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Pacific aid takes a dive as virus impacts NGOs

Wednesday 13 May 2020 | Written by Legacy Author | Published in Small World

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Coronavirus hits Pacific aid efforts with NGOs under pressure to cut their workforces.

International development agencies have started to feel the pinch from the economic fallout of Covid-19, fuelling concerns that the Pacific region could be impacted by the drop in donations, the ABC has reported.

Earlier this month, there were reports Oxfam Australia would slash half its staff as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates already declining fundraising.

For communities in the Pacific like Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, international non-government organisations fill an important gap.

That’s especially the case in Solomon Islands, where 80 per cent of the population is scattered across rural areas with limited government services and a few roads.

Amid reports Oxfam could lose half its Australian workforce by October, the aid group’s director of programmes Anthea Spinks stressed talks are still ongoing and said Pacific projects would continue.

“Obviously the process that we’re working through is still subject to discussions with our staff. We acknowledge that this will result in some significant change and that’s obviously a very difficult process that we’re going through,” Spinks told ABC’s Pacific Beat.

“We know that at the Australian level, these changes will result in a reduced number of staff, but we’ve been very focused on making sure that we can meet our ongoing relationship and programming obligations to partners like those in the Pacific.”

Terence Wood, a researcher at the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre, said the problems at Oxfam pre-date the coronavirus pandemic, and expected any restructure in Australia to also be felt at its Pacific offices.

“Depending on the nature of the restructure, you can imagine that there will be challenges. Losing any staff with any particular experience in the Pacific or strong relationships with people working in Pacific countries – that’s going to make work harder,” he said.

He said things could get tougher for NGOs working in the Pacific in the near future.

Oxfam isn’t the only group seeing a drop in funds. Public donations make up a major source of revenue for other groups that work in the Pacific, like World Vision and Plan International Australia.

“Sadly, the pandemic has made fundraising difficult and we have had to make staff cuts. With the economic downturn we expect our fundraising figures to keep falling,” Susanne Legena, Plan International Australia CEO, said in a statement.

While donations are important for Australian NGOs, funding for their Pacific programmes tends to come directly from the Australian government.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke said Australia had been working with Pacific partners to respond to the pandemic since January, including “support for laboratories, public information campaigns, medical supplies and health expertise”.

“We are adapting the Australian aid program, including a record $1.4 billion budget for the Pacific in 2019-2020, to respond to our Pacific partners’ most acute needs,” he said in a statement.

He added the Government is jointly funding the WHO’s Pacific regional Covid-19 response plan with New Zealand, and supporting NGOs to help the Pacific through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership program.

Australia’s opposition shadow Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh said “charities have been suffering a perfect storm over recent weeks”.

“Not only have social distancing measures impacted on their volunteer base, but the sector has seen a huge drop off in donations,” he said, adding both individuals and philanthropic foundations were giving less and fundraising events were being cancelled.

“At the same time, Australians and our Pacific neighbours need charities more than ever.”

He said his party has urged the government to “act fast to help keep people employed in this vital sector” and while he welcomed the steps taken by the Coalition on that front, “it still falls woefully short of what is needed”.