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April 7, 2017

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April 7, 2017

Could New Zealand become the Norway of the South on aid and diplomacy?

April 7, 2017
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Spent last week in New Zealand, involved in some fascinating, if jetlag-bleary, conversations NZ aid 2with both Oxfam and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), which manages NZ’s US$400m aid budget. What emerged was that both Oxfam NZ and MFAT have what it takes to become ‘innovation hubs’ within their respective sectors. That means they are smart enough and small enough to be able to come up with new things to try out in their main area of operations, which are the Pacific Islands like Samoa, Fiji or Kiribati. (Small populations, massive distances and facing serious threats both in terms of building viable economies and rising sea levels).

The discussions at MFAT were particularly interesting. According to a global poll of aid recipients, among bilateral donors, NZ shines in terms of the usefulness of its advice, its agenda-setting influence, and its helpfulness with implementing reforms.  It is seen as small, respectful, and at ease with working with different cultures and traditions. Perhaps most important, it is Not Australia (seen as a colonial power in parts of the Pacific).

NZ aidWhat also struck me in conversations at MFAT was that the integration of its foreign and aid ministries, following a merger in 2009, could prove an asset in developing such a role. Diplomats are much more comfortable talking about politics, power and influence. In many ways the kinds of power and systems approach I was presenting to them fits more easily with their traditions, than with the economistic focus on data, evidence and project planning that dominates the thinking of traditional aid agencies.

On the other hand diplomats and aid workers have vastly different time horizons. Foreign Policy is typically short term and reactive, while aid tries to be a bit longer term (although still too short termist for my taste) and proactive. The relatively small size of MFAT means that diplomats and aid types might find it easier than larger bilateral to learn from each other and come up with a combined approach that brings together the best of their two worlds.

That way of working could be that NZ picks up the adaptive management/doing development differently agenda and runs with it. Just as some of the smaller NGOs like Local First  have done some of the most interesting work, so New Zealand could build on its pioneering background (first country for women to have the vote and one of the first state pension schemes) and become a pioneer on finding new ways to think and work politically in development, and avoid some of the traditional downsides of aid (big, inflexible money, beset with conditions, risk averse, regulations and reporting requirements).

For example, NZ could become a sort of Norway of the South – small enough to be agile, focussing on conflict resolution, mediation, honest broker roles in a region with more than its fair share of conflicts, climate change driven emergencies and political crises. That could also mean less beating of the drum for NZ Inc, but a change of minister in May and an election in September could provide just the Window of Opportunity to redesign their strategy. Fingers crossed.



  1. Great to see you on your visit, Duncan and for the vision you outline in the post. The way that development gets done by donors is, as you point out, a reflection of a nation’s values. This is typified by the down to earth and respectful approach that is usually demonstrated in New Zealand’s humanitarian and peace-keeping operations. The multicultural Kiwis are often the ones who talk to communities and listen to their issues.

    But it’s not all rosy, and the promises of a very different way of doing development that was evident when a semi-autonomous development agency was formed in 2001 have been replaced by more of a focus on deliverables and New Zealand’s own priorities. The term ‘NZ Inc’ has been used not only to denote joined up thinking across government, but also the projection of New Zealand’s commercial interests abroad.

    As you point out, an election is coming up. “Doing a Norway” in terms of mediation and peace building is a role that sits well with the direction we would like to see for New Zealand’s aid and foreign policy, underpinned by a strong commitment to human rights, sustainability and poverty reduction. The Greens have an agreement to collaborate with Labour, and a growing movement for change. Hopefully we’ll have a political change chapter to add to your next edition!

    Barry Coates, Green MP

  2. Hi Duncan,

    Thank you for commenting on NZ’s aid programme. It’s always interesting to hear a global take on home. For what it’s worth, I think MFAT staff are great and have done an excellent job in hard times. I also think you’re right about nz aid programme staff being good with respectful relationships in the pacific. I’m hopeful of positive change in the world of NZ aid once minister McCully departs.

    But, I’m not so sure about diplomats being better for the job than aid workers. Australia under AusAID was light years ahead of MFAT when it came to studying and trying to understand political context. It lost much of that as it lost experienced staff on AusAID’s demise. DFAT isn’t an intellectual wasteland, but there’s no substitute for experienced aid workers who can match the art of giving aid to the idiosyncrasies of the political economies it is given in.

    Also, as Barry noted, New Zealand bilateral aid outside the Pacific has been seriously skewed by NZ’s economic and strategic goals. (At times this has been an issue in the Pacific too.) It’s a growing problem for Australian aid as well. Diplomats’ interests and diplomatic goals don’t fit well with well delivered aid. (This isn’t the fault of diplomats; it’s simply a reality of foreign policy.) And in both Australia and an NZ’s case, if we want to become Norway we’ll need to find a way of resolving the tension in favour of altruistic aid. That’s a sina qua non.


    1. Thanks Terence and Barry. Benefitting from your comments, I think what I’m saying is that the instincts of diplomats are often more aligned with DDD – attuned to local politics, responsive to opportunities and threats in a short term way, but perhaps this doesn’t carry over into more systematic approaches to researching/understanding the system, which is more the preserve of the better kind of aid work. And yes, both diplomats and (increasingly) aid workers are subject to pressures to put the donor national interest first, which can make a mess of DDD approaches

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