Spent last week in New Zealand, involved in some fascinating, if jetlag-bleary, conversations with 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).
What 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.