The aid monitoring group AidWatch says the Australian government’s decision to reintegrate AusAid into the Department of Foreign Affairs shows alleviating global poverty is not a priority.

The newly-elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who has planned a AUS$4.5 billion cut to foreign aid, has said the decision will align the aid budget with the Government’s diplomatic policies.

The chair of AidWatch’s management committee, Matt Hilton, says AusAid currently has a dual objective to reduce poverty and promote national interest.

But he told Mary Baines the decision means the emphasis will now be on Australia’s national and security interest.

MATT HILTON: It’s part of the Coalition’s ideological approach to aid, I guess, that aid is primarily an object of national interest policy and security policy. AusAid currently has a dual objective – that is to reduce poverty and promote the national interest, so they’re more interested in the latter.

MARY BAINES: What message does this send to aid agencies?

MH: This decision coming on what is essentially the first day of the government and coming on the back of what was announcement of around a $4.5 billion to the forward estimates of the aid programme is just sending a signal to the aid sector, to our aid partners, that aid isn’t the priority of this government. And the Coalition government, when it was last in power, had huge rates of consultant use, huge rates of private company involvement in the aid programme. It was vastly inefficient. That cost taxpayers a lot of money, didn’t result in many good outcomes for the global poor. So I think what this whole trend is is a move back to the old days of reliance on private consultants, reliance on business and not much care about what the actual poverty alleviation outcomes of the aid programme are.

MB: So they’ve cut $4.5 billion of aid, too?

MH: In the election campaign, as part of their balancing the books and what-not, they put what is essentially a $4.5 billion cut to their aid programme to the forward estimates. This will massively pull back AusAID. There used to be a bipartisan commitment to 0.5% of GDP going to the aid programme, so it’s clear that that bipartisan commitment is now gone, as well.

MB: What’s the likely impact of this?

MH: I think we’ll see a major strategic realignment of the aid programme. I think there will be many more programmes that focus on Australia’s national interests. That has always existed under AusAid, but there has always been this tension between poverty reduction programmes and national interest programmes. I think the practical results of this decision means that those poverty alleviation programmes will be less important, and what will be more important is facilitating Australian business and facilitating other Australian interests in the Pacific and in Asia.

MB: And this decision has been widely criticised by other aid agencies?

MH: It has been criticised. AusAid only really separated from the Department of Foreign Affairs not that long ago, a few years ago. And AusAid is an agency which definitely had its problems that AidWatch has been a consistent critic of, but we’ve seen a movement of AusAid towards better outcomes, towards focusing more on the global poor, rather than the national interest objective.

MB: People are criticising this decision because it’s basically sending a signal that our priority is now Australian businesses, our priority is Australia’s security interests – our priority is no longer the global poor.

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