Drowning In Red Tape

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In April, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood outside Parliament House alongside his Papua New Guinean counterpart, Sir Michael Somare, and acknowledged that Australia’s aid program in PNG was top heavy with consultants, with too little action on the ground.

"Too much money has been consumed by consultants," Rudd said, "and not enough money was actually delivered to essential assistance in teaching, in infrastructure, in health services on the ground, in the villages, across Papua New Guinea."

The same problem is looming over the distribution of funds by the Australian Government to help neighbouring island states adapt to the effects of climate change.

As leaders meet in Cairns for the Pacific Islands Forum this week, small island developing states have welcomed support for adaptation from donors like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the European Union. The small atoll nations are, however, also concerned that so-called "adaptation funds" may be channelled to consultants and bureaucracy rather than to programs on the ground.

Speaking after the Small Island States caucus on Tuesday, the Premier of Niue, Toke Talagi, emphasised the problems small atoll nations faced in accessing adaptation funds, not least "that we need a lot of consultants to advise us which funds are available or not".

A core problem for Pacific states is their capacity to deal with a complex array of climate initiatives. Six new bilateral environment funds have been announced over the last three years, including Australia’s International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative. A number of global funds which offer financial resources to developing countries to tackle climate change have also been established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, Apisai Ielemia, argued at the United Nations for easier access to these UNFCCC funds in December 2008, pointing to the inadequacy of financial resources in the Pacific for adaptation. "[Small Island Developing States] like Tuvalu need direct access and expeditious disbursement of funding for real adaptation urgently because we are suffering already from the effects of climate change," he said. "I am compelled to say we are deeply disappointed with the manner some of our partners are burying us in red tape. This is totally unacceptable."

The costs for adaptation to extreme weather events have already amounted to a significant total. In 2007, Pacific environment ministers told the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting that the relocation of a single village in Vanuatu to higher ground costs US$116,000. To provide climate-proofed water to a village in the Cook Islands costs US$233,000. And a single seawall for one community in Samoa costs US$200,000. In a joint statement, the ministers said, "The international community needs to appreciate that the costs of their greenhouse gas pollution will have to account for these types of activities and this should encourage them towards stricter emission controls."

From opposition, the ALP promised adaptation funding to the Pacific and several policy announcements suggest they’ve acted on this promise. In 2008, Rudd announced the International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative (ICCAI), pledging to invest $150 million over three years to meet high priority climate adaptation needs in vulnerable countries. The Government also launched a forest carbon initiative focused on Indonesia and PNG, committing to a further $200 million over five years. These initiatives are jointly managed by the Department of Climate Change and AusAID.

Much of the ICCAI funding will be channelled through the World Bank and Pacific regional intergovernmental organisations, along with a grant to the UNFCCC Adaptation Fund. ICCAI projects already announced include a $3 million Pacific future climate leaders program and $6 million over three years to the Global Environment Facility’s small grants program.

But Pacific islands countries want to ensure that donors fund and maintain specific programs around food security, water supply, disease prevention and coastal management. As the Forum leaders’ official communiqué in 2008 stressed: "The priority of Pacific Small Island Developing States is securing sustainable financing for immediate and effective implementation of concrete adaptation programs on the ground."

In March this year, Climate Minister Penny Wong announced the Pacific Climate Change Science Program. This program will support the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, run by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO. On the strength of Minister Wong’s $20 million allocation, 24 positions for scientists and researchers to be based in Hobart and Melbourne were advertised in April.

Dedicating these funds — drawn from the $150 million Australian climate adaptation initiative — to Australian researchers may produce valuable scientific data. But there remain unanswered questions about how this research will be communicated to policy makers in the Pacific, let alone how it will translate into concrete adaptation work in the low-lying atolls of the region. Much of this research will generate climate models as a basis for planning risk reduction, but it comes at a time when island governments and NGOs are urgently seeking resources for empirical research and action in the atolls and islands of the region.

The Australian Government is certainly promoting a new policy of engagement with its Pacific neighbours on climate change but the challenge is to ensure that more of these adaptation funds can be focused on community level activities, instead of being wholly soaked up in research and policy making. In Cairns to lobby Forum leaders, Oxfam New Zealand director Barry Coates is unequivocal on this point. "A greater proportion of funding from adaptation funds needs to be allocated to implementation of basic resilience programs at community level, rather than further studies and consultancies," says Coates.

University of Melbourne climate researcher Jon Barnett agrees that there’s a need to focus more research and action at local level: "In the same way that aid does not always enhance development and can indeed undermine it, so too may aid for adaptation fail to promote adaptation, and may indeed undermine it."

Barnett says that there are a range of practical activities that could be supported by overseas donors, like funding an extra climate change officer and environmental impact assessment officers in each Pacific country, or supporting community-based climate impact monitoring systems.

A 2007 strategic review of the Australian-funded South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project suggested that researchers draw more on traditional knowledge and practices in future phases of the project.

The authors of the review noted that: "From careful and sustained observation of the natural environment, islanders have learned how changes in the natural environment such as extra mango crops in a season, can ‘forecast’ major changes in the weather like more frequent and severe cyclones. There is keen interest among both older and younger generations of islanders to record this traditional knowledge and to integrate it with scientific approaches."

As the Pacific region moves towards the December 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, the challenge that climate adaptation donors like Australia must address is how better to draw on local knowledge and work with grassroots communities across the region.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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