Sarah Hemstock (University of the South Pacific) came to visit the Cabot Institute on 20 March 2013 and presented the case study “Impacts of international aid on climate change adaptation in Tuvalu”. Here I sum up the main points raised by Sarah during her lecture. Please note all figures mentioned below are from Sarah's talk.
Tuvalu is a microcosm for what is going on with climate change globally. There are issues with waste management, sea level rise, politics, energy, food production and others.
Tuvalu grows taro, a staple carbohydrate which is sensitive to saltwater. Due to rising sea levels, Tuvalu is affected by high tides called king tides. These tides can contaminate agricultural land with saltwater and thus the staple crop will not grow.
Flood defences have been built by aid agencies to try to stop sea level rise. Unfortunately they do not work as seawater bubbles up through the island at king tide, flooding the airport and villages. There is now no fresh water and villages are completely dependent on collecting rainwater.
International aid and the economy
Sarah began to explain why Tuvalu needs to move away from aid to become more self empowering. She started to list the facts. Globally, $140bn has been given to international aid between 1970 and 2010, it certainly is a lucrative business. There are four agencies who accept international aid in the Pacific. Three of these agencies have mandates for climate change, fisheries, GIS and mapping etc which prevents any market driven approach to getting aid. Another problem with these agencies is their size. For example, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has grown from 300 employees at its inception to 3000 today. Large numbers of employees can see international aid going towards feeding these agencies rather than having a smaller administrative group and diverting the main bulk of funds to helping save the islands of the Pacific. It could be argued that these large companies provide jobs for people in the Pacific, but in reality, these jobs are not very likely to go to people from the small island states such as Tuvalu (for which the aid is supposed to be for), which are isolated and poor.
Tuvalu has a weak economy. There is a lack of exports but a lot of imports to people who are not native to the island and want a little something from home. 83 % of Tuvalu’s energy comes from oil and a shocking 50% of Tuvalu’s annual GDP comes from aid. People in Tuvalu are subsisting on less than $2 a day. However, because Tuvalu receives a substantial amount of ‘aid’ they are recognised as a middle income country, but this aid does not filter down to the people and in fact Tuvalu should be considered as a low income country.
Tuvalu spends $6m on policy development, although these policies rarely do anything and could be considered a waste of money which could be better used in the community. The amount of diesel used for electricity consumption has increased. However, petrol usage has decreased, mainly due to people going back to using traditional canoes as they are cheaper to run.
A desperate situation – a sinking community
Between 2004 and 2007, fossil fuel use increased by 21%. Sarah felt that this was because funders ignore policy. For example, a Japanese company gave Tuvalu three diesel energy generators. Tuvalu asked for generators that could run on coconut oil in line with environmental policy but due to cost, the donators could not provide these. Tuvalu couldn't afford to run the diesel generators so Japan donates $2m of oil every year to run them making Tuvalu totally dependent on donations for its energy supply.
There is no market, no money and no tourist industry in Tuvalu so there is no way of generating money. It is an isolated island and boats to Fiji run every 5-6 weeks. When weather is bad, food, oil and supplies are not delivered.
Sarah explained how there is no joined up thinking with international aid and no long term plans after the aid has disappeared. An example of this is where water tanks were given to each home in Tuvalu and they were also made in Tuvalu. The problem with the design was that it has a sealed top which meant it could not be stacked. This meant it would have taken 25 years to get everyone a tank, as only six tanks would fit on each ship. The good news was that they managed to get a barge to ship them out, but it is this lack of foresight which hampers the success of aid activities.
Sarah also mentioned how 35% of aid goes straight back to the company who gave the money to pay for ‘technical assistance’ and admin fees. There are other fees which come out of international aid. In fact if aid was taken away from Tuvalu, it wouldn't affect the people much as the aid hardly reaches them anyway.
Interestingly, the people of Tuvalu are extremely mentally resilient to the threat of climate change. When asked if they would move off the island if climate change flooded their islands, they were determined to stay on the island no matter what. When the question was framed in an economic sense, for example would they move off the island for work, they were more open to the idea of moving off the island. This is a difficult ethical argument. What right do we have to move the islanders to safety, to move them to a different country, culture and language when they do not want to go?
Climate change may be physically sinking the small low-lying islands of the Pacific, but it is the international aid agencies which are arguably sinking them beyond recovery. A drastic change is needed in the management and distribution of international aid in order to save these dying islands from the rest of the world’s actions.