N.Z. in lock down: DAY 37

Yesterday was DAY 37 of New Zealand in lock down as we fight the COVID19 pandemic.

It has been interesting to look at the news from around the world these last few weeks and observe the hugely varied reactions of politicians and the public to COVID19. The diversity of reactions and responses has been quite profound. From the grim unity of New Zealanders going into lockdown to the increasingly violent division in the United States; from the quiet success of Taiwan to the flat out denialism over taking Brazil and some third world despots, the variation in the reactions and subsequent responses have been startling.

I will not concentrate on New Zealand so much as that is well documented and now receiving high praise from around the world, warranted or not. Instead I will look at some of New Zealand’s major international partners and where those partnership might go in the post-COVID19 environment.

A few days ago I examined the Australian response to COVID19 and noted that it is doing per head of capita, slightly better than New Zealand. The governments of both countries are talking to each other about how reopening the borders might happen, which is good. However, there are other nations that New Zealand and Australia should start talking to about an extended bubble. Taiwan is one of these nations. The island nation east of China has been one of the true success stories in the global campaign against COVID19. It has had just 429 confirmed cases, of which 324 have recovered with 6 deaths. No new cases have happened since 26 April. New Zealand and Taiwan have good relations and share similar democratic principles. South Korea is another one that could potentially be invited to join the bubble. It has 10772 cases of which 9072 have recovered, with new case rate per day in the single digits.

I now examine the risks posed to our small Pasifika neighbours like Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and our Melanesian neighbours in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. These little island nations might have dodged a bullet by being remote and not having large numbers of tourists arriving like Tonga, Fiji and Samoa do. All of these islands have weak health and social welfare systems, which means a potential outbreak in any of them could be absolutely catastrophic. The last serious pandemic to affect them would have been the 1918-1920 influenza, which was transported around the world by ships carrying soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe. A ship that was carrying infected New Zealand soldiers was allowed to dock in Apia during that time and 7,000 Samoans or about 1/5 of Samoa’s population then died.

It is not just these small nations that could be devastated. It is also the even smaller territories such as Wallis and Futuna, Niue, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, Kiribati, Palau and other tiny land masses could potentially have their entire populations wiped out. Because of the great risks posed to these nations, no one should be surprised that they were quick to slam their borders shut.

New Zealand and Australia need to take charge of aid to these little nations. They cannot afford the lack of transparency and the potential for agenda setting that goes with Chinese aid. Nor can we rely on American aid any for them any longer in the age of Donald Trump. Given the size of some of the smaller territories like Wallis and Futuna, a sum of say $200,000 directed through the Red Cross would be quite substantial.

Keeping super power influence in check in South Pacific

Yesterday on the Q+A programme Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters raised the issue that Chinese influence in the South Pacific is going to be a significant concern of this Government’s foreign policy. The remarks, which come at the start of a week long tour of the South Pacific where Mr Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. will meet Pacific leaders, come against a backdrop of growing Chinese influence in a year where Chinese President Xi Jinping appears intent on becoming a 21st Century emperor.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. Right now neither nation is doing a particularly good job of this – following the Papua New Guinea earthquake last week, Australia has so far only just begun to move relief supplies in; New Zealand to the best of my knowledge has not yet done anything at all.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. Mr Trump, who is unlikely to be received by South Pacific island leaders strongly denies climate change, which many cite as a key problem for them. Instead, Mr Trump seems more in the sphere of influence that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promotes. Mr Turnbull’s Government has shown open skepticism of climate change, and both view China as a common problem. In “making America great again” by promoting policies that put America first Mr Trump seems to be putting America on a collision course with China.

Thus far the South Pacific island nations have not featured strongly on Mr Trump’s agenda. How long that is the case remains to be seen. Should Mr Trump become fixated on these little nations, the other question is context.

Foreign aid’s brutal reality

How often do you see adverts on television pleading for aid? It might be Save the Children pleading for assistance to help starving children in Somalia; Red Cross asking for assistance following a big earthquake, flood, eruption or other natural disaster. And they all want money. Money, money, money.

Foreign aid has its numerous critics. And at every point that I have noted the time passed between major events requiring foreign aid, all too often the same old problems arise:

  1. The aid is politicized – any aid given by a Government is likely to be in support of some sort of agenda, by nations intending to achieve X, Y and Z
  2. In third world countries in particular but also some more developed countries, politicians can be found siphoning off some of the aid and redistributing it to their mates
  3. The aid infrastructure in countries is too poorly developed to effectively distribute aid and the donors find themselves facing logistical issues getting the aid to where it needs to go
  4. A rash of big disasters relatively close together can be a bit harsh on even the more generous donors wallet and their compassion – whilst certainly having compassion, no self respecting person is going to run themselves out of money

And one that I think is perhaps the most problematic:

The aid given is sometimes not what is needed. People with good intentions, give teddy bears away, which is comforting for a child, but no use whatsoever if you have 20,000 people needing shelter. This has happened in Tonga after Cyclone Gita crossed the kingdom two weeks ago as a Category 5 monster.

Most people cannot or will not donate more than a small amount of money, simply because they need to fund their own lives somehow. Whilst most would have compassion for someone whose community has just been hit by a major disaster, does not mean everyone can just rush in and offer assistance. Or wants to. Some days I am not sure how well these salient facts register with aid organisations.

Sometimes the types of aid that are given to countries long term is completely wrong. Do any of the Middle Eastern nations really need the billions of dollars in military aid that the United States and Russia throw at them each year? Sure the trade off is that the more powerful nations might be granted access to the other nations mineral or energy wealth, as seems to be the case in the Middle East and several African nations such as Nigeria.

Unfortunately corruption is never far away from aid/disaster relief projects in many countries. In a country like New Zealand or the United States, the bigger problem might be bureaucratic bungling in the first days after a disaster, that cause some with time constraints to give up and go home. It is different in other countries such as Nepal, in that the aid might arrive on time, but then not be seen again because a politician has siphoned money or resources off to pay a debt or in anticipation of asking for favours, or selling the aid back on the black market.

Some countries have very poorly developed infrastructure, or it is very vulnerable and easily destroyed or disrupted. The recent disaster caused by Cyclone Gita in Tonga hampered relief because roads were badly damaged and the power supply was out in many areas – you would expect this to happen in a disaster zone, but

New Zealand too, needs to be careful about how and when it dispenses aid. If we are working in the Middle East with America, should we be supplying troops to a conflict where there seems to be no distinguishable outcome? When perhaps we should be helping with the removal of unexploded ordnance from lands that would be used for crops, but cannot because there are mines, shells, bombs, grenades, rockets and so forth buried in the ground that might explode if touched.

By all means donate money. It will be most welcome. But make sure that it goes to a reputable aid agency such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army or Oxfam. Make sure that the agency you are donating to has a good reputation – in the United States, the corporatization of aid, means agencies that might have been good when they were founded have declined in suitability.