Our Analysis

Pacific Coordination

April 2023

Getting on the same page. Development cooperation in the Pacific.

What do you get when you put five embassies, five analysts and five practitioners in a room to talk development cooperation in the Pacific? A thoughtful discussion that surfaces plenty of practical ideas to improve the way countries engage in the region.

On Tuesday, The Lab – in partnership with the Institute for State Effectiveness (ISE) – held a Situation Room in Canberra. As always, what emerged were discussions where perspectives aligned, debate where interests diverged and a practical set of ideas on how to make good intentions a reality.

We covered territory like

For decades, Australia has tried to attract international donors to the Pacific. Now they're here. What needs to happen for this to be a game-changer for Pacific-led development impact?

We challenged participants with questions like

Like-minded cooperation in the Pacific sounds great when our ministers say it, but in practice, it's tough. What are realistic cooperation goals?

And encouraged a bit of self-reflection by putting to the room

Let's face it, size matters and Australia's presence in the Pacific is big; but big is not always best. Where are the most high-value spaces where other international partners can back Pacific development aspirations?

Here's what we heard.

Bridi Rice
Bridi Rice

The Pacific is unique.

Situation Room attendees all agreed – the special situation in the Pacific requires donors to cooperate even better than elsewhere to reduce the burden on what are often very small governments. On the one hand, engaging well and making it possible for national governments to play a key role is more important given the knowledge that development assistance is at its most effective when Pacific people are in the driver’s seat. But participants were not all starry eyed when it came to relying on national authorities to coordinate international actors. Participants were concerned that in many countries, absorptive capacity is already low, and the increasing attention and demands of donors and partner countries risked swamping Pacific Island Countries (PICs) with a coordination burden and administrative requirements that they cannot meet.

Participants also noted the diversity of the Pacific, both between and within nations. Donors should consider who is setting the development priorities of a country, particularly when we know that the basis for development impact is broad-based societal consensus on what matters. Put frankly by one participant – just because a national elite tells us one thing, does not mean they speak for the nation. Often community perspectives are overlooked by institutional donors; this is a strategic misstep.

On the other hand, participants noted that in some cases, a lack of donor coordination could work in favour of PICs, allowing national governments to leverage the competing offers of assistance to meet their own needs. As one participant highlighted, the Pacific receives some of the most ODA per-capita than any other region.

Perhaps, Situation Room attendees pondered, more aid is not the answer – but better aid is, underpinned by long-term development compacts. Ideas were also put forward for creating incentives on both the donors and the PIC sides so that improved cooperation and coordination “pays off”.

Pacific Coordination

Not all partnerships are created equal.

There was a consensus that genuine partnerships are the foundation of effective engagement in the Pacific. For some, partnerships involve tough conversations and forging a shared vision of the region. For others, it’s plainly clear that some development assistance is motivated by geopolitical competition, making partnership more about maintaining access and influence. When we asked the room how to strike the right balance between a donor’s strategic interests and development outcomes, we heard mixed perspectives.

Some thought there was a way for donors to be more frank about their national interests, and look for opportunities where those interests aligned with other donors, as well as Pacific partners to unlock development impact. In some cases, one donor could engage in an area – for example, anti-corruption or agriculture/rural development – that another partner was unwilling or unable to tackle. Others thought donors need to do more work to look at their own incentives, capabilities and systems, as well as how to avoid frequent politically driven reprogramming that stymies mid- to long-term development impacts.

Situation Room attendees also discussed that size matters – many new and emerging donors to the region have small budgets and are dwarfed by existing partners in the region. But, our participants agreed, that didn’t mean that they couldn’t have impact – if they targeted their assistance well, pooled their efforts and worked in sectors that weren’t already crowded. Participants identified civil society, democratic voice, human rights and cultural exchanges as areas where investment was sorely needed and can have an outsized impact.

Getting it wrong is so detrimental to development impact in this region - we're dealing with small island states, the onus is on the donors to get it right.

There's plenty of low-hanging fruit.

The perfectly co-financed and co-delivered multi-donor program is shockingly rare. We asked participants if perhaps just simply more visibility on priorities and programming was a more realistic cooperation goal that may lead to more progress. Many agreed that it would be a good starting point, and suggested that a transparent listing of what each donor was doing in each country – a donor map would help, for example. Another point of discussion was the role of the national Ministries of Finance as well as multilateral agencies in enhancing coordination as well as shared analysis.

Other great, practical ideas we heard to improve donor coordination included aligning and even sharing our due diligence and compliance requirements to reduce the burden on delivery partners, and putting specific support behind our Pacific government counterparts and regional bodies so they can lead donor coordination internally.

There was also plenty of enthusiasm for the idea of a regular donor coordination forum – perhaps here in Canberra, or maybe in the region, where partners could regularly share updates on their programs and, more importantly, enhance the complementarity of their activities.

Pacific CoordinationPacific Coordination

The Lab's take.

As international partners flood into the Pacific, there is consensus from Pacific partners and international actors alike that complementary efforts are necessary. After all, the last thing Pacific partners need is international donors tripping over themselves or swamping small island states with well-meaning but ineffective support. But it’s easier said than done, and despite our best intentions there is still a long way to go.

With COP26 on the horizon, the next Quad meeting coming up and US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Australia next month – surely, it’s time to break the impasse and show some practical Australian leadership on this front.

Special thanks to ISE’s Martina Zapf, whose experience working internationally and whose co-chairing of this Situation Room made the event such a success.

Are we giving the Pacific what they want or are we giving them what we want?

What's next?

See The Lab’s Pacific Donor Coordination Pitch which outlines ways Australia can support Pacific-led donor coordination.

And on US-Australia development cooperation, see this from CSIS colleagues and the Lab’s Bridi Rice.

On turning promises of effective development cooperation into reality, see Re-Examining the Terms of Aid from the Institute for State Effectiveness.

Pacific Coordination

Pacific Coordination