22 Mar 2009

Govt cautious on UN call to increase Pacific aid

10:57 am on 22 March 2009

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says the Government has to be careful not to go beyond what it thinks New Zealanders will tolerate in the amount of aid it sends to poorer nations.

A senior United Nations official wants New Zealand to increase its present aid commitment of 0.35% of the country's national income, given that its Pacific neighbours, already battling food and climate emergencies, are now facing the global financial crisis.

UN Millennium Campaign director Salil Shetty says New Zealand is just 15th out of 22 OECD countries in the percentage of its GDP set aside for overseas aid.

But Mr McCully says governments that try to be more generous than the public would like, are punished for it. He says it is important to have broad political support and strong support from the public.

The Millennium Campaign in 2000 set goals for developing countries to reach by 2015, including halving the number of people living in extreme poverty. New Zealand and 188 other countries pledged to help poor nations reach those goals.

Mr Shetty was attending a weekend conference at Victoria University on ways of maintaining New Zealand's overseas aid commitment during the global downturn.

More than 300 politicians, researchers, aid agencies and government officials were discussing how to continue sending aid offshore.

Among them was Oxfam New Zealand executive director Barry Coates, who says the fact that trillions of dollars have been found around the world to create economic stimulus packages and support ailing companies means money could be found to assist poor nations.

Global financial crisis hurting Pacific

A top Unicef official in the Pacific, Dr Will Parks, said economies in the region are very fragile and the worldwide recession is already hurting them.

New Zealand's aid to the Pacific is generally well regarded, but several speakers say they believe New Zealand has more than enough resources to increase its aid to the region.

The Government is being told it can do a lot for New Zealand's Pacific neighbours by ensuring its unemployment benefits are kept at a reasonable level.

Dr Geoff Bertram, a senior economics lecturer from Victoria University, says although New Zealand is often criticised for dedicating just 0.35% of its national income to overseas aid, it contributes much more in the form of money sent home by Pacific people living here.

He says Pacific Island New Zealanders are more likely than others to lose their jobs in the current downturn, and the Government must ensure that their unemployment does not badly affect others in the region.

"Make sure that we keep our unemployment benefit levels decent. Make sure that we don't slash and burn the welfare state, because one of the spin-offs of the welfare state is that it has indeed spread benefits beyond our shores."

The Wellington conference has been told that 40% of children in the world's poorest countries could suffer permanent brain damage as a result of malnutrition during the global financial crisis.

The UK Permanent Secretary of International Development, Nemat Minouche Shafik, says developed countries must do all they can to protect poorer nations from the effects of malnutrition.