Kōrero: Development assistance and humanitarian aid

Whārangi 4. Aid and politics

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Changes since 2008

The John Key-led National government elected in 2008 made further changes to the aid sector. It brought NZAID back under the direct control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), arguing that it should not have an independent mandate but should be guided more by New Zealand’s wider economic and political interests. The government also pushed for a greater focus on long-standing ties with Polynesia (Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and Tonga) and less on Africa and Asia.

The mission of New Zealand’s aid programme changed from poverty alleviation to a less well-defined concept of promoting sustainable economic development. The government also signalled a different role for non-government agencies. Direct funding of non-government agencies for development projects and humanitarian relief ceased and MFAT assumed greater decision-making power. Despite these major changes, aid allocations in gross terms continued to rise. The 2010 aid budget of $525 million, although at 0.34% a smaller percentage of gross national income than the 1975 aid budget, was larger in real terms than at any other time.

Multilateral and bilateral aid

Aid often comes with strings attached. Bilateral aid is usually shaped by the national politics and foreign policy objectives of the donor country. Recipient countries may be required to fulfil specific political conditions or to purchase goods from the donor country. Multilateral aid is not tied in this way. It also increases coordination of aid, and reduces the administrative burden on the recipient country. But multilateral organisations are very powerful – they may bring their own agenda to bear, and impose their way of operating rather than adopting local systems and processes.

Enduring themes in New Zealand aid

Unlike other countries where public donations and private philanthropy were important, in the early 2000s New Zealand’s government was still by far the largest source of aid – even if some of this was then allocated to non-government agencies for distribution. It seems likely that government policies will continue to be the major influence on New Zealand’s contribution to overseas development aid.

There was an ongoing tension between the need to align with international agreements and practices and the need to define a particular New Zealand identity and approach to aid. Typically this tension meant addressing the key question as to how much aid to allocate bilaterally (with strings attached and greater control by the donor country) or multilaterally (fewer strings attached and less control by the donor country).

Aid policy has also varied depending upon the international political situation. For example, from the 1950s the Colombo Plan was seen as a way to increase security in the region and halt the spread of communism.

In the 1970s and 1980s aid was an important part of the country’s approach to foreign policy and was given primarily for political rather than humanitarian reasons.

Public support for aid

In a 2005 survey 76% of the New Zealand public were supportive of giving aid while 24% did not support giving aid and judged it a failure. It was a big shift from the early 1950s, when there was limited political or public support for giving financial aid.


Different governments have had different underlying ideologies driving aid policy. Left- and right-leaning governments have debated the extent to which aid should be guided by principles such as the country’s economic trade interests, its foreign policy objectives, international or regional security concerns, or poverty alleviation.

A major issue has been how MFAT’s mission to promote and defend New Zealand interests fits with its mission to provide overseas aid – which promotes and defends the interests of the world’s poor. Over the 1990s and 2000s left-leaning governments have made these missions more distinct while right-leaning governments have brought them closer together. There have also been disagreements over where aid should be distributed – to the Pacific or elsewhere.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Overton, 'Development assistance and humanitarian aid - Aid and politics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/development-assistance-and-humanitarian-aid/page-4 (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Overton, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012