A dedicated investment in donor coordination mechanisms. Essential to enabling Pacific governments better oversee development assistance, this will also help prevent donors tripping over each other with their increased presence.
These mechanisms would build from country-level donor coordination forums and become an important part of a new architecture that modernises donor approaches.
Coordination and duplication. As development assistance becomes a central tool of statecraft in the region, the aid and development equivalent of an arms race is under way. Existing coordination headaches are likely to compound.
Impact and fragmentation. The Pacific is already the world’s most aid-dependent region. A recent analysis draws a sobering conclusion: ‘aid projects are less effective in the Pacific than elsewhere in the developing world’. Meanwhile, researchers crunching relevant data from 2011-2017 concluded that ‘fragmentation across donors is increasing in the Pacific’.
Locally-led development. Pacific-led donor coordination mechanisms would fundamentally shift the question of 'Who is in charge?’. Pacific nations have often felt like donors are steering the bus when it comes to development assistance, despite their warnings the vehicle is going down the wrong road. Dedicated investment by donors in coordinating their assistance will put Pacific nations in the driver's seat.
Existing coordination headaches are compounding. Donor Coordination is a worthy goal at any time. It’s about to become vital. Increased Chinese Government interest in the Pacific has received the most media attention, but it is not the only cashed-up entrant. Engagement from the United States and European Union has ramped up exponentially. Following the first-ever United States-Pacific Island Country Summit, U.S. President Joe Biden announced more than $810 million USD ($1.3 billion AUD) in additional expanded programs to support Pacific Island Countries. Those numbers are in addition to Australia’s commitment of $1.85 billion AUD in the 2022-2023 budget. In other words, there are a lot of dollars funding a lot of projects across the region.
There is political licence and momentum. Australia has lately experienced a reckoning about how critical it is to put Pacific leadership first; there is a political window of opportunity available to shift positive rhetoric into operational outcomes right now.
First forays into this space are no tall order. There is surprisingly little donor coordination activity in the Pacific beneath the political speechmaking and commitment to coordination. Any improvement will see a return on investment for Pacific communities and donors alike.
There is precedent in adjacent regions for this to work. As Allan Behm has observed, ‘In South-East Asia, consultative fora such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit work, mainly because they involve everyone, and there is a cultural preference for dialogue. The Pacific shares this emphasis on dialogue ... [and] collaborative problem solving’.
Getting clear on who is doing what, where, with a donor map
Pacific states need to know who is doing what when it comes to donor activities in the region. Donors need to pull their weight to make this information available. The Partners in the Blue Pacific (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) noted they would ‘map existing projects and plan future ones’ when announcing the initiative in June 2022. That’s welcome news given that collectively, these donors will constitute a significant aid spend in 2022.
Visibility is the first step on the path towards avoiding duplication and enhancing the alignment between Pacific development aspirations, and donor assistance.
Appointing officers whose sole responsibility is to enhance donor coordination
As one of the largest donors in the Pacific, Australia should walk the talk on donor coordination by setting up its own dedicated coordination unit within the Office of the Pacific. This recognises that coordinating donor activities goes above and beyond the usual bandwidth of a development project manager. If we are to realise the rhetoric on donor coordination, it’s going to need dedicated time and resources.
The unit would work closely with relevant Pacific States and donors to prevent project duplication. A key starting point would be working with existing national and regional coordination initiatives such as Vanuatu’s coordination unit and build on ideas like Timor-Leste’s aid transparency portal.
Piloting a country-specific donor coordination dialogue
Key local leaders, donors, and providers should meet regularly to match practical development needs with available assistance. Potential pilot countries could include those where U.S., E.U., Australian and New Zealand development interests are significant. Vanuatu may be a promising first destination given the Government’s existing aid coordination unit. The focus of these dialogues would be less on meetings and more on practical pipelines: the technical coordination of project timelines and their alignment to domestic partner priorities.
Backing donor coordination units in partner countries
Under the leadership of the partner country, establish an in-country donor coordination unit along with like-minded donors. The aim would be to avoid duplication, increase visibility, share information, and importantly, be guided by the partner country.
Establishing a Pacific-wide donor conference supported by the national coordination unit
Building on the idea first appearing in The Fix by Allan Behm, this could be an annual event starting from 2024. The donor conference would be supported by a Pacific-based Secretariat and have contact points in each country of the Pacific. In the words of Behm, this isn’t just another meeting among ministers with colourful shirts and gauzy declarations. As he says, ‘it would bring together top ODA program administrators, designers and contractors from each major donor’. The conference’s focus would be on practical ways in which the Pacific aligns, coordinates, manages and engages donors in-country.
Donor coordination is not a fresh idea. Variants of it have been kicking around for decades – and there’s good reason why it’s such a challenge. Effective coordination needs capable leadership in-country by partners and donors alike, a willingness to share information and an overall commitment to development assistance becoming ‘more than the sum of its parts’.
The question of ambition is key. For some, the donor coordination holy grail is the trilateral delivery of critical development projects. For others who are more circumspect, a donor commitment and action to simply avoid duplication is the right starting point. In any event, it's not going to be easy.
The risk with events billed as ‘donor conferences’ is that they turn into gabfests: heavy on speechifying, thinner on accomplishments. The initial priority should be to avoid the worst kinds of duplication and build from there. Meeting at the ‘officials’ level and making sure communities and practical providers of donor assistance are in the room might reduce the risk of grandstanding.
All in all, the case to do more than what is done right now is clear. With increased interest from the U.S., Europe, Japan, South Korea and increasing Australian and New Zealand activity in the Pacific, donor coordination is becoming a liability for Pacific leaders and established donors such as Australia alike. Attempts to cooperate presently tend to have ‘one-off’ feels to them at best, or don’t get beyond words on a page at worst – that needs to change.
Allan Behm surfaced the idea for a Pacific Donors’ Conference in The Fix, in October 2020. The need for such a conference is clearer now more than ever before.
To find out more about the necessity for donor co-ordination in a post-COVID world, read this piece from Hilda Heine and Thom Woodruffe.
Lab CEO Bridi Rice explored this issue on her Fulbright Scholarship with Conor Savoy from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. You can read their blog here.