• Aid. In the national interest. (Part 2)

    Posted by Ben

    20 February, 2014

    A discussion of the place of national interest or a focus on poverty reduction in the aid program is particularly important right now, because not only has the Government demonstrated that it wants greater emphasis given to commercial and strategic interests in our aid program (as well as poverty reduction) but this week an article in the Australian Financial Review (paywalled) suggested that,

    "The Abbott Government has officially removed poverty reduction from the goals of the foreign affairs budget, smoothing the way for the annual $5 billion spend to be redirected to a program that focuses more on growth and co-investment with the private sector." 

    Understandably, many people were outraged at the idea. But, it turns out, the article was wrong. It's not all good news for the aid program by any means, but "poverty reduction" has not been ditched as a goal of our aid program.

    What happened was this.

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) produced a routine update document, outlining any changes to its plans and budgets, to report to the Senate next week. Because DFAT now holds direct responsibility for the aid work that the separate agency AusAID once did, it amended one of its key objectives to include the words and international development so that it now reads:

    Outcome 1: The advancement of Australia's international strategic, security and economic interests including through bilateral, regional and multilateral engagement on Australian Government foreign, trade and international development policy priorities. 

    In its strategic direction for the aid program, the document noted that:

    "The department will deliver an effective and high-quality aid program that promotes Australia’s national interests by contributing to international economic growth and poverty reduction."

    Reducing poverty has certainly not been dropped from the purpose of the aid program, but it is fair to say that the primary reason for giving aid cited by the document is to "promote Australia's national interests" and it seems to play second-fiddle to "economic growth."

    The shift in language and priorities is clear when it is compared to the very clear and unambigious statement of the purpose of Australian aid from An Effective Aid Program for Australia:

    "The fundamental purpose of the Australian aid program is to help people overcome poverty. This also serves Australia's national interests by promoting stability and prosperity both in our region and beyond. We focus our effort in areas where Australia can make a difference and where our resources can most effectively and efficiently be deployed."  

    The elevation of "promoting Australia's national interests" can seem uncomfortably amoral when it comes to aid. Do we really care about saving lives, improving health, educating children, or helping communities prepare for and respond to disasters because it is in our national interest? As noted in the previous blog post, the answer is a resounding, "No!"

    This also seems to be the answer that aid experts give. The Centre for Development Policy's recent Aid Stakeholder Survey found that most people involved in aid and development (including NGO staff, private contractors, government bureaucrats, and others) believed that there wasn't enough emphasis placed on poverty reduction in the aid program, relative to other strategic and commercial interests.

    When asked what they thought the current weighting in the aid program is (in round numbers), they suggested around 40% poverty reduction, 40% strategic interests and 20% commercial interests. When asked what they thought the weighting in the aid program should be, they said 70% poverty reduction, 20% strategic interests and 10% commercial interests.

    However, while this is the strong opinion of both the general public, and of engaged aid stakeholders, it doesn't seem to be the majority view among politicians. Some interesting research from AidWatch a few years ago highlighted a gap between public perceptions and those of politicians. The survey Attitudes to Aid found that (as I've already noted) the public overwhelmingly support aid for poverty alleviation and sustainable development and strongly disagree with using the aid program to pursue Australian strategic or commercial interests. By contrast, the majority of Parliamentarians surveyed supported using the aid program to pursue strategic or commercial interests.

    Would it be wrong to use the expression "out of touch politicians" at this point?

    I recognise that priorities in Australia's aid program have always swung between these three poles (poverty reduction, strategic interests, commercial activities) and probably always will. But I'm sure that most people want and expect poverty reduction to be the fundamental purpose behind our aid giving.

    Australia has a $1.5 trillion economy. Federal Government expenditure is rougly $360 billion. The aid program represents just a $5 billion contribution to help address a range of poverty issues and global development challenges. That's just 1.4% of the federal budget or just 0.33% of our Gross National Income.

    So the Government already spends 98.6% of the Federal Budget directly pursuing our national interest here at home and through diplomatic and trade work overseas. Is it too much to ask, do you think, that one tiny sliver of our national spending not be determined by calculations of our national interest? But rather be an expression of our national values?

    Professor Stephen Howes puts it nicely when he says, it is "unfortunate that we have to wrap our aid efforts in a cloak of national interest... it sells us short as a nation."

    (This is the second of a 4-part mini blog series examining the role that "national interest" plays in shaping Australia's aid program. Click here to read the other blogs.)

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    Ben Thurley is the Political Engagement Coordinator of Micah Challenge Australia.