• Budget priorities and people power

    Posted by Ben

    26 March, 2014

    Budgets, they say, are moral documents. They reflect the priorities and aspirations of the governments and nations that prepare them. Budgets weigh up which issues and concerns will receive public funds, and how much they will receive, and which issues will be left aside.

    First budgets of new governments are also significant for signalling new priorities or key differences in approach from their predecessors. It is a way of (economically) framing the story the government wants to tell about itself, about the world, and about the solutions it has to offer to address the problems it regards as particularly important.

    So the budget sitting of Federal Parliament from Tuesday 13 May and the presentation of Treasurer Joe Hockey's first budget are widely regarded as key moments for the Abbott Government.

    It's in this light that we'll be watching with interest to see the direction the Government takes in its first overseas aid budget.

    (Watch the video below for my more detailed explanation of the budget process.)


     

    We won't just be watching, though. We will be campaigning hard to ensure that the 2014–15 overseas aid budget maintains a strong focus on tackling poverty. We hope you will join us. The budget makes choices about spending public money, so every interested citizen and group has the right to express their view about how that money should be used.

    The Government is clearly reshaping the overseas aid program – merging AusAID back into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, cutting $4.5 billion from the budget over the next four years, and pushing for more "aid for trade". However, not all the elements and details about what the Government intends are clear. (By the way, this post and this one, from the Centre for Development Policy, are excellent introductions to "Aid for Trade".)

    So there is an opportunity for all of us to influence how the budget is developed. However, the earlier we speak out, the better. To be honest, I'm more than a little tired of crisis campaigning in the face of threatened aid budget cuts and look forward to a more sustained engagement in support of generous and effective, poverty-focused aid.

    The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has said that she wants a focus on "economic diplomacy" and a greater alignment between Australia's commercial and strategic interests and the poverty-reduction efforts of the aid program. "Aid for trade" and investing in infrastructure are areas we expect will receive more funding. 

    However, it is not clear what other areas of aid – such as health, education, or water and sanitation – will be de-emphasised to make room for this. With large aid cuts already in place, these trade-offs need to be made explicit, and any increased invetstment in trade or infrastructure in the aid budget needs to be able to demonstrate its effectiveness in tackling poverty.

    The Foreign Minister has also noted that she wants to bring in performance benchmarks to increase effectiveness. We're all for effectiveness, of course, but it's actually a fairly complex thing to measure and assess effectiveness at a project level, let alone assessing aid's effectiveness in contributing to larger social change or the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. And there's still no further information about exactly what the Government wants to benchmark, or how these benchmarks will influence project designs, choice of aid partners, or allocations of funds to particular sectors, countries or regions.

    We are concerned there is a risk that certain ways of benchmarking performance could inadvertently prioritise "quick wins" over longer-term, more sustainable community development or "easy wins" over work with difficult to reach or marginalised groups.

    We are firmly of the view that impact on reducing poverty needs to remain the key benchmark for assessing the performance of Australia's aid program and all the groups and organisations who are part of it.

    Finally, we know that the Government has signalled the budget constraints it intends to apply to aid (holding aid to roughly $5 billion annually with no real growth over the next four years). There are, however, some voices in the media and from some thinktanks arguing that aid should be further cut.

    Further cuts would not only be counterproductive and harmful to the poor, but would be a grave breach of the Government's own commitments. If anything, the Government should announce a timetable to reach its own stated target of increasing aid to 0.5% of Gross National Income as a stepping-stone on the way to meeting the long-standing international aid target of 0.7% GNI.

    Please join us in ensuring that Australia commits to a generous and effective aid program, focused on tackling poverty. Please commit to taking action in the lead up to the Abbott Government's first budget, but also beyond. Because it is only as we take serious and sustained action, seeking to change public and political attitudes, that we will achieve our goals.

    Click here to find all the tools you need to take action this budget.

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