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What's the purpose of Australian foreign aid?

28 Nov 2012 16:42

2012 will be remembered as a year of sluggish international policy debate. Ken Henry recently said he couldn't remember a time in the last 25 years when the quality of public policy debate had been as bad as it is right now. In my opinion, Australia's aid debate is no exception.

Australia's public discussion on our role as an aid donor is patchy at best. The debate is sustained by ANU's Stephen Howes (who runs the Development Policy Centre) and the Lowy Institute's Annmaree O'Keeffe, while Hugh White keeps things interesting. News Limited's Steve Lewis writes a quarterly article for the Daily Telegraph exposing perceived aid waste.


30 Nov 2012 15:33

Dr Jeni Whalan lectures in Development Studies at the University of New South Wales.

Danielle Cave this week called out the poor quality of Australia's public debate on aid. And she's right, of course.

When the Government announced at budget time that it would take an extra year to reach the aid target of 0.5% GNI (still 0.2% short of the target set globally back in the 1970s), we heard more public debate on aid in a single day than we have for the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, it was the usual horse-trading commentary for which the Australian debate has become renowned, a battle between aid advocates (usually representing organisations whose work benefits from a larger Australian aid budget), aid sceptics (who usually have little other engagement with development policy), and the Government's fiscal managers.

The more robust aid debate Danielle calls for needs to create a fourth pole in this otherwise familiar, politicised landscape.


3 Dec 2012 13:18

Jeni Whalan's post on the issues that should get more attention in Australia's aid debate is full of good ideas. But can I suggest we add another issue to her list of things that need to be debated: what is Australian aid trying to achieve?

The need for us to think about this question more deeply is clear enough from this passage in Jeni's post. She says participants in the aid debate need to...

...establish a few initial parameters. For starters, aid is not benevolent charity, but neither is it an extravagance that Australia can't afford. More aid does not necessarily produce better development, but aid is neither dead (the case from the political right) nor a neo-colonial instrument of oppression (the case from the left).


4 Dec 2012 14:23

Garth Luke is Lead, ODA and Emerging Issues at World Vision Australia.

I agree with Hugh White when he says that we need to be clear about what aid is trying to achieve if we are to spend the aid budget most effectively.

Most Australians believe that its purpose should be to help poor people in countries with low incomes. AusAID has commissioned four public opinion surveys since 1998 and all have shown that the greatest support is for things like saving people's lives, improving education, helping people in emergencies and reducing poverty. In the most recent survey in 2009, 63% disagreed with the statement: 'I agree with giving aid if we get something back in return. e.g. trade relationships'.

Poverty reduction is also the agreed purpose of aid in international agreements and almost all of the Australian Government's statements about the aid program.


5 Dec 2012 11:37

Sam Byfield from the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne writes:

The Lowy Institute's commitment to stimulating debate about aid is laudable, and hopefully successful in elevating (and adding complexity to) the aid debate.

On the issue of the AusAID's 'insularity', there seems to be a few factors at play. Firstly, and this should come as no surprise, is the nature of bureaucracy as opposed to politics. The scope for engagement by bureaucrats in the public discourse is inherently limited. It takes a particularly brave bureaucrat to stand up and criticise (constructively or not) their employer's strategy.

Relatedly, there often seems to be an 'organisational line' pushed by AusAID staff – in the area of health, for instance, there is a stock presentation often rolled out by AusAID staff at meetings or conferences which limits the capacity for genuine policy discussion. This sort of management and information control isn't unique, however, to AusAID or to bureaucracies.


7 Dec 2012 12:12

Below, a comment on our aid debate from Anna Kent. But first, Thomas O'Connor, Senior Programs Manager at the Centre for Australian Progress, writes:

An important distinction to make in the aid debate is between relief aid, which is about providing a stop-gap social safety net in developing countries, and development aid, which is about creating the conditions where sustainable economic development can occur. AusAID and Australian NGOs do a reasonable job at the first type of aid (with our limited resources), and a bloody terrible job at the second type.

I'll talk more about development aid in a minute, but it's first important to recognise that relief aid is an important and valuable function of our aid program. Where developing country governments fail to provide the basic social services that make human life bearable, developed countries like Australia have a duty to assist. In Papua New Guinea for example, this has meant that Australia has played a crucial role in slowing the growth of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and in helping expand access to primary education.

Aid sceptics ignore this when they make their most common arguments about the 'failure of aid'. They point to the fact that, after decades of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, little has changed in the poorest countries. This is intellectually dishonest.


11 Dec 2012 09:49

Judging from the tone of the current Interpreter debate on aid and development, it seems that the notion of a country's aid program doing double duty by meeting both humanitarian and national interest goals is an impossibility for some. 

Hugh White wants clarity about what Australia's aid program is trying to achieve. Garth Luke wants the program to focus on what it's good at: helping the poor, leaving self-interest to other parts of government.

But the reality, Hugh and Garth, is that achieving the national interest isn't all about military might and diplomatic negotiations. It's achieved through a range of means, including soft power. And one of the most potent and better resourced soft power tools Australia has is its aid program.