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Aid is increasing, but can we spend it well?

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28 February 2008 08:38

Guest bloggers: Stephanie Lusby, co-Director of Jubilee Australia, and Kate Wheen, co-Director of AID/Watch, kick-off a debate about Australia's aid program with a co-authored post on the following question: ‘The Rudd Government is lifting aid to 0.5 per cent of GDP, but do we have the capacity to spend it wisely?’ The Interpreter has put the same question to other Australian aid watchers who will respond over coming days.

The new government's pledged aid budget increase is a significant win for civil society campaigners and has rightly been celebrated as such. Australia has avoided meeting the pledged allocation of 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas development assistance for too long and the very fact that aid became an election issue is a huge step toward fulfilling the constant need to keep public confidence in development high and ensure a willingness to support tax dollars going in this direction.

The quantity vs. quality debate that rears its head every so often in the Australian discourse around aid is in many ways a false dichotomy and incredibly counter-productive. When the most influential voices in Australia say that aid doesn’t work, we lose whatever small entrée we have into making regional development the significant issue that it needs to be. What needs to happen is a radical review and shake-up of the way Australia delivers aid so that when the quantity goes up, the quality does too.

There should be no question as to whether we should give a larger amount of aid or whether we can afford it. The fact is Australia will never give enough to meet the massive quantity of aid that’s required so we need to push for the best deal we can get. That deal looks set to get better, as now, finally, we have a government willing to take overseas aid seriously. This highlights and makes more pressing the obligation on us, as civil society, to have a sophisticated conversation around what to do with Australia's contribution to overseas development.

To the question of lacking capacity, this would seem to be fundamentally the wrong one to be asking. Australia has a glut of capacity in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. However, much of that capacity is tied up in a broader system of aid that is not working and requires an overhaul. The key question is not capacity but whether there is a mentality that seeks some kind of transformation in the way aid works, a mentality that requires overcoming the vested interests that are nourished by past models of international aid.

Throughout the history of the aid program, Australia has consistently used the mantle of ODA to protect, bolster and line the pockets of domestic corporations and to maintain our country’s commercial presence in the region, with the bulk of project tenders going to big businesses that have diversified their operations to accommodate overseas development in order to get in on the lucrative aid deals.

Although it is not productive to dwell solely on past bad practise, it is important to recognise the fundamental barriers that are limiting Australia’s capacity to transform its aid program.  It is vitally important, at this possible new beginning for aid policy, to look at how the current aid programs are being delivered and managed, by whom and to what end.

If the current government is sincere about delivering a successful, scaled-up aid program, then this is our best opportunity to deconstruct a very narrow vision of aid as poverty alleviation — which sees aid as treating the diverse, disparate and often divergent symptoms and perceived causes of poverty. This allows every organisation, think tank, company and development wonk to vie for influence, spruiking their own solution to poverty and hauling government policy off in different directions.

The supremely elastic structures of the seven or eight corporations who swallow up most major contracts can easily adapt to being health, governance or education experts, depending on the broader contours of national policy. In project management, it is easy enough to hire a magistrate here, a health professional there, on salaries higher than the Prime Ministers of counterpart governments, to fulfil the whim of the next policy wonk with their own idea of what is fundamental to 'poverty alleviation'.

If we can agree that every Papua New Guinean child and every young adult in the Solomon Islands looking for employment and every East Timorese woman raising a family has the same right to human security, political freedoms, primary health care and education as the members of our own families, then our aid should be working to these ends. As such, a reform of the Australian aid program must be, first and foremost, about using existing capacities to promote and facilitate material improvements in communities' access and ability to fulfil basic human rights.

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