New Zealand aid program on making a difference by being 'different'

New Zealand’s flag. The country’s relatively small aid portfolio is growing in Asia-Pacific and Africa. Photo by: Christoph Strässler / CC BY-SA

New Zealand isn’t a large donor, so it works hard to be an effective one.

The country takes a results-based approach to spending its aid budget, which included $438 million in official development assistance over the last twelve months. The New Zealand aid program focuses on aligning projects closely with community needs, involving local leaders in decision-making, and sharing lessons and trust.

“We cannot pretend we are one of the great economies of the world and can put in all the money in the world that others can,” James Bolger, New Zealand's prime minister from 1990 to 1997 and the main proponent for the establishment of the Mekong Institute, told Devex. “But we can do it as well or better than others because of our small size, and I think our empathy with the people we work with.”

Understanding that unique strategy is more important now than ever, as the country looks to expand both its aid budget and its regional focus. Spending is expected to increase to a total sum of $1.8 billion spread over the next three years.

For the moment, neighboring countries receive the bulk of the funds. The Solomon Islands, Samoa, and Papua New Guinea were the top recipients of aid in 2015, according to data from the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Half of the projected aid budget through 2019 will stay in the Pacific region according to the country's strategic plan until 2019 for its aid program.

Efforts in Asia and some parts of Africa — current efforts include in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana — are expected to grow, as the country expands its focus on a more regional and global level, particularly with member countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Priority sectors for bilateral assistance and investments include agriculture and renewable development, while other focus sectors include information and communication technology, economic governance, law and justice, health, fisheries, tourism, trade and labor mobility, education, resilience, and humanitarian response.

James Bolger, former New Zealand prime minister on his country’s aid program

Standing out

In the global development community, with its alphabet soup of stakeholders, being uniquely different is becoming a challenge. New Zealand’s constrained aid resources inspired its high impact approach, according to Bolger. The country has historically focused on just a few sectors.

“I think that we are very pragmatic, and so as a donor we like to fund a project that we like to engage in with partners that want to get things done,” Brent Rapson, New Zealand aid program manager to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, told Devex at the sidelines of MI’s Mekong Forum early this month.

“Our projects are not so much about research but about tangible outcomes working directly with farmers or private sector entities or with government. But very tangible, very results-focused and we try to deliver.”

Also because resources are limited, Rapson said, programs need to closely align with countries’ needs.

“It's not about New Zealand rolling into town and saying, we have our aid program, this is what we want to do. It's very much about coming alongside people and asking them how would they like us to help,” he said. “We want to make sure that that matches with the needs of the countries and their priorities.”

New Zealand is a member of the International Aid Transparency Initiative and has regularly published data on its development assistance. This commitment to transparency has helped the program to be more effective by being accountable.

An ‘empathy’ based approach

For Bolger and Rapson, putting an identity — and empathy — on their country's development portfolio is crucial for success.

“We talk about what I might describe as the ‘New Zealand way’ of having empathy with people. I think that comes from our background,” Bolger said. For example, the country has spent recent decades engaging with the Maori people who originally inhabited the island. “It draws from an honesty at looking at issues, asking questions about the issues, not trying to dictate, and trying to suggest what the solutions are,” the former prime minister said.

In practice, empathy means listening to the needs of the community in a genuine way and coming up with solutions together.

Rapson, who was been working for New Zealand's aid program in the Mekong subregion for eight years, said the agency’s approach is not just about the donor pouring time, money and expertise to the projects in the recipients countries or communities. Instead, development can be about learning from both sides and sharing knowledge.

“We are a small country. We do not have [so much] resources. We don't think that we know all the answers, so we're happy to work with partners and just engage as partners, [and] to discuss together,” he said. “To know what are your development objectives, what would you like to do, what would you like us to help you with. We do that in very much a partnership focus.”

Links to foreign policy

New Zealand launched an independent Agency for International Development in 2002, but reintegrated aid back into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2009 with the aim of aligning the aid portfolio to the country’s foreign policy. This move came amid similar shifts by the aid agencies of Australia and Canada, AusAID and CIDA respectively, which also amalgamated to their foreign affairs and trade ministries.

Critics have argued that this could jeopardize the country’s focus on effectiveness, if aid priorities link closely with the country’s broader foreign policy and economic goals.

But Bolger said that various sides of the debate “see themselves doing things differently but they really have a common goal.”

“In terms of end goals, they really want the same [thing] — that society gets along much better when they work together,” he said.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.