Foreign Affairs

New Zealand aid - where are we going wrong?

New Zealand aid organisations are battling declining donations and growing fragmentation - so why are so many positive about their future? Sam Sachdeva reports.

Living in the third most charitable country in the world, New Zealanders could be forgiven for a sense of self-satisfaction.

But how healthy is our aid and development sector, and where is it going right - and wrong?

The Council for International Development (CID), which serves as an “umbrella agency” for New Zealand’s aid and development organisations, has released its annual survey of the country’s international NGO sector covering the 2017/18 financial year.

The title, “Small Steps”, hints at the positive tone but realistic summary of where the organisations are succeeding and failing.

According to the survey, 80 percent of the CID’s members had partnered with an organisation in the Pacific, with a 6 percent increase in the funds spent in the region.

CID director Josie Pagani said she was heartened by the moves that many had made towards devolving the implementation of aid to local partners.

“There’s a lot more emphasis on that resilience building which is really good but it does change the business model, it changes the types of skills you need inside the charity.

“You don’t necessarily need Superman and Superwoman to fly to a disaster to help save people, you actually need people to be there beforehand to say, well how do we help you respond effectively when there is a cyclone or a weather disaster?”

Habitat for Humanity chief executive Claire Szabo said despite New Zealand organisations often feeling small and under-resourced with “a whole world of development to do”, there were reasons for optimism.

“We see strong organisations, we see continuity of leadership and strength, we see a sector that has professional staff who do excellent work, and we see New Zealanders who are very generous towards this sector, and that comes out in public support.”

Dropping donations

That support is not unbridled, however.

While public donations remain the largest source of Kiwi aid organisations’ income (at 57 percent), there is no sign of an end to the multi-year decline that has seen donations drop 15 percent in the last decade.

Pagani said the downwards trend, echoed around the world, was not an indictment of Kiwis’ generosity but a reflection of the changing ways in which younger generations wanted to help.

“[People think] I don’t  just want to put coins in a tin and I don’t just want to volunteer, I actually want a job that’s meaningful.”

That was also demonstrated in the sharp drop in “child sponsorship”, down from 60 percent in 2017 to only 37 percent in 2018.

“When I was younger, I remember going around with pictures of kids and child sponsorship was just the thing you did, but nowadays that’s not something that feels like a partnership,” Pagani said.

“[Younger people] don’t want to sponsor a child, they understand that there’s a systemic problem that is creating that and they want to be far more involved.”

Szabo said it was up to aid and development charities to develop distinct strategies for how they worked with schools, young people and other different communities.

“If we’re not really reaching out to those different groups then we’re probably buying ourselves a pretty big headache in the medium to long term.”

A lack of partnerships

Another headache may come from increased fragmentation in the sector: only 54 percent of NGOs reported a partnership with a New Zealand business (down from 70 percent the year before) while the gap between small and large NGOs appeared to be increasing.

Pagani said greater collaboration was crucial if New Zealand was to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, with charities alone unable to get across the line.

“There are a lot of charities and NGOs in New Zealand, probably too many ... it may even be that in the future the business model is almost to partner or embed yourself in the larger NGOs so that you end up with fewer charities in New Zealand but far more kind of soft mergers or partnerships across the sector.”

For her part, Szabo (a former Labour Party candidate) believed the change of political power had also had an impact, with the previous National-led government focusing heavily on economic development in its aid and encouraging NGOs to team up with businesses, even when it was not necessarily desirable.

“I think some of those private sectors were slightly unnatural, they might have been a bit forced, so that’s one place where we might have seen a bit of a decline.”

'A line in the sand'

But despite that downwards trend, more than 80 percent of organisations believed their revenue would hold steady or increase in 2018/19 - a buoyancy which Pagani attributed in part to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s new multi-year approach to funding the work of NGOs, as well as the Pacific Reset overseen by the Government.

With only a handful of charities likely to receive the grants, Szabo said the new approach would benefit charities like hers through a streamlined approach but “draw a line in the sand” between larger organisations and their smaller counterparts - a view backed by Pagani.

“I think there’s a split between those in the sector feeling confident that they can be part of this new system, that they can have a long-term relationship with MFAT ... and those that are not part of it, knowing that public donations are in decline and if you haven’t got government funding as well, that’s quite problematic.”

But despite the work yet to be done, Szabo said Kiwis had good reason to feel proud.

“A country with a pretty small population overall at the far end of the world is actually working in 71 other countries through its non-government sector…

“I wish more people could see and feel and understand that this is the way that we project our values around the world in quite a quiet way.”

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