Foreign Affairs

How NZ can aid the world in the Covid-19 response

As New Zealand (like much of the world) focuses on Covid-19 issues within its own borders, aid agencies are warning humanitarian relief must not be neglected or decades of work could be undone, Sam Sachdeva reports

As the country’s coronavirus infection numbers have continued to fall away, Kiwis have been quick to pat themselves on the back.

We are among the best in the world in our response, we have been told repeatedly.

But it is the rest of the world - in particularly, those in the most deprived parts of the globe - that have driven a group of 14 New Zealand international aid agencies to write an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters and Finance Minister Grant Robertson, calling for $25 million in immediate additional aid funding. 

Acknowledging the country’s success in combating the spread of Covid-19, the letter says the Government should extend its support to nations far less well-equipped to handle the pandemic.

“The coronavirus has spread to every corner of the globe, but so can our compassion. We request that New Zealand contribute to the collective pandemic response: no one is safe until we are all safe, and New Zealand is in a position to help.”

Ian McInnes, the chief executive of Tearfund and chairman of the Council for International Development, said the letter had been coming for some time, after aid agencies exchanged correspondence with the Government and carried out campaigns with their own supporters.

“The implications are just starting to unfold now, and we're really running on our feet to try and keep up with it all and get information and then figure out how to respond.”

“As New Zealand lifts its head a bit and gets its case management under control, we have an extraordinary position of being among the first countries in the world...moving towards eradication, and we should use that voice now for something as a global lead on what we feel is a slow-moving tsunami coming for poor countries.”

McInnes said the $25m figure was “not an unreasonable percentage” of New Zealand’s overall aid budget, and just a drop in the bucket compared to the United Nations’ estimated $2 billion price tag for the most troubled spots in the world.

Joanna Spratt, Oxfam New Zealand’s advocacy and campaigns director, said the pandemic had exacerbated pre-existing issues of inequality, with some estimates that up to half a billion people could be pushed back into poverty as a result of the virus.

As part of its Covid-19 aid work - a process complicated by international travel restrictions and domestic lockdowns - Spratt said Oxfam had been constructing sanitation points and distributing health advice in refugee camps and other potential hot spots for disease.

“The implications are just starting to unfold now, and we're really running on our feet to try and keep up with it all and get information and then figure out how to respond.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters highlighted the Government's Covid-19 aid to the Pacific in a foreign policy speech on Wednesday. Photo: Mark Mitchell/Pool.

In a foreign policy speech that praised MFAT officials for their hard work during the Covid-19 response, but was light on details about the path ahead, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said he had not been briefed on the aid agencies’ letter but was happy with his ministry’s initial support.

‘From the word go, we stepped up to the Pacific and said in terms of our Covid-19 response, we're going to put aside $50 million to help you get ready, $10 million right now, to get the utilities, masks and the things that you need, including looking at medical utilities and people to go to your country...

“We made the commitment in our neighbourhood, in the Pacific, to help out, and I believe that in that context we have done an enormous amount to be a responsible citizen of the Pacific.”

The Pacific has actually been relatively successful in containing the spread of coronavirus; instead, McInnes said the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia - all home to refugee camps and conflict zones - were where there was a real short-term risk if assistance was not provided.

But in the longer term, Spratt said the Pacific, along with other developing countries and regions, would need assistance to deal with economic pain and the legacy of historical shortfalls in health and social infrastructure.

Will purse-strings tighten?

The fear is that countries will give less, not more, as they ramp up spending at home through economic stimulus.

US President Donald Trump halted his administration’s contributions to the World Health Organisation earlier this month, citing his belief it had not been sufficiently open about the spread of coronavirus (although, given Trump is a persistent advocate for aid budget cuts, the decision should not be a surprise).

A quirk in the way global aid targets are calculated could also help mask any stagnation or drop in funding levels. The UN asks nations to contribute 0.7 percent of their gross national income (GNI) in official development assistance (ODA). With economies grinding to a halt in most countries, the ODA/GNI ratio will almost certainly improve in the short term even without any increase in real terms.

McInnes and Spratt agree there will be some interesting conversations about how targets are calculated in future, but say it makes little difference now given how far short of that 0.7 percent number New Zealand and many other nations are at present.

“In Sub-Saharan Africa, it took us 30 years to get six to eight percent of the population above the [poverty] line, and it's about a decade's worth of development in the rest of the world...we lose a decade if poor economies take a 20 percent economic hit now.”

For his part, Peters did not waver when asked about whether New Zealand’s foreign aid would drop as it responded to crises at home.

“The investment we are making in the Pacific is in the long-term security and economic interests of a country called New Zealand - if we fail to make that investment, there'll be a price to it.

“I couldn't recommend how important this initiative and this support is. Our very future, and the future of New Zealanders yet to be born, depends on us being successful here.”

That issue of generational change was also made by McInnes - but almost in reverse, as he noted the costs of 500 million people plunging back into various forms of poverty after notable progress in recent years.

“In Sub-Saharan Africa, it took us 30 years to get six to eight percent of the population above the line, and it's about a decade's worth of development in the rest of the world...we lose a decade if poor economies take a 20 percent economic hit now.”

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