Aiding or Abetting? Dilemmas of foreign aid and political instability in the Melanesian Pacific

By Oli Brown on March 14, 2005
Since independence, the self-governing nations of Melanesia - Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu - have been the recipients of a steady flow of foreign aid. Between 1995 and 1999 average per capita aid to Melanesia was US$73, three times that to Sub-Saharan Africa and 35 times aid to India.

Yet aid in Melanesia seems to be failing to achieve many of its goals. The Melanesian countries are amongst the poorest in the Pacific. There is considerable inequality of wealth and power, governments often fail to provide even basic services and corruption is rife. In recent years the Melanesian Pacific has experienced civil war, coups and political instability. Previously considered relatively secure, Melanesia has become known as an 'arc of instability'.

The causes of political instability include; ethnic fragmentation, a lack of national identity, rapid population growth, land disputes, conflicts over resources, high unemployment, weak governments, corruption and a limited capacity to provide basic services.

Aid, itself a politicised phenomenon, is one more ingredient in this unpredictable mix. The aims of foreign aid and stable democracies are the same; economic growth and rising living standards that pull people out of poverty. Political instability and conflict are powerful disruptors of that process. There is now a heated debate in both donor and recipient countries about what role aid should play in the Melanesian Pacific. This article investigates the positive and negative impacts of foreign aid on political stability.

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IISD, 2005