Study gives PNG people a voice in debate on China's Pacific aid
A Deakin University study has found that while Papua New Guinea is yet to reach a uniform view of the aid it receives from China, Australia’s influence in the Pacific region was under threat.
Deakin researchers Professor Matthew Clarke and Associate Professor Chengxin Pan, along with University of Sydney’s Dr Sophie Wilson, conducted the study which is the first to explore how local leaders in PNG view Chinese aid versus Australian aid.
The results have been summarised in a submission to the Parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s aid program in the Indo-Pacific region.
Professor Clarke, Head of Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said the study revealed a diverse range of views that reflected the reality of the changing aid landscape in PNG.
“While there was no consistent view on Chinese aid, it was clear that Australia was no longer seen as the only player in town. As noted by one study participant, ‘Australia needs to recognise reality: China is rising’,” Professor Clarke said.
“There was also a sense of value in PNG diversifying its aid donors and controlling its own fate by keeping options open.”
Professor Clarke said that the debate on China’s presence in the South Pacific had been dominated by voices and perspectives largely from outside, with little consideration of local views.
“Local perspectives are missing from the current debate and represent a missing yet crucial piece in the puzzle of the increasingly dynamic and important power relations among China, Western countries (such as Australia) and Pacific island nations,” he said.
“With the consequences of China’s increasing aid in PNG on Australia’s national interests still to be played out, the Australian government should pay more attention to the views of those directly affected.
“Our pilot study actively sought to give the local people a voice on aid to PNG.
“We interviewed former politicians, public servants, army officers, social activists, financial advisors, and university lecturers and students, from a broad cross-section of Papua New Guinean society who were well connected with local communities and able to represent the views beyond those of formal decision-makers.”
Revelations from the interviews included:
Australian aid was seen as highly paternalistic, with strict rules on how the money was to be used, while aid from China was viewed as ‘unconditional, no strings attached’.
One common criticism levelled at both countries was the lack of impact aid had on local communities, with views summed up as ‘[Australia] put[s] people on the ground and the money goes back to Australia’ and this is just as corrupt as Chines aid being used for ‘vanity projects’.
Differences were seen in the focus of aid from Australia and China: Australian aid was directed to the human sector – education, health and gender, while Chinese aid mostly covered large-scale infrastructure.
For some participants, the Chinese infrastructure investment was a concern, with the ongoing maintenance of these projects seen as a challenge for PNG.
When considering China’s motivations for providing aid, increased trade and commercial opportunities and furthering their regional and political agenda were highlighted by the participants.
It was also noted that these motivations were common amongst all aid donors, with one participant expressing ‘Australian aid is its economic weapon of choice, to maintain trade and diplomatic relations’.
For many of the participants, Chinese aid was seen as being more open to political abuse. Whilst the Australian government insists on aid being spent as allocated, there is a sense that such insistence does not apply to China.
Professor Clarke said that the local insights from the study might not be what the Australian government wanted to know, but they needed to be heard.
“Without taking account of local views and experiences of aid programs, the Australian government cannot maximise the impact of aid in all of its guises,” he said.
“By listening to the views of local community leaders, the Australian Government will be better placed to understand the impact of increased Chinese aid flows to the region and the possible impact that will have on Australia’s national interests.
“Failing to consider these views lessen Australia’s ability to constructively engage with our neighbours and new donors in the region.”