Pacific jobs, aid schemes criticised

Last updated 23:49 20/08/2008

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New Zealand's guest-worker scheme and multimillion-dollar aid programme have come under fire in a report claiming they are failing to lift Pacific nations out of poverty.

The report, by an Australian-based think-tank, comes as Prime Minister Helen Clark attends an annual summit of Pacific leaders in Niue, and it says the seasonal labour scheme may be contributing to the gap between rich and poor.

Published by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) in Sydney, the report says the Pacific is facing an economic, social and political crisis, with nearly 100,000 young men joining the ranks of the unemployed each year.

"It is only a matter of time before the growing army of unemployed and under-employed turns from restless to violent," it says.

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the Government was aware of all the issues raised by the report, which were the rationale behind the release this year of a new Pacific Strategy.

The seasonal worker scheme was not intended as a "silver bullet" and was just "one strand" of a broader effort, he said.

"These are all long-standing concerns poor health, low education, high unemployment. There are no easy answers for any of them," Peters said.

"We are continuing to assess the effectiveness of our schemes in those areas and to look at ways to make them more effective. It is a very difficult and complex set of social problems."

Peters last year announced New Zealand's biggest dollar increase in foreign aid, involving a total increase of 69 per cent to $601 million over four years. At least half of that will be spent in the Pacific.

The authors of The Bipolar Pacific report, Helen Hughes and Gaurav Sodhi, argue the region is becoming divided between haves and have-nots.

The Cook Islands, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Samoa and Tonga are developing steadily, with reasonable education and health and modest socio-economic outcomes for their people.

But a second group of islands, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, have stagnated or become poorer. On these islands, most families have no electricity, no running water, no sanitation and little healthcare.

Hughes is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and has long been a critic of New Zealand and Australian aid to the region. Sodhi is a CIS policy analyst.

"The problem for New Zealand is that the second group of countries includes the largest, most populous islands," the report says.

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"About 80 per cent of the Pacific's population is found in the low-growth group of islands, where employment is rare and living standards are not rising."

The report says New Zealand and Australian guest-worker schemes, which have been proposed as a development solution for the Pacific, benefited only those lucky enough to be selected to participate.

"But even high guest-worker numbers, of 25,000 a year for New Zealand and 50,000 for Australia, would not help the employment problems of the majority of Pacific Islands," it says.

Without radical economic reform by sometimes corrupt governments and improved employment-led growth, crime, civil unrest and graft would worsen, making the region increasingly attractive to major criminal interests.

- The Press

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