LONDON and CANBERRA— The United Kingdom has announced it will increase aid to the Pacific by about 6 percent and bolster its diplomatic presence in the region, just two weeks after a request to do so from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
Bishop’s request came on the back of concerns about increased development investment from China in the Indo-Pacific, Australia’s priority region for overseas development assistance. It was repeated during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London last week.
However, the U.K. government would not comment on whether the request played any part in the decision.
The announcement includes 2.9 million British pounds ($4.04 million) in new human rights funding through the cross-government Commonwealth Fund, 1.8 million pounds of which will go to the Pacific region, specifically to nine South Pacific countries. It also covers nine new diplomatic posts, including in the Pacific island nations of Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement on April 19 the new posts “are in regions which provide huge potential and opportunity post-Brexit for British businesses and will help us to deepen our relationships across the Commonwealth.”
“After we leave the EU, global Britain will remain outward facing, open for business and a champion of the rules-based international order,” he said.
At a presentation to the Overseas Development Institute on April 16, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said the Commonwealth could offer new opportunities for trade and investment in the region following Brexit.
“With rising levels of influence in the Indo-Pacific, the U.K.’s ODA [official development assistance] priorities may be better utilized in a different direction,” she said.
Her speech was followed by meetings with the U.K. government to progress the issue, including with Mark Field, the minister of state for Asia and the Pacific, and Michael Bates, minister of state at the Department for International Development. Bishop told reporters that China’s development influence in the region did not come up in the meetings, but she believes “the United Kingdom is focusing on its responsibilities and its interests in the Pacific.”
Announcing the 2.9 million pounds in funding, Minister for the Commonwealth Lord Ahmad agreed that Brexit could mean an opportunity to engage, adding “the principle of what [Fierravanti-Wells] is saying, that it allows greater scope for the United Kingdom to do more with how it develops its policy in all sectors — be it trade, development or diplomacy — is very true.”
However, he denied that the decision was related to Australian concerns about Chinese influence in the region.
“China’s global influence is clear to see, whether you are in the Pacific or in Africa,” he told reporters.
Asked whether Pacific governments “should be wary of strings attached” to China’s development assistance, he said: “Rather than look at it from that context, the important thing is that we in the United Kingdom, with the values agenda we have, are seeking to actually build the relationships and leverage this Commonwealth advantage.”
“We can help build the capacities of these nations, so as they’re looking for a level of infrastructure investment, we can have British companies, and companies from across the Commonwealth, lining up and doing much more,” he said.
In 2016, the U.K. spent a total of 31.2 million pounds in the Pacific, providing assistance to 11 countries, with a special focus on building resilience to natural disasters, climate change, human rights, and helping countries develop their marine economies, according to DFID figures.
Over the period of a decade to June 2016, China invested 1.7 billion Australian dollars ($1.29 billion) worth of aid in eight Pacific nations, according to research by the Lowy Institute.
Do needs line up?
The U.K. government said its new funding to the Pacific would “support human rights institutions to meet international standards and help improve governance. Women, young people, persons with disabilities, and other minority groups will all benefit."
Speaking on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London this week, development minister Lord Michael Bates offered a look into the Department for International Development's plans to leverage insurance tools to help small island states prepare for and respond to natural disasters.
Asked how human rights funding could address the needs of the Pacific islands, and whether it could hypothetically serve to counter infrastructure investment from China, Charlene Watson, research associate at ODI, explained that climate-related funding often gets wrapped up in other designations, and some of the funds could go toward mitigation and resilience efforts.
“It doesn’t surprise me that it’s wrapped up in something like human rights, because what you’re seeing is very much an effort at DFID to mainstream climate funding into ODA,” Watson told Devex.
“Many of their projects are about a topic that might not seem very focused on climate — it might be focused on education, for example, but there will be that element in there for climate change education, it will have that marker.”
She added that, if that is the case with the new announcement, more resilience and mitigation funding could be seen as an effort to ensure that China’s development assistance is climate-friendly. “Infrastructure investments are the kind of investments that would really lock you into a high or low carbon future, the kind of stuff that would build your resilience or add more risk,” she said.
However, she noted the request from Australia contained no specific detail on thematic areas of focus, and that “it’s very hard to disentangle whether the U.K. announcement of more spending by the Commonwealth Fund is part of this broader shift toward spending more money in [small island developing states] and least-developed countries under the Paris Agreement, or whether it’s a direct response to the request from Australia.”
The announcement also included a smaller amount of funding — 600,000 pounds — “to support the Commonwealth’s 31 small states,” and diplomatic posts in six countries outside the Pacific region, including The Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, and Grenada.
Why doesn’t Australia step up?
At the Australian Council for International Development 2017 National Conference, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells called for greater collaboration across sectors to better communicate the aid message. Sitting down with Devex, she discussed in further detail the call for action and the role she and NGOs can both play in advocacy.
Australian officials insisted that Australia is unable to increase its own aid budget to the Pacific due to a lack of popular support. During an event at Chatham House on April 16, Fierravanti-Wells cited a government study which found that “80 per cent of Australians surveyed do not think there should be any further spending on foreign aid.”
The study originates from a Lowy Institute poll which showed that 73 per cent of Australians think the current aid budget of AU$3.8 billion is either "about the right amount" or "too much,” though the same study says a similar percentage voted the same way when the Australian aid budget was 30 percent higher.
Australia is currently exploring opportunities for private sector funding of infrastructure projects in the Pacific through the Private Infrastructure Development Group, which Fierravanti-Wells said “has largely been directed towards projects in Africa, South, and South-East Asia. We think the time is now right to direct more of these funds to a potential Private Infrastructure Development Group Pacific window.”
She said that Australia and the U.K. already have AU$3 billion in joint programs, and that greater cooperation between the two countries in the region could be a beneficial way of directing ODA.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Devex that Bishop and Fierravanti-Wells “regularly meet their U.K. counterparts to discuss development issues” and recently “encouraged the U.K. to increase its engagement in the Pacific.”
“The Australian government is stepping up our own engagement in the Pacific to strengthen partnerships for economic growth and security cooperation, as well as our people-to-people links,” the spokesperson said. “We are committed to working with other partners, including the U.K., to maximize development outcomes in the region.”