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  • By Bruce Hill/The Interpreter

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.

As is so often the case in the Pacific, no one is likely to want to offend their overseas donors by saying to their face, “No, we don’t want this because we are Christians.” There will be a lot of nodding and smiling and ostensible agreement and yet, as time goes on, the proposed social engineering just doesn’t seem to eventuate.

While UN Women certainly wasn’t attempting to secretly introduce same-sex marriage into Samoa, its gender equality programs were clearly seen by some as the thin edge of the wedge.

Religious conservatives (who make up a very large proportion of most Pacific nations) are horrified by recent social developments in nearby Western countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Anyone who is a member of some Facebook forums for Pacific countries will be familiar with comments condemning same-sex marriage and expressing fear that their countries will somehow be next.

Tonga’s initial acceptance of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and immediate withdrawal following a public backlash, is another case in point. It might not necessarily be right, but that fear in the Pacific is very real indeed.

Not everyone disagrees, of course, and there’s plenty of debate about these issues in the Pacific, which is perfectly healthy. But Christianity is often seen as a foundation of national identity in most parts of the region, and anything that might weaken it tends to be regarded as a threat.

Our current secularism is not exactly looked on with favor by many in the islands – something which we don’t always grasp. Occasionally we are reminded of it directly.

For example, following Lealailepule’s expression of concern, no less than Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele weighed in, saying there is no true Christian country in the world that would allow same-sex marriage, and it would not be allowed in Samoa as long as it remained a Christian country.

At the time, I actually attempted to interview Lealailepule about his statement, but despite initially agreeing, he then didn’t pick up his phone or respond to emails, which I suspect may have been because he thought a Western journalist was likely to simply make fun of his attitudes.

Perhaps countries such as Australia and New Zealand should use more people of faith in their development programs, men and women who can speak the language of religion and understand the concerns of people who, rightly or not, seem to feel vulnerable about what is sometimes seen as an irreligious Western cultural tide bent on sweeping everything before it.

I can still see that NGO worker striding through the airport, off to bring the light to those sitting in darkness, with a supreme self-confidence in the correctness of her cause.

I wonder what her missionary grandmother might have thought.

Bruce Hill is one of the region's most experienced Pacific journalists, having joined Radio New Zealand International in 1993, and from 2000 was at the ABC’s Pacific Beat program based in Melbourne. This article was originally published Aug. 13, 2018 in The Interpreter (Lowy Institute).

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