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Does charity begin at home?

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10 February 2011 13:42

Cross-posted from our companion blog, Interpreting the Aid Review.

It was always going to happen. The costly consequences of a series of natural disasters over the Australian summer has given rise to questions about the place of overseas development assistance in Australia's spending priorities.

Australia's opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has proposed to defer $448 million in spending on the Australia-Indonesia Education Partnership, spurring public debate about the relative value of spending on development assistance versus spending on post-disaster reconstruction at home.

I am not going to question the merits of the Australia-Indonesia Education Partnership here. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd gave a spirited defence of the program in Parliament (page 56 of this Hansard), AusAID provides a wealth of useful information about this program here, the ANU's Development Policy Blog has debated the value of the program here and Greg Sheridan volunteered his views on the program here.

But the debate Mr Abbott has started with his use of the familiar slogan 'charity begins at home' moved me to think about the issue more broadly:

  1. A reality check. The Coalition cannot defer this spending from the Opposition benches in Canberra. Even if the question of funding the reconstruction in Queensland is still on the national agenda when the Coalition next finds itself in Government, there will inevitably be a reassessment of what spending cuts are desirable and viable at that time. This particular aid program will likely be more than halfway through its implementation at the time of the next Australian election and a new government would find it difficult to axe it then.
  2. Bipartisan commitment. If the Coalition is so quick to identify spending cuts in the aid program now, what does that say about the bipartisan commitment to increasing aid to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015-16, confirmed during the election campaign  last year' Mr Abbott appears to have recommitted to that target but his use of the slogan 'charity begins at home' and the Coalition’s willingness to consider two reasonably deep cuts to the aid program within the space of two days creates some doubt about the Coalition's potential management of an effective doubling of the aid program. Aid is only 0.33 per cent of GNI in the current budget. Scaling up at a measured pace may also prove to be difficult for the Government which is under pressure to fund domestic reconstruction efforts and keep its promises on returning the budget to surplus.
  3. What does all this have to do with the aid review' The fact that Australia's alternative government talks of charity beginning at home in a discussion about one of our most significant bilateral relationships reflects an extraordinary lack of sophistication in the national conversation on aid.  Against this background, the panel’s task suddenly seems even more complex and more important. The task of  blogs like this in interpreting aid to a wider audience also takes on greater weight.

I attended an excellent conference hosted by the ANU's Development Policy Centre on 7 February that debated a number of important aspects surrounding the proposed doubling of the aid program. It was a useful step in moving discussion about aid beyond what Bob McMullan called an 'elite conspiracy'. It also revealed that the Government has a big task ahead to explain to the Australian nation in clear and simple terms why and how it plans to double aid over the coming five years.

Kevin Rudd told Parliament on 9 February that Australia's foreign aid policy was 'based on prosecuting Australia's national interest, our national security interest, our economic interests and our international humanitarian interests'. This was a good start. The Prime Minister and other members of Government need to expand on such statements in popular public forums — this would go a long way to helping voters understand why Australia not only can, but should, afford to fund the reconstruction at home and enhance efforts to improve the lives of millions in developing countries. It is incumbent on the Government to engage the public more broadly on this issue.  

The circumstances wrought by the recent natural disasters mean this discussion may be perceived to be sensitive, but the Australian people deserve more opportunities to engage in informed debate about foreign aid expenditure. 

Photo by Flickr user stevendepolo.

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