The changing role of aid in Southeast Asia

Economist Jean-Pierre Verbiest has been based in Southeast Asia for more than three decades, holding a variety of roles at the Asia Development Bank and is now senior adviser to the Mekong Institute based in Thailand. He is also a Beachhead Advisor for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

The Asia Media Centre asked for his views on New Zealand's role in providing aid in the region. 

New Zealand is a small country with relatively limited aid resources.  When it comes to Southeast Asia, should we concentrate governmental aid on humanitarian disaster aid or ongoing poverty alleviation?

New Zealand aid should concentrate on both humanitarian disaster aid and remaining poverty reduction, but with a greater focus on the Pacific island countries, and perhaps only one or two countries in Southeast Asia (Myanmar and Lao PDR). To some extent, this is already the case. In the Pacific, disasters and poverty are closely linked.

You have described aid as a mixture of altruism, enlightened self interest and material benefit.  From your perspective, how does New Zealand's aid donor profile in Southeast Asia fit? Is it the right balance?

I think the altruism motive has been a major driver of New Zealand aid. New Zealand shares its own expertise with other countries through its aid. For instance, it supports farming including dairy farming projects in several countries (Myanmar, Lao PDR); these might compete with New Zealand's own dairy farming sector. It has supported a medical school and built a university hospital in Thailand (Khon Kaen), which is now one of the top medical schools in Thailand. Aid to the Pacific countries can only be from “altruistic” feelings.

Many countries criticise and/or fear China’s Pacific expansion and aid. Your aid formula must also apply to China; isn’t their agenda no different to those in the West, including New Zealand?

 Although fairly recent, Chinese aid to the Pacific appears to be more driven by political motives and access to resources (mainly fishing). In that sense, it is quite different.

Jean Pierre Verbiest CID Conference Wgtn Oct 19

Jean-Pierre Verbiest was keynote speaker at the Council for International Development's conference in Wellington in October.

In your experience, is governmental aid as effective as NGO/charity aid?

The effectiveness of government aid versus NGO/charity aid depends much on areas of aid and volumes. Governmental aid is effective where large amounts are involved mainly in hard infrastructure such as transport and energy. But even in these cases, partnerships with NGOs can improve effectiveness and impact. For poverty-targeted projects and HRD [human resource development] projects, NGO/charity-implemented projects are probably more effective as they involve more people-to-people interactions. So there is not really a fixed recipe. NGO involvement will often enhance governmental aid.

Who should New Zealand aid programmes be partnering with in Southeast Asia? Who are the leaders in delivering outstanding results?

New Zealand aid in Southeast Asia should be highly focused.  Partnerships will very much depend on countries concerned and areas of intervention. Coordination with the Asian Development Bank is essential to have an overall view of who is doing what. But for instance, partnering with Swiss Aid would be very effective in Myanmar and Lao PDR. Partnering with DFID [UK'S Department for International Development] and GIZ [German international development agency] might be explored in Myanmar. Also, many highly competent NGOs operate in various sector in Myanmar and would be good partners for New Zealand aid.

With increasing populist, national interest first political agendas emerging in many countries, combined with anti-globalisation, anti-foreigner and anti-multilateralism movements, how will aid models evolve over the coming decade, particularly in SE Asia?

I think traditional aid providers will see their funding increasingly constrained in general and for Southeast Asia in particular, as many of the Southeast Asian countries are now middle-income countries and have resources of their own. Increasingly, aid will come from local sources through charity and local NGOs. Even institutions like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank will struggle with mobilising capital. A survey done this year in New Zealand also shows increasing lack of support for aid. [Read the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade report Public Attitudes to Overseas Aid and Development Assistance]

If you were a New Zealand NGO or government aid manager, what new aid initiatives in Southeast Asia would you be entering into?

Definitely, climate change, human resources development emphasising new technologies and addressing issues related to “aging societies” would be interesting new aid initiatives, though not really so new. Again, looking at these issues in the Pacific nations context would be really good.

With a growing global focus on climate change, and transitioning to low carbon economies, is there a danger activism (and financial donations) will move from being people-focused (helping our neighbours) to climate focused (save the world, not the individual)?

The issues related to climate change and low carbon economies have very much a local, people-focused dimension while also of course helping save the world. The impact of climate change and the fight against it has very much a local dimension, particularly in the Pacific. For instance, the bush fires in Australia affect specific areas of the country. I hope politicians and NGOs are aware of that and if not, should be made aware. This is a message NGOs should strongly advocate.

- Interview by Mark Russell 

- Asia Media Centre