Lowy Institute

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technology and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • China has dropped some of the world's largest tech companies, including Apple and Cisco, from its approved state purchases list in a move that has been linked to both Western cyber surveillance and domestic protectionism.
  • Fergus Hanson has proposed that the Government instigate a regional ICT response to discredit Islamic State messages in Southeast Asia and Australia. One of his recommendations — an interdisciplinary lab bringing together technologists, communications experts, tech firms and public servants — might be realised via the Government's newly announced body intended to monitor social media and disrupt terrorist propaganda.
  • Vietnam's regulatory approach to the internet is increasingly out of step with its booming technology sector.
  • The spokesperson for Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party has used Foreign Policy magazine to urge his own party to turn its fortunes around by changing the way it uses the internet, shifting from thinking about it as simply a communications tool to using it to mobilise support and encourage public participation in policy development.
  • Can Tibetans trust Facebook? Prominent Tibetan author Tsering Woeser doesn't think so.
  • Based on 2013's Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, findings have been published showing how state-of-the-art social media processing methods can be used to assist humanitarian organisations during a crisis. More than 2 million tweets were analysed and geo-located as a part of the project.
  • After the People's Liberation Army announced strict guidelines for body weight, including that meeting the guidelines will be a promotion consideration, Chinese netizens turned on Mao Xinyu, the often-mocked and overweight grandson of Mao Zedong, who in 2010 become the youngest Major General in the PLA.

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies.

  • The world's largest annual human migration is in progress and search engine Baidu has used big data to map it. Baidu's map, which updates hourly, uses location-based data pulled from smartphone users to geo-locate the Chinese New Year (CNY) travel routes of its 350 million active users.
  • Improved internet access in China is changing traditions. Thousands of pre-cooked CNY eve dinners were sold online and traditional lanterns have been a hit seller for e-commerce companies. CNY gift-giving has been transformed by the cashless 'virtual red envelope', sparking fierce competition between rival internet companies and social media networks.
  • Did the Chinese Government just censor a semiofficial anthem performed by its own cyber censorship agency at a CNY event boasting about its influence over the internet?
  • A Singaporean company has developed the perfect mobile app to help people returning home for CNY answer pesky questions from relatives (Q: why are you still single?), providing users with a range of pre-arranged answers (A: relationships are expensive!).
  • The number of Chinese women renting fake boyfriends online to take home for CNY holidays has increased, as has the price, from US$128 to US$160 per day.
  • Big data is being harnessed to highlight CNY consumption habits in China. Backed by 12 years of historical data, Dianping, a review and booking platform that relies on crowdsourcing opinions from its 190 million active users, has mapped out the most popular activities and places to eat in real-time, province by province.
  • You judge who comes out on top in the CNY digital diplomacy stakes. President Obama, Prince William, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak or this humorous video from the US consulate in Hong Kong.
  • A short film encouraging parents to welcome LGBT children home this CNY has gone viral in China, racking up 100 million views:


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • A spat involving Taiwan, high school students and a Harvard-based model UN conference has set the Chinese web alight.
  • Popular Facebook groups in PNG and West Papua are teeming with discussion about Prime Minister O'Neill's recent public acknowledgement of West Papuan oppression (and the PNG Foreign Minister's subsequent back-peddle).
  • Bad open source intelligence claiming China has deployed nuclear-armed missiles on its border with North Korea, targeted at Japan, has been debunked by the Arms Control Wonk blog, using specialist open source techniques.
  • Millions of Facebook users in Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand (and Africa) don't know they're on the internet, creating data anomalies on global internet uptake.
  • Bouncing off North Korea's cyber ambitions, Alan Dupont argues cutting-edge cyber skills are now a key measure of national power and economic prosperity (the US obviously thinks so).
  • Everything you wanted to know about China's social media landscape in 2015. The big news: while social media use continues to grow rapidly (WeChat remains the most popular), users are showing increasing concern for how it impacts their lives.
  • Unbeknown to most, the world's largest gay mobile dating app is Chinese. Called 'Blued', the app has international expansion in its sights, this week launching in its first overseas market, the Netherlands.
  • India, despite having one of the smallest diplomatic corps per capita in the world (only 930 diplomats representing India's1.25 billion people), continues to invest heavily in digital diplomacy. Watch how India's Ministry of External Affairs is using ICT platforms to expand its presence in China (below) and Egypt.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • As Taiwan struggles with its role as the 'testing ground' for Chinese cyber attacks (some have labeled it as one of, if not the most, hacked place on earth) the Government is ramping up its focus on cyber defence amid calls for greater cyber security cooperation between the US, Japan and Taiwan.
  • It is perhaps awkwardly fitting that as Prime Minister Abbott described social media as 'electronic graffiti', India's soft power savvy leader was tweeting his best wishes to Australians on Australia Day (to his 9.7 million followers).
  • Recent comments by Vietnam's Prime Minister suggest the country may ease up on internet censorship. But commentators caution against optimism, and it's worth noting that there are 27 bloggers in Vietnam's prisons.
  • In a decision apparently sparked by the Snowden revelations, China's cyber regulator has announced security screenings of foreign-produced ICT products will begin this year. The new rules, which are said to include demands for source code and back-doors into hardware, have heightened concerns foreign companies are being forced out of the world's most populous tech market.
  • A Bangladeshi mobile app, 'Doctor in a Tab', which connects rural residents with doctors, has won a major USAID award. The app, which is planning an expansion into Myanmar, is worthy of the attention of DFAT's new (rather mysterious) 'innovation hub'.
  • As the skirmish intensifies between e-commerce giant Alibaba and the Chinese Government over the sale of counterfeit goods (public support is said to be with the company), it's worth taking a look at recent profiles of both Alibaba and its less well-known competitor JD.com

There are many problems with Prime Minister Abbott's now twice-stated remark that 'Social media is kind of like electronic graffiti'. Here are just three.

First, his views hit awfully close to home for the majority of Australians, because it turns out we are graffiti artists and prolific ones at that. About 60% of Australians have a social media account, ranking us sixth in the world for accounts per capita. And this addiction to online connections has been brewing for years. In 2010 we spent just seven hours a month browsing social media. Fast forward five years and an astonishing two hours every day is consumed by its use. The total number of active accounts grew by 6% in 2014 and we are now home to 13.6 million Facebook accounts, 4 million Instagram users and 2.8 million Twitter accounts. We also have a particular affection for YouTube videos, blogs and the mobile dating app Tinder.

But it is not just Australians who are social media animals and this leads to the second problem with the Prime Minister's statement. There are more than 2 billion social media users scattered across the world. The bulk, more than 1 billion, reside in our neighbourhood, the Asia Pacific. Our neighbours in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Singapore spend more time each day on social media than we do. Almost half of China's population has a social media account, 15% of the world's tweets come from Indonesia, and in 2014 India experienced a 31% hike in total social media accounts.

Unsurprisingly, in the Pacific Islands, the numbers aren't as impressive, but social media has been used to hold governments and businesses accountable for corruption and poor service delivery. Facebook discussion groups, particularly in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, have played vital roles in crowdsourcing policy ideas, shedding light on misused public funds and alerting law enforcement to domestic violence and other crimes.

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Third, governments around the world take social media seriously and are increasingly inventive in its use as a tool of communication and influence, They also use it to predict trends. At a very basic level, social media is widely used to measure changes in public opinion and to gauge sentiment when new policies are announced. The Australian Government has in fact funded and built its very own software tool to do just that. And government departments use it to communicate with and engage the public (a list of the federal government's vast collection of social media accounts can be found here).

Even in China, where internet censorship is routine (the Chinese Government is thought to employ some 2 million people to monitor Chinese social media), social media is contributing to a new responsiveness from local governments. Online activists and grassroots movements in China such as 'Not In My Backyard' have used social media to force action on a range of environmental issues..

The US Government, via various intelligence research arms, invests heavily in programs that mine social media to predict social and political events, including the spread of disease. More recently, the US Government revealed it was social media that provided the crucial link to identify those responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in the Ukraine.

The Indian Government has committed to expanding its social media presence and responsiveness, particularly in the area of digital diplomacy. The way India and the US used social media (and other online tools) before and during President Obama's recent visit provides the Australian Government with some excellent lessons on how it can expand its digital diplomacy capabilities (for example, see #AskObamaModi)

The Prime Minister's antiquated remarks about #electronicgraffiti could worryingly be read to reflect a lack of understanding of both the role of social media and how widely used it is around the world, including by his own government. Social media is no longer just the purview of angsty teenagers and online gamers. It is used globally to foster development and to help shape social and political change.

26 January isn't just Australia Day, it is also India's Republic Day (an event President Obama made the centerpiece of his visit this week). In an Australia where all that is old is new again, it is perhaps awkwardly fitting that, while our Prime Minister described social media as 'graffiti that happens to be put forward by the means of IT' live on ABC news, India's soft power savvy Prime Minister was tweeting his best wishes to Australians on Australia Day (to his 9.7 million followers). It is disappointing, but not surprising, that our Prime Minister's Twitter account did not return the favour.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • China's cyber watchdog has revealed one billion posts were deleted in 2014 as part of an 'Internet cleanup operation.' In addition, 20 million online forums, blogs and social media accounts and over 2000 websites were closed. Was yours one of them? Check here.
  • Indonesia's young and tech-savvy population is attracting new investment. Before you invest here are ten things you need to know, from the difficulties for foreign companies to the importance of social media (15% of the world's tweets come from Indonesia).
  • Why 2015 will be the year of India's next technology revolution. Mobile health applications, electronic commerce and app-based automation of public services are pinpointed by the Washington Post as areas to watch.
  • Internet-based civil society groups are mentioned in this Devpolicy blog post as one of the few areas of hope for Solomon Islands politics. The author is likely referring to Forum Solomon Islands International, which has grown from a Facebook discussion group to a registered NGO that uses ICT tools to crowd-source policy ideas from its members to influence political outcomes.
  • Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi is shaking up the consumer electronics and smartphone market with plans to expand to Southeast Asia, Russia and Brazil. Founder Lei Jun, Forbes Asia's Businessperson of the Year in 2014, recently said: 'I've said on many different occasions that if I had been called the "Steve Jobs of China" as a 20- year-old, I would have been very honoured...As a 40-year-old, however, I don't want to be considered second to anyone.'
  • China is considering a range of measures to rein in poorly behaved Chinese travelers, including sending text messages to tourists as they arrive at their destination reminding them to observe good manners. The move comes shortly after CCTV pulled its Be a Good Panda, be a Good Tourist ad filmed in Sydney after a backlash on Chinese social media.


Taiwan's pro-China political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was royally walloped in last weekend's 'nine-in-one' nationwide local elections, losing 60% of their seats. As I wrote previously, these elections are important because they are widely seen to serve as a barometer for the 2016 presidential election. The upcoming election of Taiwan's new president will have regional implications for Asia, particularly for the tangled web of North Asian political relations and geostrategic tensions. 

The newly elected Mayor of Taipei Dr Ko Wen-je on election night, 29 November 2014

29 November marked the KMT's largest defeat in recent electoral history.

They won only six of the 22 constituencies in the mayoral and commissioner elections (the KMT previously held 15 of these 22 positions), a worse outcome than in 1997 when it only managed to secure 8 of 23 seats. The less Beijing-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 13 seats, taking back swathes of Taiwan and doubling its control. Independents nabbed the remaining three (the new electoral map on the right, previous on the left). For seat-by-seat analysis, including the DPP's shock win in Taoyuan, head to the Thinking Taiwan website or one of these blogs.

As polling predicted, the position of Taipei mayor was captured by independent candidate Dr Ko Wen-je, whose election broke the KMT's 16-year stranglehold on the island's capital. A trauma surgeon by background, Ko's victory speech focused on the need for a more open government, greater public participation and an assurance that he would improve the impartiality of the public service. Since Taiwan introduced direct presidential elections in 1996, every single president has first been mayor of Taipei, so the rise or fall of Dr Ko Wen-je will be watched closely, not just in Taiwan, but throughout the region.

Too many in the international media have insisted that these elections were a vote on China and were deeply impacted by the situation in Hong Kong. Both of these assertions are overblown.

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Voters abandoned the KMT, first and foremost, because of a string of domestic issues. Two factors that would have been in voter's minds likely included their aversion to their president (polling from last weekend shows Ma's approval rate has dropped to 9.7%) and punishing the KMT for a recycled cooking oil scandal which has received blanket media coverage in Taiwan this year. Most Taiwanese are more concerned with apartment affordability, job security and what kind of future their children will have (as was the focus of Ko's campaign) than the protests in Hong Kong or the latest development in Taiwan-China relations. 

But while local issues dominated election discourse, you certainly can't discount international influences. In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, these influences run parallel, and often weave into, domestic discourse. Before voting in the 'nine-in-one' election on 29 November, each voter (other than hardline pan-blue or pan-Green supporters) would have contemplated and prioritised their own patchwork of issues. Once sewn together, Taiwanese voters chose the political party or independent that best represented their views. In Australia we are used to hearing 'there are no votes in foreign policy', but in Taiwan, there are plenty of votes in foreign policy. And by foreign policy, we mean China. 

These electoral outcomes are a major setback for China-Taiwan relations and one can almost guarantee the recent momentum in cross-Strait relations will stumble.

President Ma made improving relations with China a priority. He consistently focused on promoting cross-Strait relations under the principle of 'no unification, no independence and no use of force'. But the KMT's recent trouncing makes it difficult for Ma to move forward on what can now be confirmed as a deeply unpopular policy. An editorial in the Taipei Times sums the issue up well: many Taiwanese have become suspicious of — if not hostile to — China because of widespread concerns that the rewards of liberalised cross-Strait trade are reaped only by the business elite and that increased economic reliance would only undermine Taiwan's democracy and society. This view is particularly prevalent among young people. 

It is safe to say the KMT's 2016 presidential prospects look dim, and the party is imploding. On 2 December President Ma announced he was resigning as KMT Chairman (he did so on 3 December, though he remains president). KMT Premier Jiang Yi-huah and Secretary-General Tseng Yung-chuan had already pipped Ma to the post, resigning immediately following the elections. The KMT's own post-mortem, a blameless list outlining the reasons they believe they lost the election (h/t Letters from Taiwan blog), doesn't instil confidence that KMT will learn from its mistakes and put up a fight in the 2016 presidential elections.

The seriousness of the KMT's predicament was best conveyed by Li-Keng Kuei-fong, a member of KMT's Central Committee: 'This is the worst crisis for the KMT since we fled to Taiwan.'

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Pichi Chuang.


The view from Taipei

Tomorrow in Taiwan a record 11,130 seats will be contested in nationwide local elections, with 80% of Taiwan's population of 23 million heading to the polls. Voting will take place across nine categories of elected office in what is known as the 'nine-in-one' election. Six municipal mayors (including Taipei), six chiefs of indigenous districts, 532 county councillors and 7851 chiefs of village are just some of the positions up for grabs.

Local election campaigning in Taipei, 25 November 2014.

While these elections haven't stirred much interest in the Australian media, they are being closely watched in North Asia and the wider region as they will serve as a barometer for the 2016 presidential election.

Taiwan's next president (the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou, has reached his term limit) will have to navigate a narrow course through treacherous waters. They will inherit Taiwan's struggle to remain on the international map, an increasingly toothless Asian tiger economy and protracted disputes in the South China Sea. They will, of course, also have to contend with the precipitous balance of maintaining a close economic relationship with China while continuing to assert the island's independence.

Then there are the events in Hong Kong, which many argue have angered Taiwanese and further fueled distrust of China. An emerging solidarity between Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Taiwan's Sunflower Movement has seen unity demonstrations in Taipei and advice shared on rally organisation and crowd mobilisation. A large crowd of yellow umbrellas was displayed at a recent East Asia Cup qualifier in Taipei.

While Taiwan's gaze is almost permanently fixed on China, the reverse is also often true. This piece in Foreign Policy explains why China is watching the elections (and also offering 'election discount' flights for Taiwanese living in China to return home to vote, in the hope that they will back candidates that oppose Taiwanese independence). Those seeking more English-language analysis of Saturday's elections should head to The Economist, Thinking Taiwan blog, The Diplomat, The Conversation and the UK's China Policy Institute blog.

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Tomorrow, mobile phones will be banned from polling booths, with fines ranging from A$1,000 to A$11,000. But this simple regulation will be almost impossible to enforce. Taiwan's mobile-addicted population spends an average of three hours online a day via smartphones – more than anywhere else in the world. It is hard to imagine a situation where technology-dependent Taiwanese youth (note: the voting age is 20) would sign off from mobile chat app LINE (75% of the Taiwanese population are users), let alone leave their phones behind.

The same mobile phone addiction has given rise to a vigorous brand of digital democracy in Taiwan. Some commentators believe it will play a decisive role in the outcome of the Taipei mayoral election, arguably the most important of tomorrow's electoral skirmishes. The position wields enormous influence and is a well-trodden path to the presidency. President Ma — also Chairman of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) – was mayor of Taipei from 1998 to 2006. So far it has has been a fiercely fought competition between the relatively unknown Dr Ko Wen-je, an independent and eminent surgeon supported by the Democratic Progressive Party, and the well known KMT candidate Sean Lien, whose family was recently voted the most dominant political family in Taiwan.

KMT, known as pro-business and pro-China, is allegedly the richest political party in the world with registered assets in excess of A$1 billion. And Taipei is traditionally a KMT stronghold, so it is the KMT's race to lose. But some of the most recent polling (election laws prohibit the release of poll results in the final ten days before voting) show Ko leading Lien by more than 10%. The contest has been both dramatic and bizarre, and policy positions have often been overshadowed by intense mud-slinging. There have been allegations of corruption and money laundering, organ trafficking, wiretapping and a Watergate-type scandal. 

Despite the significant financial and political resources he brings to the table, there are a number of reasons why KMT's Sean Lien is behind in the polls.

Seemingly at the heart of it is a failure to connect with voters beyond core KMT supporters. Widely described as a 'princeling', his father, former vice president and KMT Chairman Lien Chan, has been outspoken during the campaign. But Lien Chan, who earlier this year emerged as a key figure in Cross-Strait talks when he was welcomed to Beijing by President Xi Jinping, may have harmed rather than helped his son's prospects. At a rally to support his son earlier this month, Lien Chan fired off a string of criticisms at Ko, including: 'I absolutely cannot stand the thought of having someone whose grandfather changed his surname to a Japanese one during the Japanese colonial era as mayor of Taipei. He (Ko) calls himself a commoner and us the privileged few. What a bastard'.

The remarks, meant to provoke nationalist sentiment, had the opposite effect. On national television Ko's elderly parents were forced to defend and explain the honour of Ko's grandfather, who was a teacher during Japanese colonisation. Apologies followed, but for many Taiwanese, who also lived through Japanese colonisation, it was profoundly offensive. It may have been the final straw for some. 

The contest is perhaps most poignantly summarised by the release of recent campaign ads. Ko's ad, 'How long has it been since you last listened to your children?', plays on the insecurities of the average Taiwanese family. It addresses inequality, unemployment and job security, high property prices and the declining birth rate. A shot of Taiwan's most expensive apartment complex 'The Palace', of which Sean Lien is a resident, is a pointed reminder to voters of his privileged background (although he alleges he moved out in September 2014).

In stark contrast, Sean Lien targets young voters in his Step Up-inspired music video 'The Same World', directed by famous music producer Kuang Sheng. The ad implores youth to vote as they would in a breakdancing competition: by considering skill rather than family background, wealth or power. But it is hard to see how this dance-off video, peppered with luxury vehicles, scantily clad women and designer sunglasses, will do anything but remind voters how far removed their lives are from that of the Lien family.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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)


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.