• A Response to Mr Downer

    Posted by John

    31 May, 2012

    In an article entitled ‘Aid means quality, not quantity’ published on May 20 in the Adelaide Advertiser, Alexander Downer claims that the NGO community says ‘barely a word’ about aid effectiveness and is only interested in the size of the aid budget ‘even if much of it is wasted.’ As someone who is actively involved in the NGO sector, this is my response to Mr Downer’s article.

    Alongside thousands of everyday Australians and NGOs, Micah Challenge has repeatedly called for more effective aid. We have called for a greater focus on inclusive development for disabled persons, more effective spending on health, water, sanitation and governance programs, as well as greater transparency and accountability.

    Certainly the quantity of aid becomes a focus for both the NGO sector, and the general public around budget time.  This is basically because the government often seems to be looking for ways to defer increases to the aid budget. That was the case when Mr Downer was Foreign Minister and, sadly, is still the case now.

    That said, I welcome the opportunity that Mr Downer’s article presents for us to continue the discussion about quality aid.

    We know that effective aid is both a sound economic investment and often results in a life-saving contribution to those who need immediate assistance. The Global Alliance in Vaccines and Immunisation is a strong example. Using aid dollars, the Alliance has supported the vaccination of 326 million people, who otherwise may have missed out, and has prevented at least 5.5 million future deaths from diseases including  meningitis and pneumonia.

    Consider aid dollars invested in sanitation and hygiene. The World Health Organisation estimates that for every $1 invested in sanitation and hygiene, at least $8 is returned to a nation’s economy through reduced health care costs and enhanced productivity. That’s a solid return on investment by any measure.

    Ajai sits in front of his family's toilet in the Rukum District of Nepal. Through the help of NGOs and Australian Government funding his village has now acheived 'total sanitation' coverage. Photo taken by Lyn Jackson, United Mission to Nepal.Ajai sits in front of his family's toilet in the Rukum District of Nepal. Through the help of NGOs and Australian Government funding his village has now acheived 'total sanitation' coverage. Photo taken by Lyn Jackson, United Mission to Nepal.Ajai sits in front of his family's toilet in the Rukum District of Nepal. Through the help of NGOs and Australian Government funding his village has now acheived 'total sanitation' coverage. Photo taken by Lyn Jackson, United Mission to Nepal.

    In fact, as the Australian aid program has grown, so too has Australia’s commitment to transparency and effectiveness.

    Last year’s Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness provided a framework for continued improvement of the aid program. A subsequent review into the amount of money lost through corruption estimated a loss of only 17 cents in every $1000 administered. There is now an Office of Development Effectiveness, as well as a Comprehensive Aid Policy Framework that outlines priorities and measurable objectives for the next four years of the program. These are all good things.

    What lies at the heart of this discussion is the question of what we value.

    The things that we value are the same things we invest in. And those things we invest in, we will tirelessly pursue to ensure their success. (“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” – Matthew 6:21).

    If we really value saving and improving the lives of poor people, providing education to children, and helping communities recover from disasters, we will invest in it, and we will make it a priority.

    To focus on aid effectiveness at the cost of quantity reflects, in my view, an insufficient understanding of the value of human life.  The only valid response to challenges in administering aid is to redouble our efforts to do it well.

    Mr Downer outlines some essential elements in efforts to reduce extreme poverty – building open and transparent institutions, improving governance, property rights and education. Just as essential are efforts to ensure community participation from recipient communities, investments in primary health care, provision of clean water, sanitation and basic hygiene. And aid is certainly not the only solution to poverty – fair trade, the removal of illegitimate debt, improved governance and a commitment to sustainable use of the environment all play key roles.

    As to Mr Downer’s question – ‘How much is enough?’ Many people will be aware that we currently give just 0.35% of our Gross National Income to aid – only 35 cents in every $100 we make as a nation. In August 2005, as Foreign Minister of Australia, Mr Downer said that he supported “the UN target of 0.7 per cent ratio of Official Development Assistance to Gross National Income.” If that is no longer the case, how much does he think Australia should give?  What value does Mr Downer place on the reduction of extreme poverty?

    I am one Australian who believes that quality aid is a reason to do more, not less. There is no dichotomy between quality aid and the quantity of Australia's aid as Mr Downer suggests. 

    That kind of limited vision will not allow us to play our part in solving a problem with the magnitude of global poverty. As a wealthy nation we can and should do more.

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    John Beckett (known to most of us as JB) works as the National Coordinator of Micah Challenge.