Watch out for the poor huddled masses

Winston Peters is on to a good thing, eh?. Asian refugees will stop the greyhairs getting operations. Worth a few votes, that.

Except that this time he starts from the pits of micro-support, not the trampoline of rising stardom, as with Asian migrants in 1995-96. And he is up against a Prime Minister who, unlike Jim Bolger, is cogent with the media.

Helen Clark pointed out that our annual refugee quota is 750 and the 150 Afghanis (and Pakistanis?) will be within that number. By giving priority to families, she reduces the likelihood of adds-on later. Moreover, to catch the “knowledge wave” we need migrants (though she omitted our bad record in giving non-white migrants jobs).

And, in case you think she is opening floodgates, note that our quota — in place when Peters was Deputy Prime Minister — is less than half Australia’s, adjusted for population. We’re hardly angels of mercy down in our distant empty little corner of the world.

On the plus side for our humanitarian image is our peacekeeping and peacemaking round the world — and Clark has dedicated our armed forces to that work.

But in foreign aid we skimp. Three decades ago a Labour government nurtured an ideal of 1 per cent of GDP. This Labour-led government gives less than a quarter of that.

Next week aid minister Matt Robson will announce a rebalancing of aid, to focus on more our needy South Pacific neighbours and spread crumbs around fewer than the present 63 countries.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s aid division will be given its own directorate with the status of an agency, though continuing to report to the ministry top brass.

Aid will henceforth be a policy item in its own right, assessed not only by foreign policy objectives, which it will in some instances still serve, but also by whether it is effective in helping recipient countries towards self-sustainability.

This fits better the message on Monday from Jean-Claude Faure, chair of the OECD’s development assistance committee, to the ministry and non-government aid organisations.

Faure argues a shared self-interest in both rich and poor nations in ensuring poor nations can join the globalised economy. In the past couple of decades the gap between rich and poor nations has been growing. If the rich want a secure world they will need to build the poor’s economic, social, political, governance and “civil society” capacity to make their way in the world.

Poor nations are not just pitiable. They are also, Faure says, a source of conflict — dangerous, spillover conflict.

The Taleban’s persecuted and misgoverned Afghanistan is a prime example. The human disaster of a displaced population nearly equal to this country’s, makes a terrible point.

Clark called on Saturday for urgent international efforts to deal with the refugees. But that would just attack a symptom.

At the root of such disasters, an unofficial but high-powered International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty under former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans will report this month, is a failure of states in their “responsibility to protect” their citizens’ basic human rights.

But in the event of such failures, Evans’ commission will say, the responsibility passes to other states to intervene.

But in what circumstances? Under what criteria? Who can legitimately take part? What can outsiders legitimately do and does that include pre-emptive measures beyond aid? Who decides?

And how is consensus, the usual procedure in multilateral international matters, to be reached on this touchiest of issues for states jealous of sovereignty? Evans’ commission has wrestled with these tangled conundrums.

Most probably the world will ignore Evans and lurch into more disasters, more tidal waves of refugees, more Tampas.

Add to that the globalisation of work and the migration it stimulates (don’t we know it?) and this century is shaping up as one of large movements of people.

If so, we won’t escape these waves of intruders, any more than the Maori could hope to escape nineteenth century European colonising expansion. And these migrant waves will cause periodic political convulsions — as Mr Peters’ little-kiwi speech has conveniently reminded us.