Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Millenium Development Goals: Still New Zealand's Focus?

On Saturday morning I attended the first two sessions of a symposium on the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) at Victoria University's Pipitea Campus downtown.

In the opening session, Labour MP and former head of Oxfam International Phil Twyford critiqued the intentions signalled by Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully to change New Zealand's aid emphasis on poverty elimination to a focus on economic growth, and possibly to roll back NZAID into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Twyford said McCully's proposals threaten to "turn the clock back" on eight years of building more effective development aid, undermine New Zealand's standing in the Pacific and repudiate signed commitments to the MDGs. Furthermore, they would involve changes to spending of $500 million of taxpayer's money without public debate or consultation.

According to Twyford, at the opening of the symposium on Friday night at Parliament Buildings, National's John Hayes, Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committe, had indicated that the government wants to channel aid to support tourism, trade and infrastructure in the Pacific.

But this raises the question of what the purpose of economic development is. For Twyford, development aims to 'lift people out of poverty and expand the possibilities of human freedom.' The purpose of economic development is to serve the needs of people – the ultimate goal is still poverty elimination.

Twyford said that sixty years of experience shows that economic growth is necessary but not sufficient for reducing poverty and improving wellbeing. Growth alone can be captured by elites and lead to environmental damage, as in the disastrous destruction of rainforest in the Solomon Islands. Despite rapid economic growth, India continues to have higher levels of malnutrition and child mortality than sub-Saharan Africa, while Bangladesh has reduced child mortality more quickly than India, despite being poorer.

Likewise, Vietnam has been much more effective at reducing poverty than a country like Peru, largely because the poorest 20 percent in Vietnam have a four times greater share of national income. Greater inequality in Latin America is a familiar story. However, Twyford pointed out that in Brazil since 1998, extreme poverty has fallen by 3 times the MDG target rate, and the Gini coefficient has fallen by 3 points. This illustrates what is possible with committed leadership.

(See this post for a more detailed discussion of growth vs poverty reduction).

Twyford concluded that a focus on trade and growth alone is not going to work. The NZAID strategy of working in an integrated with other donors and country governments is "more likely to be effective". But such approaches could be threatened by the absorbtion of NZAID back into MFAT.

Twyford referred to the original report from a Ministerial review which recommended the establishment of NZAID eight years ago. The report found that the official development assistance branch within MFAT had confused objectives, lacked professionalism, and could be typified as a "training ground for diplomats, and a dumping ground for non-performers".

Twyford saus that NZAID "is not perfect", but has made considerable progress, especially with the sector-wide approaches in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. He said that the Progressives, Greens, United Future and Labour parties would be holding their own summit on the future of NZAID on Friday 27 March.

The symposium was sponsored by Victoria University's Institute of Policy Studies, the Council for International Development, Oxfam New Zealand and the British High Commission. Sources connected to NZAID said that they would have joined in the co-hosting but had been prevented from adding their name to the programme by order of the Minister.

At the beginning of Phil Twyford's speech, he queried whether any of his parliamentary colleagues had joined him at the symposium. There was no repsonse from the gallery.

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