Foreign aid and religion in the Pacific

Sometimes we in developed nations fail to grasp that not everything we do, no matter how well intentioned, is entirely welcomed in developing countries.

Often they’re just too polite to tell us.

Once on a flight to a Pacific island nation, I was seated next to an NGO worker who excitedly told me about her mission there. She was going to facilitate a symposium on gender issues, focusing on boosting the number of women in that country’s parliament.

It turned out that one of her reasons for joining this particular NGO, and taking an interest in the Pacific, was a sense of needing to make up for her grandmother’s work many years earlier. Her grandmother had been (and here her voice dropped to a whisper) a missionary in the islands.

Such was her shame at this apparently horrifying family secret that she felt compelled to redress the balance many years later, by bringing the locals what she clearly felt was a more empowering vision. The fact that she was essentially doing exactly the same thing now as her grandmother had done then, albeit in the name of a different ideology, seemed to escape her.

At the end of last year, Samoa’s Associate Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi, accused the United Nations of planning to secretly promote same-sex marriage in his country.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, he described UN programs promoting gender equality “being used as a secret window to pry open the door for same-sex marriage in Samoa. We have to be awake and be alert.”

Now that sounds pretty far-fetched, and UN Women correctly denied the charge at the time, but there was a small grain of truth to it. As a Pacific specialist journalist for almost 25 years, I have often seen perfectly well-intentioned development programs aimed at nudging Pacific societies in a direction deemed “progressive” (by us) come up against a solid wall of religiously based objections.

And fail.