Foreign Aid, Human Agency, and Self-Reliance in the Pacific: Lessons from the Pandemic
Motivation Amidst the highly polarized discourse on development aid in Pacific Islands, few studies explore the perspectives of local people. Missing from the literature is how the subjective experiences of Pacific Islands people responding and adapting to a sudden global disruption influence their perceptions of foreign aid. Faced by sudden shutdown of export markets, tourism, and labour migration, the COVID-19 pandemic offered an opportunity to investigate how disruptions from international events affect Pacific Island peoples’ perception of foreign aid.
Purpose We investigated how the lived experiences of people in the Cook Islands and Tonga during COVID-19 may have influenced their perceptions of foreign aid.
Methods and approach Semi-structured interviews guided by open-ended questions were conducted with 25 persons in the Cook Islands and 24 persons in Tonga. Interviewees were purposively selected from staff in government ministries and environmental NGOs; from people working in tourism and private enterprise; from members of youth empowerment groups; and from among traditional leaders, faith leaders, high school teachers, fisherfolk and farmers. The interviews explored their subjective experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and the meanings they attributed to them.
Findings The pandemic closed down tourism and interrupted labour emigration in both countries. In response, people switched to farming and fishing, and found ways to redeploy their skills. The pandemic saw increased local innovation, strengthened traditional practices, increased local agricultural output, and enhanced collaboration between foreign donor partners and recipient countries to develop local human capacity.
Policy implications Rather than repeating history by integrating Pacific Island societies into the globalised economy, or providing bail outs through economic restructuring, donors should strive to support the agency and self-determination of Pacific Islands people. They should start by recognizing the resourcefulness and capacity to adapt shown by participants during the pandemic.