From the popular #dontcutaid Twitter hashtag, to the letter to the Prime Minister from over 100 prominent Australians including Geoffrey Rush, the debate over the delay has focused on the important issue of the quantity of aid spending.

But beyond the headline numbers, the sometimes damaging and self-interested reality of Australia’s aid program looks set to continue in this year’s aid budget.

For example, AusAID will spend $127 million over the next four years on the ‘Mining for Development Initiative’, which is more likely to benefit Australian mining companies than reduce poverty.

Amid talk of “broken promises”, demands for government accountability need to be extended to the quality of Australian aid for those people the public want to help – the global poor.

The Cambodian railways project

One troubled program allocated money in the 2012/13 aid budget is the Cambodia Railway Rehabilitation Project.

It is funded by the Australian government through AusAID, co-funded and managed by the Asian Development Bank, and linked to a public-private partnership between the Cambodian government and a consortium led by Australian-owned Toll Holdings.

The project will see the rehabilitation of 650 kilometres of dilapidated railway lines, which run from the northern town of Poipet on the Thai-Cambodian border, through Phnom Penh, to the southern port town of Sihanoukville. AusAID justifies their $26 million involvement on the basis that it will promote economic growth and reduce poverty by decreasing transport costs and creating jobs.

However, the project has been heavily criticised in reports by local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, Bridges across Borders Cambodia and AID/WATCH for its de facto privatisation of public infrastructure and its negative impact on the 4,000 households that lie on the path of the tracks.

Many people displaced by the project have been relocated to inappropriate sites large distances away from their jobs. They have also been forced into debt by inadequate compensation payments. Some relocation sites lack basic amenities like running water and electricity. Two children died in 2010 while searching for water near the resettlement site.

The human impact of the forced resettlement is revealed in a collection of testimonials from six widows released by Sahmakum Teang Tnaut. When the organisation publicly complained about the railway project, the Cambodian government responded by suspending it for having “incited people to oppose national development”.

Donor responsibilities and accountability mechanisms

When aid permits human rights abuses, what are the responsibilities – legal or otherwise – of donors? What accountability mechanisms are in place?

Toll Holdings insists that resettlement isn’t part of their commercial agreement with the Cambodian government, but suspended their own involvement in the project for one year in April 2012.

AusAID told the Senate that resettlement wasn’t their responsibility, though it has commenced an income restoration program. AusAID argues that the railways project is covered by the Asian Development Bank’s resettlement policy. However, the processes that have been followed in Cambodia breach the policies of both organisations.

Last year, the Asian Development Bank denied allegations of threats and intimidation, and they are still investigating the botched resettlement process. Affected communities have lodged formal complaints over the violence and decrease in living standards that they have suffered.

The bank, which operates with immunity from local legal systems, has an “Accountability Mechanism” to deal with such complaints. But it was described in its own independent review as “less than optimal’, due to problems of accessibility, lack of knowledge of its existence and time-consuming procedures.

Internationally, accountability has been a key part of the elite “aid effectiveness” agenda. “Mutual accountability” is one of the five principles of the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which the Australian government has signed on to.

But the principle restricts accountability relationships to those between donor and recipient governments.

Accordingly, AusAID will fund a number of internal accountability mechanisms in the budget, none of which enable immediate and direct access for people that are negatively impacted by aid.

More aid, less accountability?

The 2011 Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness recommended a greater proportion of Australian aid money be channelled through multilateral organisations like the Asian Development Bank.

With Australia’s aid program set to rise to 0.5% of gross national income by 2016-17, and AusAID’s commitment to using aid as a “key tool of foreign policy”, we can expect more privately operated large infrastructure projects like the Cambodian railways project that have little to do with poverty.

Despite deferring the promised aid increase, the budget allocated an additional $46.9 million to the Asian Development Bank.

AusAID speaks the language of human rights, but has not been serious about its responsibilities when those rights are abused.

AusAID should suspend its involvement with the Cambodian railway project and fully respond to the demands of the affected communities and workers.

To avoid similar incidents in the future, AusAID should abandon the “national interest” paradigm by moving away from economic growth-oriented projects with “trusted partners” and instead support strong public and civil society institutions.

This change extends to AusAID itself, which must develop its own institutions for meaningful accountability to the global poor, and to the Australian people, who want an increased aid budget to help – not harm.

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