Comment: When disaster strikes overseas, the New Zealand government is typically quick to announce the provision of emergency humanitarian aid.

For example, when an earthquake killed tens of thousands in Turkey and Syria in February, we promptly announced assistance of $1.5 million. This might suggest that New Zealand is quite generous when it comes to foreign aid, but is this true?

The provision of emergency humanitarian aid, like that donated following the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, happens in parallel with much less visible New Zealand government contributions to global economic development (e.g., money to build schools, hospitals, factories or roads). Collectively, all types of government aid transferred to developing countries is known as official development assistance (ODA).

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A United Nations resolution in 1970 called for advanced economies to contribute 0.7 percent of their gross national income to ODA. Each advanced economy was to exert its best efforts to reach the target by the middle of the 1970s. This goal has been reaffirmed many times over the years at various United Nations conferences.

New Zealand has never come close to meeting the United Nations target for ODA, irrespective of what political party holds power – our contribution has consistently been below 0.3 percent. According to recently released Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data, New Zealand’s contribution in 2022 was 0.23 percent, the seventh lowest in the OECD.

True, New Zealand is not the only country to fall well short of the target, and is actually closer to meeting the target than either Australia or the United States. However, there are countries like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark that do consistently meet the target.

In 2015, the United Kingdom passed a law requiring the target be met, although in response to the Covid-19 pandemic the UK government announced that the target would temporarily fall to 0.5 percent as a short-term measure. Among the countries that fail to reach the target, many come closer to meeting it than New Zealand.

This begs the question, what is the point of ODA anyway, especially when New Zealand faces so many pressing problems at home? Contributions from wealthier countries in support of those with more limited resources are central to solving some of the biggest problems that face humans as a species. These problems, and the targets for solving them, are presently expressed as the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

The SDGs seek to crystallise global attention on shared human challenges as diverse as poverty, health and wellbeing, the quality of education, and decent work and economic growth. Some might think of New Zealand’s contribution to these efforts as simply ‘doing the right thing’. Others might consider them a form of ‘enlightened self-interest’ where we are not only ‘doing the right thing’ but also making ourselves safer from global threats like climate change, drug-resistance infections, pandemics, recession, and war that cannot be solved without global cooperation.

Besides New Zealand consistently falling far short of its obligations on ODA, should we worry about what motivates how we distribute our contribution? At one end of the spectrum, assistance may be provided according to recipient-country need on the basis of selfless concern for the wellbeing of others, and at the other it is closely linked to the donor country’s strategic foreign policy interests.

Over the past decade, there has been a trend towards increased alignment of ODA with donors’ foreign policy goals. One marker of this trend is that national aid and development agencies have become less independent of the foreign affairs ministries that house them.

In this country, ODA is increasingly focused in the Pacific region, and prioritises sectors of particular economic and strategic interest to New Zealand like agriculture and tourism. This is often framed as playing to our strengths and focusing on longstanding friends and neighbours with whom we have numerous common interests. However, it has also occurred in the context of a scramble among many countries to curry favour in the Pacific where ODA is increasingly used as a tool to ‘buy’ political and economic influence.

Should self-interest be the major driver of New Zealand’s ODA, or should our contributions be spent beyond the Pacific in the poorest nations with greatest need, where ‘value for money’ is measured more directly in human lives rather than strategic influence?

The issues of New Zealand’s contribution to ODA and the basis on which it is distributed are unlikely to dominate the 2023 New Zealand election campaign. In fact it may hardly rate a mention. Maybe it should. Whether you lean towards global justice or enlightened self-interest, the reality is that New Zealand does not pull its weight on the global stage when it comes to contributing to solving global human existential challenges. Politicians are likely to let this slide unless New Zealanders express dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Professor John A. Crump is based in the Centre for International Health and the Otago Global Health Institute at the University of Otago

 Professor Stephen Knowles is based in the Department of Economics and the Otago Global Health Institute at the University of Otago

Election 2023: Beyond the Soap Box is a University of Otago series.

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