11 April, 2013
In a deeply cynical move just before Christmas last year, the Government diverted $375 million from overseas aid to help meet the rising costs of detaining, processing, and supporting onshore asylum-seekers.
This diversion of such a large amount of money (7% of the total aid budget) away from the core business of Australia's aid program – helping poor people move out of poverty – has already had an impact. Our contribution to the life-saving work of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria was cut by $10 million. Programs to help vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change in Vanuatu, Tonga, Indonesia and the Philippines have been axed. Water, sanitation and hygiene programs, maternal and child health, education and livelihood programs have all been delayed or "deferred". Every region and every area of Australia's aid program handed over part of its budget to help plug the Immigration Department's budget hole.
Oh, almost every country. Papua New Guinea and Nauru – who are hosting asylum-seeker detention camps on Australia's behalf – did not have their aid cut.
The Government's rationale for this is that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rules allow for the first year of support for onshore asylum-seekers and refugees to be counted as aid. Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, even said, "We are doing no more than other countries are doing."
The infographic below, however, shows just how flimsy a rationale this is. We are diverting roughly twice the developed country donor average in this way. In fact only four countries (Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy) divert more aid as a proportion of their aid budgets than we do. And three of those countries, Italy excepted, have a much larger number of asylum-seekers making claims for protection as a proportion of their populations.
At a time when the UK is showing us how it is done – increasing aid to 0.7% of Gross national Income this year, despite tougher economic and budgetary circumstances – there is no excuse for the Government to do this. It is unprecedented in our history. It is far beyond what almost every other developed country is doing. And it reduces the transparency, predictability and effectiveness of our aid program.
Unfortunately, what looked like a sneaky one-off move to help staunch a haemorrhaging asylum-seeker budget, could now become a permanent feature of Australia's aid – hundreds of millions of dollars diverted away from life-saving and poverty-reducing aid for our poorer neighbours. The Government looks set to try to divert aid again in the upcoming May budget.
The reality is, though, that if the Government is serious about meeting its commitment to increase aid to 0.5% of Gross National Income by 2016, then the aid budget will need to increase by around $400 million in the upcoming budget (bringing it to roughly 0.37% GNI). And if it is serious about using that aid effectively to reduce poverty overseas and help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, then it must ensure that aid is not diverted away from those purposes.
You would hope that the Prime Minister, who has been appointed co-chair of the UN Secretary-General's MDG Advocacy Group, would be right behind that.