Australia’s foreign aid is starved of attention
Over recent years, Australia has doubled its financial commitment to foreign aid.
Yet our aid program has remained starved of attention from the government, media and community at large.
On Tuesday, Kevin Rudd sought to rectify this by announcing a five-month independent review of the effectiveness of Australia aid.
With the aid budget set to double again during the next five years, such an assessment could not have come at a more critical moment.
This financial year, we will spend $4.3 billion in official development assistance (ODA). The money is directed overseas, with a view to reducing poverty and facilitating sustainable practices in developing countries.
But such expenditure falls short of what our international obligations demand. In global agreements dating back to 1970, Australia has undertaken to allocate 0.7% of gross national income towards ODA.
Today, however, our foreign aid represents a mere 0.33% of our wealth.
The failure to meet this goal is not often discussed in the halls of parliament. Instead, attention is directed to other areas, such as the $43 billion National Broadband Network—an initiative precisely ten times the cost of our aid budget.
While the government is willing to emphasise such a colossal domestic project, it seems odd that comparatively little regard is given to our global community.
With an economy almost impervious to the GFC and bolstered by a minerals resource boom, Australia can and should utilise its prosperity to help the billion people living in poverty across the globe.
To be fair, successive governments, both Labor and Coalition, are to be applauded for the dramatic increase in the aid budget over the last decade.
Nevertheless, the lack of scrutiny of our aid agenda in recent times has been striking. Despite bipartisan support for additional spending, the mechanics of foreign do not ordinarily attract attention in the Australian political discourse.
For instance, mainstream discussions rarely critique the aid program’s heavy reliance on technical assistance. This category of ODA, which chiefly funds experts to provide advice to governments of developing nations, accounts for over 40% of our aid outflow.
Also lacking is a public debate concerning Australia’s reluctance to provide aid through multinational channels, such as the World Bank and United Nations. Instead, we prefer to deliver 90% of our development assistance on our own.
Moreover, the destination of our aid is seldom questioned. Rather than focussing on particular regions to ensure our funding is specialised and consequential, Australia chooses to distribute money all around the world, seeking to maximise its international respect.
Our economic policies are also not subject to a great deal of analysis. Although we purport to take reducing poverty seriously, we enforce import barriers on the textile and apparel industries, cutting off key trading opportunities for many developing nations.
Additionally, the Gillard government has handed the reins of AusAID to Rudd alone. By abolishing the long-standing position of parliamentary secretary for ODA and dissolving the portfolio within the busy foreign ministry, the government has stripped Australia’s aid program of parliamentary oversight.
While we ought to increase our aid, we must also ensure that the existing budget is spent with accountability. Achieving this could require a ministerial position for aid, something the Coalition has rightly proposed.
Rudd’s independent review will commence immediately. Without a doubt, it illustrates that progress is being made. However, without a broader dialogue taking place within the community, our foreign aid may continue to escape the necessary scrutiny.
Australian taxpayers deserve value for money in our aid program, and developing nations deserve our funds to be applied effectively. To achieve this, all of us must begin to take aid seriously and give it the attention it deserves.
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