In the lead up to the federal election in Australia, both political parties see a role for foreign aid but neither can commit to reaching normative targets. Recently, the Labor government , under new prime minister Kevin Rudd, deferred Australia’s commitment to aid as 0.5% of gross national income.

In order to reach 0.5% of GNI, representing Australia’s foreign aid commitments, aid will need be increased by A$2bn in the fiscal year 2017-8. This is more than three times the single largest increase ever, which was made under Kevin Rudd’s first stint as prime minister in 2008.

Given the economic and political climate in Australia, it is just not possible to reach the 0.5% target, let alone the global target of 0.7%. The same can probably be said of many OECD DAC members. In 2011, official overseas development assistance (ODA) fell by nearly 3%, with 16 of 26 DAC members trimming their aid budgets. In 2012, the US cut US$2.2bn from foreign aid not relating to war spending.

Aid advocates and NGOs in Australia are crying foul. Speaking for the global poor, they argue that Australia’s latest budget estimates will only harm the world’s poorest.

The premise is that children will be denied polio vaccinations, schools will not be built and that global poverty will not be adequately addressed. In other words, less aid equals more harm. It is a false premise. Foreign aid, especially from Australia, represents just a tiny fraction of the international development finance system, which also includes remittances, debt relief and concessional loans.

Development organisations should abandon calls to reach these targets. As Unicef Australia’s Norman Gillespie said in an interview: ‘The whole idea of still hitting our target of gross national income … is just not credible’. This is the fifth time the Labor government has pushed back the goal posts since first introducing the target in 2008.

Rather, we need to reposition ourselves and concentrate advocacy efforts not on absolute figures but on relative spending; we need to focus on how countries like Australia spend foreign aid and not on how much.

I am not suggesting that Australia should not support getting children vaccinated, into school and out of poverty. Rather, the debate should be on how we are ensuring children get vaccinated, how they are receiving a quality education and how poverty is being addressed in various communities.

The three largest recipients of Australian aid in 2012-13 were Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the World Bank. Together, the funding these three received was more than 30% of the aid budget. PNG has received the most attention recently, given the recent refugee agreement between prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Peter O’Neill.

Although greater ownership over the aid programme on the recipient’s end should be something to celebrate, the head of PNG’s new anti-corruption unit described the level of fraud in government having ‘migrated from sporadic corruption to systematic and now an institutionalised form of corruption’. PNG is ranked 150 of 176 countries surveyed by the international monitoring group, Transparency International.

The World Bank rates PNG barely above a ‘fragile state’ status, with very poor scores for economic management, social inclusion and public institutions. And when it comes to Australian aid alleviating poverty, Simon Feeny of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology found little evidence that aid contributed to economic growth over two and a half decades in PNG.

We need to keep asking questions of how Australian aid money is spent not only in PNG but also around the world in Cambodia, Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands. What do we know about the Cambodian Railways Project and how it was going to affect communities? What do we know about the use of Australian aid for military purposes in Afghanistan? What do we know about the use of aid under the growing ‘mining for development‘ initiative? Is it effective to spend A$660,000 per Australian federal police officer per year in PNG for four years as aid money? We should be campaigning about those issues instead.

As a founding signatory of the international aid transparency initiative, Australia’s aid programme needs to be held accountable and be open to more scrutiny from both the senders and the receivers. Used smartly, aid can deliver empowerment, education and development. But it can also engender dependency, disempower communities and foster inequality. If aid advocates want Australia to show moral and global leadership, then it is not a question of deciding how much aid money to spend but rather how to spend it.