Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Island powerhouses consider aid

AP , AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

The leaders of Australia and New Zealand met yesterday to discuss pouring more aid into the struggling South Pacific region to prevent it from becoming a haven for international criminals.

But Australian Prime Minister John Howard and New Zealand's Helen Clark stressed that millions of dollars in aid from the two regional powers will come with an important condition.

"Our very clear message is that we want to help but a condition of that help has to be rooting out corruption," Howard said, hours before the opening of a three-day summit of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum.

Clark agreed, saying nations providing aid would demand "good governance" in return.

Howard, Clark and the other 14 leaders gathered at a traditional Maori meeting hall perched on a hill overlooking Auckland harbor. Spear-waving Maori warriors welcomed them with songs, prayers and the "hongi" -- the traditional Maori pressing-of-noses.

Many struggling South Pacific nations have been plagued by corruption and mismanagement of their frail economies, turning the region into what Australia fears is an arc of instability that could be exploited by gun runners, people smugglers and terrorists.

An Australian senate committee this week recommended the region adopt a single currency pegged to the Australian dollar as a way of bolstering ailing economies, but the idea has received a cool welcome from forum delegates in this northern New Zealand city, which is home to tens of thousands of South Pacific migrants who left their homes in search of jobs.

Howard, who said a common currency "isn't on the radar screen" and a common labor market "well down the track," also has floated a plan for small nations to pool their political and economic resources to create a more stable region.

He said a small state unable to provide all the services it needs, might work together with others.

Fiji premier Laisenia Qarase -- who took power at elections in 2001 that restored his nation to democracy after a 2000 coup -- said Howard's plan would be discussed at the meeting.

"I think this process of regional ... integration will have to develop slowly over time," Qarase said.

He said tying aid to eliminating corruption was "the right of the donor countries" just as aid takers "have the right to choose whether we accept that aid."

Corruption was not unique to the region, he said.

He rejected accusations that Australia's plan amounted to neocolonialism that would erode the sovereignty of small states.

"The sovereignty and independence of every state is a fundamental principle of the UN, and Australia and New Zealand are great believers in that principle," he said.

The Pacific Islands Forum is made up of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

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