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In search of a proactive aid program


Does Australia's current government believe in foreign aid?

Last night Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered the 2017-2018 Budget. Australia's aid program was scarcely a footnote. Mr Morrison announced that Australian aid will grow marginally for a couple of years before being cut by $303 million. This is apparently so that the funds can be used for 'other priorities in the portfolio'.


So far, so disappointing. You can read some excellent analysis of it at the Development Policy Centre. After years of cuts, and a utilitarian redefinition of aid as being for the promotion economic growth above all else, we hoped for a signal that a re-energised aid program was on the way. No such luck!

Are there any signs of where the government wants to go with the aid program? If we can't see evidence in the budget announcement, where can we look? One good place is in recent statements by the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. In two speeches this year she has given an indication of where the government's priorities lie: at DFAT's Global Heads of Mission meeting, and at the ANU Australasian Aid Conference. Here are some of the things that I've learned from what she said:

  1. It's about the national interest: This is of course how it has been for 20 years. The aid program exists not to reduce poverty, but to serve the interests of Australia's government and its people. I can get behind this to some extent, as helping others very often results in material, spiritual or other benefit to yourself. But at the moment the aid program is good for us only because it gives us better trading partners, reduces the risk of unwanted immigrants, reduces the number of people who want to terrorise us (and others) and prevents the spread of harmful diseases to our shores. It's not good for us because Australians helping poor people is simply a good thing ("some sort of benevolent charity" as Ms Bishop said at the conference), nor that we want to be good neighbours. It's about us, not them.

  2. The government doesn't think that aid does much for economic growth: At the heads of mission meeting Ms Bishop said "Stronger regional economies through more private sector investment will do more to lift people out of poverty than almost any amount of foreign aid." At the aid conference she said "It is a fact that the private sector continues to be the most important driver of economic growth that helps lift people out of poverty – nine out of ten jobs come from the private sector." In pursuing its prime objective, the aid program is, in other words, tinkering at the margins. I don't disagree with the Foreign Minister's statements, but they do suggest that an aid program devoted to economic growth is not a very good investment!

  3. The aid program is a tool for reacting to crises: A bright spot in the budget announcement was an increase in humanitarian funding. This is welcome, and that money will be well spent. But take a step back and it's apparent that the aid program is being positioned as a reactive instrument to respond to a number of pressing global issues, as outlined above. At the Development Policy Centre's budget breakfast this morning, Jacqui de Lacy made this point eloquently, also noting that at the aid conference the Foreign Minister, in referring to these things, said nothing about the role of aid in reducing poverty, inequality, development relationships and, critically, said nothing on prevention.

  4. Some principles are worth standing up for: Julie Bishop is rightly respected as a champion of gender equality. At the aid conference she said "I have set a target that at least 80 per cent of our aid investments must effectively address gender issues in their implementation. It’s the right thing to do, as a matter of principle." Under her leadership the aid program has pushed on with a progressive program of activities in support of women's rights, reproductive health and the prevention of gender based violence. Clearly she values this work and what the aid program can do to advance it.

This last point makes the absence of a clear vision for the rest of the aid program all the more frustrating. Without a clear driving vision, especially since it was absorbed into DFAT, Australia's aid program has been progressively whittled away. It's had no clear mission or compelling statement of its principles that we can get behind. Instead it's quietly become a minor piece of our diplomatic and security toolkit.

We know that it can be so much more. The White Paper is an opportunity to do this. As Peacifica and our friends argued in our own White Paper submission, Australia's aid program can become a constructive and proactive part of our efforts to position ourselves as a member of an Indo-Pacific community. Promoting the human security of people throughout the region depends on partnerships to work together to solve problems and anticipate threats to people's well-being. These certainly include hard security threats, but they also include inequality, land insecurity, youth unemployment and even basic poverty. By contrast, an aid program dominated by economic self interest and security fears treats these fundamental human problems as secondary.

In a complex world, promoting human security is perhaps one of the most useful things that the aid program can do. People - and states - face myriad threats to their security. By championing human security, the aid program could not only refocus on its traditional business of helping the world's most vulnerable people, it can also help to demonstrate how their prosperity is tied up with our own, how both human and strategic security are important, and how a proactive approach can reduce the need for costly reactive investments. Let's talk about it.


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