Speaker by Various Artists


Rethinking NZ’s Emergency Aid

by David Shearer

The recent Pacific tsunami highlights the rather orthodox way New Zealand responds to crises in our part of the Pacific – and some of the opportunities we are not seeing.

When disaster strikes New Zealanders are generous and we do all we can to help out. Samoa and Tonga after all, are our closest neighbours. Officially that’s also how behave, as one state to another. Most of our aid is directed either through aid organisations, directly to the governments concerned or by sending of ships, aircraft and personnel.

But what we tend to forget is that about the same number of Samoans and Tongans live in New Zealand as in their own island states. It’s not just a simple state-to-state relationship but a complex web of relationships that stretch across the Pacific. Churches and families living in NZ maintain strong links back to their islands.

Yet we don’t use these channels as we could to supply assistance directly to those families most affected. Rather we fund aid agencies which tend to use more circuitous and more expensive processes.

We need to explore how to tap those New Zealand-Pacific based networks much more effectively than we have to now. Funding churches and families in New Zealand can be the most direct and fastest means of getting assistance to those affected in the islands. Making that flow transparent and accountable should not be difficult.

Another problem is that in disasters Kiwis are quick to provide material goods such as clothes, blankets, food. It’s offered with the best possible intentions, but this sort of assistance is incredibly expensive and invariably wastes time and resources. Think of the time and labour needed to sort tee-shirts from other trousers and then into the correct sizes for example.

The best contribution is cash. It’s nearly always quicker and more efficient to buy goods. It comes clean, sorted and in bulk. Markets in disasters usually respond rapidly. Suppliers can readily tap warehouses and respond to what is needed on the ground – rather than having to rely on unsorted second-hand goods arriving on a dock.

Of course, there will still be a need for water engineers (clean water is the most urgent need in emergencies) and medical teams. But other less specialised needs can usually be bought.

One of the most effective aid operations I’ve seen – after nearly 20 years in the aid business – was in southern Lebanon in 2006 after the Israeli bombing flattened Lebanese Shia towns. The Lebanese organisation, Hizbollah, moved around distributing US dollars directly to people whose home had been destroyed or damaged. Other affected families were wired money from family living abroad.

Within a remarkably short time, building materials arrived, labour had been hired and basic needs met. Politics aside, it was the most efficient and most accountable means of delivering aid to those who need it.

We should be looking to our NZ – Pacific networks, the direct links we can foster when we respond through family and church connections. And, the need to discourage donations in kind and encourage donations of cash.

Our links to the Pacific are all around us but tend to be overlooked. They should be sought out and fostered before calamity strikes. It’s time to take another look at how we respond in the Pacific and see the opportunities.

David Shearer, MP for Mt Albert

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