The business of foreign aid needs a good audit
When rock stars Bob Geldof and U2’s Bono stomped through the United Nations a decade ago, demanding rich nations stump up billions of dollars in extra foreign aid, the world took notice.
Even John Howard signed up to this ``Make Poverty History’’ chant, determined to avoid being seen as a global Mr Scrooge.
But with Australia preparing to double annual foreign aid spending to $8 billion-plus by 2015, the time is right to pause and take account of how we are managing the current program.
As News Limited reveals today, a mini-army of Bob Geldof’s have been created to promote the Millenium Development Goals, to encourage Australians to dig even deeper in aid support, and to support Kevin Rudd’s pledge to increase our foreign aid budget to 0.5 per cent of gross national income.
A well-heeled industry has sprung up, fuelled by multi-million-dollar profits from ``advising’’ on everything from gender integration to law and justice, energy, roads and education.
A clutch of five firms (all Australian based) hold contracts worth $1 billion with AusAID and an army of consultants is flying into developing countries on salaries that outstrip even the Prime Minister.
The business of assisting the Third World has never been more lucrative.
Yet the results of Australia’s current aid program are mixed, no matter how hard AusAID tries to spin the positives.
Most fair-minded Australians support the idea of giving aid to the poor. We are a generous nation, fuelled by good intentions, willing to dig deep when tsunamis and earthquakes strike with catastrophic results.
We have donated tens, probably hundreds, of millions of dollars to Africa over the past few decades, sickened by wretched pictures from some of the globe’s most impoverished nations.
There are some notable success stories, halving Nauru’s infant mortality rate since 2002 and cutting the rate of malaria in Vanuatu by more than 60 per cent since 2003.
Parliamentary secretary Bob McMullan, a forceful advocate, also points to the 2,000 new junior secondary schools that are being built in Indonesia as pointers to success. Fair Enough.
AusAID does have a series of successful notches on its aid belt. But at the highest levels within the agency, there is a clear recognition we can do a lot better.
The brutal truth is that we can manage foreign aid a whole lot smarter. In some cases, living standards have actually fallen or stalled. Close to home, law and order in Papua New Guinea goes from bad to worse, despite the tens of millions of dollars we are pouring in.
And in East Timor, overall living standards have remained static and the country’s leaders have called for a new approach to donor aid.
The message it seems is finally getting through. Buried deep in the Budget papers is this gem, from the Australian international development assistance program, titled ``A Good International Citizen’‘.
``In 2010-11 AusAID will undertake a review, together with partner governments, of advisers working in the aid program. The review will ensure that each adviser is the most effective, value-for-money response to meeting agreed needs and priorities. The review will also aim to provide a basis for more substantive changes to the way aid is delivered to increase aid effectiveness.’‘
In short, we ain’t getting value for money - and the Government knows it.
We should pause and consider a new Foreign Aid blueprint. This is not a call for a Hansonite approach.
I don’t want to see future governments slash development spending. But if Australia is struggling to show value-for-money now, what hope is there of retaining public approval when annual spending hits $9 billion?
Making poverty history is a noble aim but it will appear an empty global gesture unless rich countries, such as Australia, can actually demonstrate that all this financial goodwill is delivering real benefits. And lasting ones, at that.
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