicate good quality health care provided by a functioning hospital.

But such mobile applications, and timely health advice provided via SMS, remain powerful enablers. Experience from developing countries around the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, is that they are benefiting from widespread use of digital development tools, even in challenging environments where supporting infrastructure is lacking. Waiting for all the elements to line up for a perfect development environment can take years. The power in digital technologies lies in their potential to overcome obstacles in the way of the development process. 

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Dr Newton Cain asks whether a regional ICT-for-development strategy is appropriate for international donors and businesses. I recommend in my paper that the Australian Government, as the region's largest donor, commit to a regional strategy. This certainly doesn't preclude country-tailored mobile application and crowdsourcing programs. In fact, most mobile applications and crowdsourcing programs will have to be tailored to each Pacific Island country, and in many circumstances, to certain provinces and to local communities, for them to be effective. Nevertheless, a regional strategy would ensure a commitment to explore opportunities in all Pacific Islands countries so that both large and small countries can benefit.

I think it is fair to say that, so far, the region has not seen the organic emergence of a locally-led ICT-for-development sector. And this likely won't happen without support, training and the provision of resources from government and business. But, the Pacific Islands region is in the unique position of being able to cherry pick the digital development tools and applications that have worked in countries facing similar development challenges

So far, few organisations have capitalised on the Pacific's growing ICT infrastructure to enhance development and social outcomes. It wouldn't take a lot of effort or resources from the region's key donors and businesses to collaborate directly with Pacific Island governments in creating and supporting the types of digital tools (such as mobile applications, mobile-based projects and crowdsourcing) that would benefit Pacific populations. 

It is abundantly clear that the Pacific Islands region is suffering from an under-use of digital development tools and I think the greatest concern lies in the opportunities being missed. These tools help get the right information to the right people at the right time. And the power of timely information, in a region as dispersed and remote as the Pacific, should not be underestimated.

Photo by Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.

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1 of 9 This post is part of a debate on Digital Pacific

Led by bloggers, digital entrepreneurs and social media groups in Papua New Guinea, a Pacific 'digital generation' is emerging that is increasingly influencing public debates, forming policy ideas, holding institutions accountable and coordinating political protests. The potential size and influence of the Pacific's emerging 'digital generation' is enhanced by the fact that more than 50% of the regional population is estimated to be below the age of 24.

In a new Lowy Institute Analysis research paper launched today, Digital Islands: How the Pacific's ICT Revolution is Transforming the Region, I outline how the Pacific Islands region is in the midst of an information and communication technology (ICT) revolution that could have profound implications for the region's governance and development.

My research, sponsored by the Myer Foundation Melanesia program at the Lowy Institute, reveals that digital technologies are increasingly being used in the Pacific Islands to harness, influence and project political and social change. About 60% of Pacific Islanders now have access to a mobile phone and this figure continues to climb. This has coincided and fused with another global phenomenon, the rise of social media.

This growth in mobile phone access is extraordinary given that only four years ago, six countries (PNG, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands) had penetration rates of 16% or less, meaning less than just 1 in 5 people had access to a mobile phone. In Tonga, mobile penetration has risen from 3% in 2002 to 53% in 2011. Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and New Caledonia now enjoy mobile penetration rates of over 80%. In 2006 only 2% of PNG's population had access to a mobile phone; today this figure is fast approaching 40%. 

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The mobile growth statistics are impressive, but the region is home to some of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world. For example, Only 2% of PNG's population had access to the internet in 2011 and in Solomon Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu, it is less than 10%. However, web-enabled mobile phones and Facebook phones are enabling the region to leapfrog barriers (such as remoteness, cost and availability) to computer-enabled internet access. Decreasing costs for handsets and calls, and better reception, has facilitated more widespread access, far beyond affluent urban dwellers.

There are now almost 700,000 Facebook users in the Pacific Islands, dispersed across the region's population of 10 million people. PNG is leading the region's growth in social media use with Facebook membership nearing 150,000, a figure which has tripled since mid-2011. Fiji and Samoa, also experiencing high growth in Facebook membership, are not far behind.

What makes the ICT revolution in the Pacific particularly transformative is its potential to address the region's demographic, geographic and economic challenges. The Pacific population is dispersed across hundreds of small islands and atolls, spanning an area one-third of the globe's surface. The region's distance from the economic centres of the Asia Pacific make for some of the most remote countries and territories in the world.

Digital technologies are helping Pacific Islanders participate in political dialogue and are improving social inclusiveness and development. People in both urban and rural communities are participating in debates from which they were previously excluded. Unlike radio, arguably the most important source of information for most Pacific Islanders, Facebook discussion groups and blogs provide a forum for an exchange of information and opinion where all users can participate.

My paper doesn't just analyse what is happening in the region, it also tackles the region's 'digital development' opportunities. Tools such as crowdsourcing and mobile phone applications such as those devoted to health present the Pacific Islands region with immense opportunities. Tentative steps have already been made in this area, but there is enormous scope for Pacific Islands governments, the private sector and international donors to make far better use of the region's growing ICT infrastructure.  

Most importantly, I hope to use this paper to start a discussion on The Interpreter that looks at the Pacific's digital future. What could this ICT revolution mean for the Pacific Islands region? Are the region's governments ready to grasp these opportunities? Are the region's business, civil society and donor communities equipped with the right skills, knowledge and vision to capitalise on this digital transformation? Does the region's digital emergence offer an opportunity for Australia, as the largest trade and aid partner, to reinforce and revitalise its relationship with the region? And are there areas where Australia could focus more of its public and private resources?

I hope to see Pacific and Australian government officials, academics, bloggers, civil society representatives and others take part. Please send your submissions (of about 600 words) to DCave@lowyinstitute.org and blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org to take part.

Photo by Flickr user JonJon2k8.

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The recent Lowy Institute PNG New Voices Conference was a much-needed shock to the complacency I have become attuned to as a member of Australia's international policy community.

It was the best Lowy Institute conference I have ever attended. In fact it was the best conference I have ever attended full stop. This is because again and again the speakers demonstrated qualities that are rare in Australian-based public discussion: passion, frankness, courage, creativity and a talent for generating new ideas. The determination to get their views across shown by those who participated was infectious. 

PNG Government representatives (from Foreign Affairs, Treasury and Sports), business owners, senior NGO managers, economists, journalists, artists, students and future political candidates gave honest and considered views of where they see their country going and why PNG's politicians are not doing enough to deliver for the people they serve. Now, over email and social media, these same people are forming new networks, debating policy ideas and coordinating future meet-ups, interviews and events.

PNG public servants that spoke at PNG New Voices were careful to explain that 'the views in my speech don't necessarily represent the views of the government of PNG', before presenting fresh and frank perspectives, strong opinions and creative policy ideas. I can't image an Australian public servant able or willing to do the same.

Australia's international policy expertise within the public service is increasingly locked away from public view and public discussion. Trapped in rigid hierarchies and spread across about a dozen internationally-focused government departments, most will only reappear when they jump ship into a non-government or private sector role.

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Too many of these specialists spend more time briefing, coordinating and thinking about their department's place in Canberra (and their branch's place in their department, and so on) than using their knowledge to inform international policy formulation. The burden and cyclical nature of the vast demand for briefings – for politicians, senior government employees and even for mid-level public servants – is inhibiting the strategic capabilities of the public service. 
 
Australian Government departments, intentionally or unintentionally, hinder public debate by putting up barriers that limit and discourage the participation of policymakers and public servants. The requirements to get clearance to engage in public discussion can be so demanding that a policymaker needs to assess whether it's worth their time and effort.

It's rare to see an Australian public servant ask a question in a public forum, let alone offer their opinion or idea on a topic. The barriers to participate in public discourse that have helped contribute to the over-cautious nature of Australia's internationally-focused policymakers need to be abolished. This inactive approach to participating in public discussion and debate is self-harming and short-sighted for Australia, a country which sees itself as a creative middle power.

Australia's international policy community is facing a serious predicament. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have, at their disposal, an over-cautious, under-utilised and under-resourced (in the case of Foreign Affairs) crop of international policymakers. Worst of all, new ideas are few and far between. Even when a policy idea does survive the gauntlet of an inflexible, hierarchical clearance processes, it will not always be well communicated and may not even come to the attention to other international policy segments of the Australian public. 

By putting a padlock on our public servants the  Australian Government is essentially under-employing one of its most important resources. This knowledge and expertise would help inform, not hinder, Australia's international policy debate.

The over 100 Papua New Guineans who participated in PNG New Voices taught me how much Australia could learn from Papua New Guinea if only we would pay attention and listen. New ideas were being thrown up by speakers and participants. Those of us typing up notes and tweeting via #PNGNewVoices struggled to keep up. I heard more good policy ideas on 22 October in Port Moresby than I have heard over the last year in Australia's foreign policy discussions (both publicly discussed and behind closed doors).

Are Papua New Guineans better at thinking outside the box? Does the Australian public service even value new ideas and creative policy thinking? Are government policymakers, so caught up with internal administration and briefing, less informed about international developments? Is Australia always destined to host an international policy debate where policymakers rarely take part?

Sadly, Australian government agencies are not known for their ability to generate new and creative policy thinking. But this could change. Change needs to trickle down from confident leadership, both at the political and departmental level, that trusts the capabilities of the public servants they employ.

No one at PNG New Voices defended or made excuses for poor policy. No one toed the line. Refreshingly, no one spoke from a dry and unimaginative set of talking points. No one took the opportunity to lecture another group or a country. And no one criticised those who disagreed with them, instead welcoming different views and seeing this as an opportunity to take part in an informed debate. After all, a strong public discussion means that policy has been challenged and debated, and a more informed policy is good for any country. Papua New Guineans at the conference understood and encouraged this. The same attitude to international policy debate needs to develop in Australia.

Australia's international policy community is performing at partial strength. Instead of foreign policy debates flourishing as Australia faces an increasing set of complex international challenges – hosting the G20 in 2014; wedged between our core ally and key trading partner; taking on a term in the UNSC; facing the possibility of conflict in Asia – the debate is flat. And worse off because of the lack of Australian policymaker participation.

It took listening to the depth of talent that exists within Papua New Guinea's crop of emerging leaders to appreciate just how lethargic and tepid Australia's international policy community has become. Where is the passion for informed and new ideas for Australia's future place in the world? And importantly, where are Australia's emerging crop of international policy leaders? I certainly can't hear them.

Photo by Flickr user auraneurotica photo.

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Social media will be a key feature of this year's New Voices conference, which will be held in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The event, hosted by the Lowy Institute, begins on 22 October and will provide a platform for PNG's young leaders to discuss and debate the big issues affecting their nation and its place in the world.

As our closest closest neighbour, PNG is one of Australia's most important international partners and should be one of our top foreign policy priorities.

PNG New Voices brings together 80 business, government, civil society and media representatives from across the country to talk about the nation's economy, the changing role of civil society and media, the political power of social media and PNG's international choices and place in the Asian Century.

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Papua New Guinea is undergoing a period of extraordinary transformation, politically, socially and economically. We hope PNG New Voices will play a role in shining a brighter spotlight on a country that Australia's senior elected officials need to pay far greater attention to, now and into the future.

To ensure debate is not limited to the conference venue we will encourage participants to use social media through the day with analysis and big ideas from each session posted on PNG Facebook discussion group Sharp Talk and on Twitter using the hashtag #PNGNewVoices. I encourage interested people to monitor and engage with us on social media for real-time updates on the event.

 PNG has limited resources to commit to a growing crop of both domestic and international challenges. In such an environment, PNG's thirst for new ideas and creative policy thinking has never been so great. A strong national discourse and a dynamic public discussion are not just the principal ingredients for good public policy – a robust debate also counteracts poorly constructed and ill-informed policy by ensuring that questions are asked and decisions are publicly contested. PNG New Voices will help support a strengthening of this public debate and facilitate new ideas into the policy realm.

There are few people better qualified to speak on and input into the current and looming challenges that PNG faces than those participating in next month's Lowy Institute New Voices conference. It is the younger generation that will wear the consequences of decisions made today by PNG's politicians, business people and government officials, so it is vital their opinions are heard and their ideas feed into both the debate and policy that will shape PNG's future place in the world.

 Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.

PNG New Voices draft agenda.doc (95.00 kb)

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Thanks to Daniel Woker for schooling me on the importance of the UN Security Council. In some ways I am in agreement. It does make sense for countries to strive to join the UN's 'steering committee' once in a while.

But what's missing in Dr Woker's response is why the UNSC is important to Australia. Why, when our foreign affairs department has so few resources, did we focus on this bid at the expense of other international policy priorities? And with multilateralism suffering setback after setback, was a bid for the UN Security Council a smart strategic decision in an environment that favours bilateral and regional solutions to international problems? 

I only briefly touched on the UNSC bid in my Pacific strategy blog posts, but as Dr Woker has pulled this to the forefront in his response (and since Kevin Rudd has thrown in his two cents), let me elaborate.

Firstly, there is a considerable opportunity cost in taking on something as resource intensive as Australia's ultra-tardy bid (7 years behind rival Luxembourg) for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Enhanced relations with our nearest neighbours is just one price we've paid. Relations with the Pacific Islands region must always be at the core of Australian foreign policy. We share a unique set of economic, security, development and diplomatic ties that are not replicated to the same extent in any other international relationship. When Australia's relations with the Pacific fall out of centre-view, this should be questioned and contested. 

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China analysts and the bulk of the private sector may also be wondering why, over the past two years, our foreign ministers have visited Ethiopia, Egypt, France, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Switzerland rather than spending more time in China. Why have our foreign ministers spent portions of 2011-12 in Lithuania, El Salvador, Hungary, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Oman, Malta and Liechtenstein when our high-level engagement with India and Papua New Guinea were already so lacking?

Flicking through the flight paths of our parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs is even more alarming – jammed full of visits to countries inconsequential to Australian foreign, trade, security and aid policy but important for Australia's UN Security Council bid.

Aid to Latin America and the Caribbean is another example of Australia's sidetracked international policy that can be attributed at least partly to Australia's bid for a UN Security Council seat. I enjoyed reading Wendy Jarvie's ten reasons why AusAID should stay committed to Latin America, but I have just one for why we should go: because providing aid to Latin America does not fit in with the Australian Government's foreign aid objective of alleviating poverty in line with Australia's national interest. If you want a second reason, nor does Australia possess a competitive advantage or expertise in providing development assistance to this part of the world (like we do in Asia and in the Pacific).

Australian aid will make such an insignificant difference to development outcomes in the region that it will not pass the 'value for money' test. Unlike Africa, levels of poverty across Latin America are not substantial enough to argue that AusAID continue re-directing trivial portions of Australia foreign aid away from the Asia Pacific. After all, the 2011 Australian aid review found that aid to Latin American and the Caribbean was of 'limited Australian strategic interest'.

Australia entered its UN Security Council bid under the assumption that multilateralism will continue to be an effective tool of international policy. But multilateralism has not served Australia well of late, and we need to face the prospect that, as a tool of foreign policy, multilateralism does not offer Australia the value it once did.

Gareth Evans is right; Australia has a formidable story to tell. We are a creative middle power, and an aspiring aid superpower. Yet we are also deeply confused about our place in the world. Our foreign policy architecture continues to spread across a range of government departments and is no longer centered in diplomacy. Australia's private sector and range of research institutes, along with our prime minister, are reaching out to Asia and trying to examine Australia's role in the Asian Century. Concurrently, our foreign minister is boosting multilateralism as our foreign affairs department frantically devotes itself to beating Luxembourg and gaining a seat on the UN steering committee next month.

This confusion may well be resolved soon, with the Asian Century White Paper set to launch around the same time Australia discovers whether it has been successful in securing a seat at the table in UN headquarters in New York. One is important to a range of government, private sector and civil society actors and will spark a debate about Australia's place in the world. The other holds diminishing value in a world where the limits of multilateralism become starker year by year.

I will be joining Dr Woker and crossing my fingers for an Australian win at the UN next month. Despite my arguments, the decision to bid for a UN Security Council seat was made, dollars have been spent, and our foreign affairs department needs this boost after years of purged budgets. If Australia wins, DFAT will no doubt grasp the opportunity and serve Australia proudly. But win or lose, the opportunity cost of this bid has been enormous

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.

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Earlier this week I used the opportunity of the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum, now taking place in the Cook Islands, to start a blog series on Australia's Pacific Islands strategy. I outlined two elements that characterise Australia's Pacific policy.

First is Australia's tendency to project our domestic issues into the region, the current example being the Australian Government's push to re-open two Pacific-based asylum seeker detention centres (in PNG and Nauru). Australia's domestic immigration agenda has distracted from the Forum's agenda and will consume much of Prime Minister Gillard's time in the Cook Islands. This diversion means Australia's high-level delegation will miss opportunities to engage more on Pacific Islands issues important to the whole region.

Secondly, I discussed Australia's crowded and distracted foreign policy agenda and our fixation on UN diplomacy as we bid for a UN Security Council seat and woo Pacific Islands votes this week. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has channeled substantial resources (financial and intellectual) to the UN in New York, and as our focus has shifted to engaging smaller countries far outside Australia's core national interest, we have lost our footing in the Pacific Islands. 

When asked about foreign policy aims in the 2011 Lowy Institute poll, Australians placed 'improving Australia's relationship with its immediate neighbours' (94% said 'important') far ahead of 'seeking a seat on the UN Security Council' (70%). In fact, Australians ranked the UN Security Council bid as the least important foreign policy goal out of the twelve options put to them in the poll, with only 32% of Australians believing it was 'very important'; 27% of Australians said seeking a seat on the UN Security Council was 'not important'.

Now I want to throw in a third premise which characterises Australia's relationship with the Pacific: the dominance of Australia's aid program. More than 50% of all foreign aid that pours into the Pacific comes from the Australian Government, approximately $1.2 billion annually.

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Development assistance is an important part of Australia's relationship with the Pacific Islands, and foreign aid is rapidly becoming Australia's most effective international policy tool. The size of Australia's regional aid budget means it dominates Australia's relationship with the region. But this comes at the expense of the type of relationship we really want with the Pacific, one that is multifaceted and goes deeper than that of donor-recipient. 

Australian policymakers too often rest on the size of the aid budget. When in the Pacific Islands, aid announcements pepper the media releases of any visiting Minister or Parliamentary Secretary. But this over-reliance on the aid program has stifled Pacific policy in Australia and resulted in a lack of creative policy thinking. We fail to think through and design Pacific policy that builds Australia's goodwill in the region.

Aid is always going to be a key part of our Pacific policy, however, it does not always have to be at the centre. Annmaree O'Keeffe is spot on when she recommends Australia should look for other ways to engage with Pacific island states. Facilitating greater opportunities for 1.5 track dialogues (particularly in Papua New Guinea), launching an Australia-Pacific Island Council under DFAT, developing greater opportunities to connect with emerging leaders in the region, a Pacific-tailored ediplomacy strategy for those Pacific countries going through a mobile phone boom and getting our Prime Minister out to Melanesia for the first time are all ideas worth exploring.

The Pacific Islands region can only look on in envy at the wide-ranging policy discussion occurring on Australia's role in the Asian Century – Australia-Pacific relations will never be the subject of such a substantial debate in Australia. It's hard to imagine policymakers in Canberra seeing our relations with the Pacific Islands as White Paper-worthy, despite the desperate need for innovative policy ideas.

The Australian Government needs to reach for its thinking cap and work with Australian civil society and the private sector to develop a set of innovative policies which will build Australia's goodwill and soft power in the Pacific Island region, because the relationship is stale and has seen far better days. Our sustained distraction is leaving the region open to other foreign powers. More on that in my next blog post.

Photo by Flickr user AusAID Photolibrary.

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Government officials, diplomats, aid officials, multilateral bankers and a handful of private sector representatives will come together with a host of non-member country representatives (including from China, Indonesia, Japan and the US) who have been hopping on and off connecting flights to swivel their way to the Cook Islands for the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum and the post-forum dialogue, taking place this week.

Leaders' photo from the 2010 Pacific Islands Forum (courtesy of Flickr user nznationalparty.)

As international forums go, the Pacific Islands Forum can be colourful but it continues to be dogged by commentary that it is flirting with irrelevance. Similar to other multilateral forums, the discussions often struggles to shape public policy debate. A lack of civil society engagement in the Forum means new ideas are few and policy isn't always contested and debated.

Aid initiatives will be announced by the plethora of government and non-government aid agencies in attendance, with the biggest being a much needed Australia-led gender initiative. Pacific leaders will again discuss Fiji's possible return to democracy, having once more been undercut by Fiji's third 'Engaging with the Pacific' meeting. Participants will note the growing presence of non-member country contingents as these 'observers' battle it out for influence and strategic edge in the region.

Julia Gillard's briefings will be bulkier than usual at this year's Forum and she will be flanked by a posse of Australian diplomats with one dominant objective: to sew up UN Security Council votes. The vote is set to take place in October in New York and getting UN Ambassadors to vote for you is easier said than done. The vote is anonymous, meaning that even publicly-funded VIP trips to Australia for UN Ambassadors, where diplomats consider their votes against the backdrop of the Australian coastline, cannot ensure Australia will be favoured over Finland and Luxembourg on the day.

With resources being funneled into Australia's UN Security Council bid, our relationship with the Pacific has been sidelined. This is not a complete surprise but we will pay for it later as Pacific leaders continue to seek out new ties and re-invigorate old ones while we focus on UN diplomacy in New York.

The Australian Government's uncanny ability to project our domestic problems into the Pacific Islands region continues to corrode Australia's goodwill and reputation with Pacific Islanders. Prime Minister Gillard will ensure she gets quality bilateral time with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill and Nauru's President Sprent Dabwido at the Pacific Islands Forum to lock down asylum detention centres in both countries. In PNG, Peter O'Neill’s quick decision to approve the use of Manus Island came without debate and there are mixed feelings in PNG about the detention centre.

The Papua New Guinea Government has placed a temporary ban on all foreign media from entering the country to cover Australia's plans for offshore processing of asylum seekers in Manus island – another blow to Pacific media freedom.

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The PNG-Australia relationship has had a pretty rough year. Comparisons can be made with the fragility of our relationship with Indonesia – seemingly small issues can trigger a large backlash. Despite the breadth and depth of the relationship and our shared history, there is a new tension in the air that I'm not sure has been there before.

Trawling through 2012 official releases from our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister is akin to watching a rolling set of orange traffic lights. Our senior leaders have paid scant attention to PNG this year but when they have, it hasn't been to charm or congratulate our nearest neighbour. Statement after statement has been used to send warnings. All warranted, mind you, but they stack up, and with little positive news in between, they paint a rather pessimistic picture.

In April, Prime Minister Gillard was concerned at PNG's election delay. In May, Foreign Minister Carr was forced to explain that Australia would not 'take action' against PNG after all. This admission stemmed from the glaring red light which appeared from nowhere, forcing the relationship to a screeching halt: Carr's threat of sanctions if PNG did not keep to its election timetable.

I assume swift diplomacy resulted in forgiveness from Papua New Guinea's top officials and leaders. Unfortunately for Australia, the same can't be said for PNG's general public. This is evident in PNG's social media spaces. Since Carr's remarks in mid-March, a anti-Australia discussion has emerged, one that has risen in intensity over these past few weeks.

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It's hard to say exactly what is behind this mentality and whether this is a real shift or simply a below the surface irritant which has forced its way up. However, one thing is certain: this frustration can now be channeled into a growing range of online platforms. On the upside, this gives Australia access to huge amounts of information and the ability to understand how Papua New Guineans view their southern neighbour. On the downside, discovering what people think of you is not always so pretty.

This aversion to Australia was on display last night after MP (and former Deputy Prime Minister) Belden Namah released a press statement accusing Australia's High Commissioner, Ian Kemish, of interfering PNG's sovereignty. Kemish attended a state ceremony where Peter O'Neill was invited to form PNG's new government. PNG's The National newspaper quoted Kemish as saying: "If there is anyone who can take it that far (five years), it is him". Kemish denied making this comment.

Namah's statement demanded Kemish be recalled and an apology issued by Foreign Minister Carr. In usual Namah style, the press release was whimsical and nonsensical but it was widely dispersed. It hit social media like a white squall and, mixed in with rumours of an imminent military coup (also spread through text message), it created digital chaos for a few hours.

Two developments were particularly troubling. First, how quickly hundreds of people (through PNG Facebook group Sharp Talk) were demanding Australia's High Commissioner be immediately deported. Ian Kemish is nearing the end of his time in Port Moresby and seems to be liked and respected in PNG. From our interview with Kemish earlier this year, you can see that he has a great love for the country. But it isn't Kemish that people want removed, it was the 'Australian High Commissioner'. It likely doesn't matter who the individual is sitting in the chair. If the PNG-Australia relationship were in a better place, it is hard to imagine so many cries of 'off with his head'.
 
Second, it was baffling to watch this unfold last night on social media being aware of how easily the hysteria could have been quelled by effective ediplomacy. In fact, it's downright scandalous that our diplomatic corps has not yet equipped itself with the most basic online tools to engage with the public. I acknowledge that, as of last week, DFAT has launched two ambassadors into the twittersphere. It's unfortunate that the PNG High Commissioner wasn't one of them.

Had Ian Kemish tweeted an explanation of why he was at PNG Government House (invited? normal protocol?) and what he did or didn't say to The National he could have cleared up Belden Namah's accusations in 140 characters (or allowed himself to spill into 280). It really can be that simple.

PNG's entrepreneurial bloggers would have copied, cropped and pasted Kemish's tweet onto Sharp Talk and on a half-dozen blogs in a few minutes. This would have clarified misinformation and speculation. Instead, the Australian Government's unwillingness to embrace ediplomacy unnecessarily cost the PNG-Australia relationship last night.

The Australian Government's inability to connect with the public online is likely interpreted as 'radio silence' by the more than 100,000 people in PNG accessing social media (a rapidly growing number of Papua New Guineans also access social media from their mobile phones and this growth cannot always be tracked).

Last night, in the heat of the online debate, a number of PNG Facebook users requested that, if there was an Australian official in the group, could they please come forward to clarify what had occurred, many believing that the diplomatic stoush was likely a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, Australian officials didn't engage to clarify. The Australian Government doesn't have a Facebook account in PNG, nor did it use its generic Twitter account, @dfat. A shame, given the obvious need for quick ediplomacy in this confused situation.

There is an enormous difference between engaging with the officials of a country and engaging with its general public. I don't believe the warm feelings that Australians have for Papua New Guinea, which have increased since 2007, are necessarily reciprocated. A restorative visit by Prime Minister Gillard (who has yet to visit Papua New Guinea) may get this important relationship back on track. Fast-tracking an effective ediplomacy strategy that engages with PNG's increasingly influential 'digital generation' is another.

Photo by Flickr user Commonwealth Secretariat.

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Part 1 of this post was published yesterday.

Newly-elected female PNG MPs Loujaya Toni and Delilah Gore should be enormously proud of what they have achieved – they have run the election gauntlet and won. They triumphed despite being up against a culture that has a tendency to stifle women's empowerment and pint-sized finances (when compared with heavyweights Belden Namah and Peter O'Neill). They will now find themselves in the middle of a complex (and some say corrupt) political process where men with liquidity and forceful negotiating skills usually come out on top. 

Fortunately, these women have the support of two camps that may prove pivotal in smoothing out what could be an incredibly bumpy five year parliamentary term. First, there's Dame Carol Kidu, who has immeasurable knowledge and authority after 15 years battling it out in parliament. Her advice will be invaluable.

Second, PNG's 'digital generation' has truly emerged, and the country is benefiting from a more intimate relationship between technology and politics.

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A flock of digital entrepreneurs provide PNG with independent contestability and analysis of government procedures and policy via a suite of blogs (many of which I have linked to in this post), Facebook and Twitter. When electoral promises are broken, public funds misused, allegations of corruption arise and when political decisions lack transparency, it will be discussed and debated through Facebook group Sharp Talk, Twitter hashtag #PNG and on a number of blogs and websites.

A group of savvy bloggers provide sharp analysis that PNG's newspapers could only dream of. Social media users have spread news of the PNG election in real time. Informed and inclusive debates occur daily on SharpTalk; female representation in politics has been a popular topic of late with the online masses delighted and proud of the boosted female presence in PNG's parliament.

If their post-election remarks are anything to go by, the new members for Lae and Soho Open will be working towards the same goals advocated by the posse of bloggers and social media users: a more transparent and inclusive government that capitalises on the country's economic growth in a sustainable way, distributes public funds fairly and facilitates service delivery (particularly health and education services) to the provinces.

Papua New Guinea is internationally renowned for being a country of great diversity – geographically, culturally and in its variety of traditions and languages. Yet this wonderful diversity is still not reflected politically. Without decisive political action, the hegemony of PNG's bigmen will remain for decades to come. Once Peter O'Neill has cobbled together a ruling coalition, one of his first priorities needs to be an assertive and considered social policy framework, one that will assess how to reverse PNG's terrible track record in gender equality. After all, investing in people and empowering women is smart economic policy.

The election of two women should be celebrated. But this achievement should boost, not mask, the push to build greater equity into the PNG parliament so that future generations of women will not be as disadvantaged as those who first fought to get into parliament in 1977 and those who are still battling today.

Photo by Flickr user Commonwealth Secretariat.

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Hordes of newly elected Papua New Guinean MPs are now engaged in post-election horse-trading (or as one blogger puts it, the 'PNG shuffle'). As those with power stitch together a coalition government, one side story is attracting some deserved attention.

Two women have achieved the virtually impossible and been elected to Papua New Guinea's male-dominated Parliament: poet and activist Loujaya Toni (who ousted her own grandfather*, veteran politician Bart Philemon, to win Lae) and former district treasurer Delilah Gore (Sohe Open).

 

To call PNG's parliament male-dominated is an understatement. Since the country's first national election in 1977, there have been eight polls, including this year's, which have filled a total of 874 parliamentary seats (thanks to blogger Tavurvur for the counting assistance). Among these, only six have been held by women; that's a hit rate of 0.69%.

Of course, women can run but there are barriers to entry: campaign cash, political connections and the traditional 'big man' style of politics. These dissuade some women from entering the race but for those who do stand for election, it's an uphill battle in a system that favours money and men and, above all, men with money.

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I don't wish to detract from what has been achieved at this election. For PNG, 2012 brings the best female representation in parliament since the 1977 election (which brought 3 women to power). But looking at the historical trends and the current situation, it is hard to find a more inequitable democratically elected parliament in the world. And this blatant inequality will not be reversed without both domestic and international pressure that helps facilitate more debate on the role of women in PNG politics and a more leveled playing field for those who do take part.

Former PNG Opposition Leader (and Lowy Institute visiting fellow) Dame Carol Kidu resigned this year after 16 years as the only woman in parliament. Dame Carol was vocal and active in parliamentary debate and with the media. And while she was heard by the mass of men surrounding her she was not always listened to: her calls to improve social policy and human rights were rarely given priority despite Papua New Guinea's dire need for inclusive and resilient social policy.

Consistently poor rankings in the UNDP's Human Development Index show PNG's population suffers low life expectancy, poor education and high gender inequality. This index shows that PNG has not made headway on gender inequality since 1995. Also disturbing are the results of a women's economic opportunity index, crafted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and supported by a range of donors including the New Zealand aid program. This report looks at women's economic opportunity and advancement in 128 countries. PNG ranks dismally, bettering only Yemen, Chad and Sudan. This should be proof enough that current social and gender policies are not adequate and that urgent policy adjustments need to be made by the incoming PNG Government.

* While Loujaya has described Bart Philemon as her 'grandfather' in numerous interviews, he is actually her uncle. ‏(h/t @Tavurvur)

Photo by Flickr user Commonwealth Secretariat.

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Part 1 of this post, an interview with He Wenping from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on China's growing aid program, appeared last Friday.

4. Are there comparisons that can be drawn between China's and India's aid programs?

The main areas of aid in China's and India's programs are somewhat different. China primarily focuses on basic infrastructure, whereas India focuses more on education (such as long-distance education) and communications. However, the aid models and means of both China and India do also have some similarities (for example, demand-driven bilateral aid without preconditions).  

5. It is well reported that aid donors around the world, particularly OECD-DAC donors, are attempting to engage China as a donor. How do you think these efforts are going? And do you think this is having an impact on China's aid program?

In my opinion, China probably won't enter the OECD-DAC club at the moment or in the near future. Being a member of the OECD-DAC club is neither a necessary condition nor a decisive factor in delivering effective aid. The effectiveness of some OECD-DAC member states' aid programs is not ideal. Longer term, regardless of whether China becomes an OECD-DAC member, dialogue and cooperation between OECD-DAC donors will be very important. 

6. And finally, do you have any advice for Australia as we attempt to understand and engage with China (as a significant provider of foreign aid) in the Asian Century?

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Firstly, whether or not this is the 'Asian Century' is still uncertain, although we are in the process of an 'eastern power shift' (including in the area of development aid). Personally, I feel Australia is well positioned both culturally and geographically to act as a bridge between Europe and Asia, and can play an important and unique role in its engagement with China.

My suggestion is Australia should adopt a positive and proactive stance to reflect this unique role. For example, Australia could invite relevant groups to convene discussions and seminars (pursuing a dialogue at both the academic and policy levels), allowing both sides to experience and understand the difference reflected in development aid models from a cultural and historical level. Australia and China could jointly organise research into specific aid projects in recipient countries, analysing the 'development effectiveness' of the projects.

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Translation by Dirk van der Kley, an intern in the Lowy Institute's International Security program.

As part of the Lowy Institute's focus on the rise of Asian aid donors we are planning a series of blog posts that will look at how these 'new' emerging donors, namely China and India, are influencing the Asia Pacific and re-shaping the global development picture. And importantly, what does this global shift mean for Australia's role as a growing provider of international development assistance?

To kick off, here's part 1 of an interview with He Wenping from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who we have interviewed before on The Interpreter. Part 2 will follow next week.

1. As China's aid program continues to increase in size and scope, how is China evolving and changing as a donor/development partner?

China is taking an increasingly open stance on external developmental assistance cooperation. The International Poverty Reduction Centre in China (IPRCC) formed a study group with OECD-DAC in 2010 to discuss cooperation related to external development aid. In addition, the Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK and China's Ministry of Agriculture have undertaken joint missions to Africa to observe and identify potential cooperation on agricultural aid projects.

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Currently, there is agreement among academics in China that, along with increases in China's foreign aid, China needs to study the lessons and experiences that Western aid donors have accumulated over an extended period. However, due to historical and national differences, China will not completely follow the same route or system that the West has in delivering its aid.

2. At the end of last year in Busan, South Korea, we had largest international meeting of aid officials to date. Donors (traditional and non-traditional) signed the Busan partnership for effective development cooperation. China was one of the signatories to this document – what significance do you think this document holds for China?

One of the main themes of the Busan meeting was the shift from 'aid effectiveness' to 'development effectiveness', with a strong emphasis on promoting development in aid recipient countries. China has extensive experience as an aid recipient, and is now becoming an increasingly important aid donor. Due to this, China is very willing to share its experience of using aid for successful economic development with the international community (in particular aid-recipient countries) and to explore how to make development aid more effectively promote 'development'. 

3. China is well-known for the infrastructure component of its aid program. Beyond this, do you see China moving into/expanding in other sectors such as education, health etc?

In reality, China has been providing health- and education-related development aid for a long time. For example, China has been sending medical teams to countries in Africa since the 1960s (working mostly in remote areas). In terms of human resources (such as education), investment has been increasing since the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, including scholarships and training classes for African students in China. It is certain that investment in the aforementioned areas will continue to increase into the future.

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