Assistance up to the 1940s
From the 19th century missionaries provided schooling and medical care in the Pacific. The New Zealand government had a colonial relationship with its territories (Cook Islands, Niue, Western Samoa and Tokelau) from the early 1900s and directly funded some of these administrations, investing in education, health and infrastructure. The money was not seen as ‘aid’, but as part of New Zealand’s colonial responsibility.
After the Second World War, when European colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific started to become independent nations, New Zealand adopted the idea emerging worldwide that ‘development’ could be engineered by rich countries providing financial and material resources and technical assistance to poor countries. However, New Zealand’s financial commitment was limited and there was little public support for financial aid.
Government and non-government aid
In Europe two post-war assistance efforts influenced the western world’s (including New Zealand’s) approach to aid. The Marshall Plan, funded by the US, sought to reconstruct war-torn Western Europe through government aid and industrialisation. The political aims were to stabilise Europe and counter the threat of communism.
During the war non-government relief agencies such as Oxfam had arisen in Europe. Following the war they continued to appeal directly to the public for money, clothing and food to help communities in need.
Pacific decolonisation and development
The South Pacific Commission, created in 1947, coordinated social and economic development activities. In the mid-1960s its total budget was around £345,000. New Zealand contributed around 16% – $2.2 million in 2021 terms. The council’s name changed to the Pacific Community in 1997.
Western Samoa was the first former New Zealand territory to become independent, in 1962, followed by self-government in free association with New Zealand – virtual independence – for the Cook Islands in 1965 and Niue in 1974. The British colony of Fiji became independent in 1970, and New Zealand began to take a more direct interest in it. In these countries development assistance from New Zealand began to take the place of direct budget support. It took the form of projects such as agricultural advice, forestry development, road building and educational support.
Aid rises in the 1970s
Most aid in this era was bilateral aid (given by one country to another). The Norman Kirk-led Labour government of 1972–75 boosted aid, with greater support for Pacific Island countries and South-East Asia. New Zealand’s role shifted from a primarily military one (in the Malayan Emergency, Vietnam War and South-East Asia Treaty Organisation) to one that supported economic development in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
From the early to mid-1970s government aid spending increased from $13.3 million to $59.7 million. New Zealand committed itself to the goal of devoting 1% of its gross national income to aid, and achieved 0.52% in 1975. The global oil crises and economic decline slowed growth and for the next 20 years New Zealand aid declined as a proportion of its gross national income.
‘What am I doing here?’
Don Crump, a young agricultural economist, worked from 1970 to 1972 at Khon Kaen in north-east Thailand as a Colombo Plan adviser. He managed to convince authorities that Western-style ranching of cattle was not a good idea in that area. ‘There were times I thought, “Heck what am I doing here and what can I do to make things go better?” I guess I was lucky to have been able to get a few things done.’1
The Colombo Plan
The Colombo Plan was an initiative of the British Commonwealth (later joined by other countries). It sought to raise living standards in South and South-East Asia through aid provision. From 1951 New Zealand supported some projects in Asia – mainly through education, training and supplying technical experts. More importantly it funded students from Asian countries to attend New Zealand universities and other training courses.
Founded in 1944, the Council of Organisations for Relief Services Overseas (CORSO) raised funds and sent assistance throughout the world. Its early focus was on humanitarian relief. From the 1970s it also supported development aid, and questioned strategies that did not directly target poverty. More controversially, it raised questions about poverty in New Zealand. This more radical approach saw its former broad-based political support collapse, and it lost funding from the Robert Muldoon-led National government. As CORSO declined, other agencies appeared, including Trade Aid.
Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) – inspired by US President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps – was founded in 1962 and initially sent mainly younger New Zealanders off to work with communities in the Pacific, South-East Asia and (from 1986) Africa. Over time volunteers with a wider range of ages and experiences were chosen. The average age of a VSA volunteer in the 2000s was 48.