The time has come for the Australian Government to actively promote in the community its generous aid program in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific.
You would almost think we have something to hide given the low profile our aid program, and other support such as Covid-19 vaccines, are given by the federal government.
Now is the time to not just review the program, and realign it to changed circumstances, but it is also time to educate the taxpayers and the wider community on its generosity, and its goals.
We are by far the most generous aid donors to the immediate region. In the current financial year direct development assistance (aid) to PNG and the South Pacific totals around $1 billion, with around $600 million going to Papua New Guinea.
Our main "rival" in the region is unquestionably the Peoples Republic of China. It is difficult to accurately assess the exact level of real "aid" (as opposed to loans) China gives, but it has been estimated at being less than $150 million.
I wrote recently about how the priorities in regard to our aid to PNG need to be revised urgently. Health services, including the response to the Covid-19 epidemic in PNG, must be allocated a maximum amount of our aid, including a greater allocation of skilled personnel who can be stationed in the nation's major hospitals.
In this article I want to take my belief in the need for our aid programs to be given a higher profile in the community a step further. We have nothing to be ashamed of, indeed we can be proud of the generous, untied assistance we give PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu etc each and every year.
My main criticism of the existing aid program, especially in PNG, is that it is allocated through a "scatter gun" approach – dozens of small projects, which result in limited effective impact in the areas of real and growing need, such as health care and basic quality of life needs.
What we need is a more "big picture" policy approach – targeting one or two areas each year, and devoting maximum resources, especially skilled personnel, to them. Not only will the impact be greater, but its effectiveness can be better and transparently evaluated.
A big picture policy approach will also fit in with another suggestion I advanced some weeks ago – shifting the nerve-centre of our aid delivery structure from Canberra to Cairns, and North Queensland as a whole.
Cairns has seen its hospital facilities stretched as a result of Covid-19 cases from Papua New Guinea. The number is strictly controlled by the Australian Government but it still means the resources of the Cairns General Hospital are under pressure.
It needs to be remembered that Cairns is closer to Port Moresby by air than it is to Brisbane. The distances between the Solomon's capital, Honiara, and Cairns makes it about the same distance as Cairns is from Brisbane.
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