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What is an MDG, and should we care?

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COMMENTS

24 September 2010 10:15

Among the clutter of this year's conferences, reports, speeches and commitments, all muscling to feed into the discussion at this week's Millennium Development Goals (MDG) summit in New York, there is another more localised debate trying to bust out of obscurity. Where does Australia fit in to the MDG effort' Before we ask that question, it may be worth backtracking to ask, 'what are these MDGs''

In short, they are a global action plan to reduce poverty, containing eight broad goals that tackle issues related to hunger, health, education and more in developing countries.

New Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is certainly well aware of the MDGs and is now in his element, visiting key allies and representing Australia at the pivotal MDG meeting in New York. Clearly, he is in charge; he is taking Australia's aid program to the international stage and he is doing it quickly. None of these are bad things; in fact, Rudd's ability to charm certain world leaders will only boost Australia's profile internationally, and with that, draw international attention to Australia's aid program. 

One glaringly obvious problem with all of this is that Rudd, and the Australian Government in general, is overestimating Australians' knowledge of and support for the mushrooming aid program, which is set to hit approximately $8-9 billion by 2015, making AusAID one of the largest Government departments. Rudd is off and running on the international stage, but without ensuring there is solid domestic support behind him.

According to a recent ActionAid poll, Rudd is among only 6% of Australians who have actually heard of the MDGs. In fairness, Australians are not alone; countries all over the world, particularly donor countries, are equally in the dark. Still, this figure is strikingly low and something for the Australian Government, and particularly AusAID, to worry about as Australia continues to bulk up the aid budget over the next five years and build the program around this 8-goal action plan.

Advocacy organisations can play an important role in spreading the word on the MDGs. Unfortunately, the majority have so far failed to penetrate the mainstream, and too often, end up preaching to other like-minded individuals and organisations, at great expense to the Australian taxpayer.

Rudd's announcement in New York this week that Australia has committed $5 billion of Australia's aid program towards education is a welcome move. Few people would doubt that education is key to poverty reduction.

However, one must question why such a significant decision was made without some form of public input and open discussion. If education is to become the flagship of the Australian aid program, the reasoning needs to be communicated effectively. $5 billion is not small change and for those outside of the 'development community', this rather expensive decision seems to have come out of the blue.

As discussed and summarised so well here and here, the aid program is suffering from a lack of clear and complete aid policy. There is little rationale given nor space for discussion when major changes in aid policy occur (such as the aid program's expansion into parts of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean).

Rudd will skilfully use the aid program to advantage Australia's place and role in the world. But back home, confusion will continue to reign about the lack of justification underpinning important decisions concerning Australia's vast and burgeoning aid program. This lack of engagement and dialogue with the public will not sit well in years to come when the aid program's purpose and size is called into question.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo, used under a Creative Commons license.

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