TONY EASTLEY: Aid groups are concerned about the direction of international development assistance under the Abbott Government.

AID/WATCH is an independent aid watchdog. Peter Lloyd is speaking here to Matt Hilton, the chairman of its management committee.

MATT HILTON: AusAID has its problems but it was moving towards a better aid program and putting it into DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) is just going to exacerbate those problems.

PETER LLOYD: What difference does it make it being folded back under the umbrella of DFAT given that that’s where it was only three years ago?

MATT HILTON: The aid program is a very interesting part of the government. At the moment it has two objectives; one to reduce poverty and the second; to act in the national interest. And we thought it was a huge step forward that it was acting in the national interest had been kind of relegated. But what will happen under DFAT is that national interest will become the primary objective of AusAID and that is bad news for the global poor.

PETER LLOYD: In what way? How will it shift the priority paradigm?

MATT HILTON: Under DFAT, I mean generally under a Coalition government and under this model, we believe there will be a loss of programs related to the multilateral organisations. So that’s the United Nations. And we expect a much bigger role for Australian business and a much bigger role for aid programs that pretty much just act in Australia’s interests, not in the interests of the poor. And I think most Australians expect the aid program to be acting in the interests of the poor.

PETER LLOYD: Is there, to some extent, a philosophical reversal from the John Howard era when aid was largely seen through the prism of counter-terrorism in that developing aid programs that reduced poverty, particularly in the near region, was seen as sandbagging almost against the possibility of a Bali-like attack again, because you were actually developing the country’s prosperity where there was a risk of extremism?

MATT HILTON: That kind of language was used by the Howard government and it was used to a lesser extent by the Labor government. Looking at what the Coalition has been saying, they’ve been using the economic argument, that economic growth is the only way to reduce poverty and therefore reduce insecurity in our region.

There’s a little bit of merit to that argument but the reality is, the kind of economic growth that will be promoted under AusAID and the kind of economic growth that a lot of our neighbours have seen are pretty much excluding the poor and are all about resource extraction and all about developing a middle-class. So that actually works against the objective of national security because the need inclusive economic growth for everyone to be brought on board.

And the kind of programs that we suspect will be promoted, like mining for development, perhaps even supporting the live export, Australia’s live export programs to Indonesia – they’re not going to do anything for this objective.

PETER LLOYD: And that’s your major concern, that it will return to the focus of supporting Australia’s national interest through commercial interest?

MATT HILTON: Absolutely. That’s our biggest concern – that the global poor, global poverty is off the agenda and it’s all about business for Australia.

TONY EASTLEY: Matt Hilton from AID/WATCH, speaking to Peter Lloyd.

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