I couldn’t believe my ears. I was in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, in 2012 and a local Oxfam employee told me that he wished Australia would again take control of his country. He argued that in the nearly four decades since independence, the state had not adapted to standing on its own. He wanted Canberra to train a new generation of Papua New Guineans in good governance. I had never heard a formerly colonised man begging for the return of his old master.

Australia already provides more than $500m every year to Papua New Guinea, though the record of implementation and losses from rampant corruption are infamous.

I understood the Oxfam employee’s impulse, yet cautioned against viewing Australian aid as inherently benign. Although we spend more than $5bn annually on “official development assistance”, there remains serious questions as to the efficiency and priorities of this money. Who receives it and why? Who decides? What are the key aims of the funds, and how do Australian business profits factor into Canberra’s decision making process?

It’s worth questioning the impulse to automatically support a constant increase in Australia’s aid budget. On this, the position offered by Greens senator Lee Rhiannon is one of the more nuanced, criticising both major political parties in refusing to guarantee regional development for the most vulnerable people by funding offshore processing of asylum seekers in squalid locations such as Nauru and Manus Island.

I often hear fresh and disturbing reports of private contractors paid by Australian taxpayers who are incapable of humanely managing refugees on Pacific hellholes. Even The Salvation Army, sources tell me, are barely coping with the influx of refugees, legitimising the government’s desperate plans to dump individuals away from prying media cameras. Mark Isaacs, a former Salvation Army staff member with no aid or social work training, worked for the NGO in Nauru; unsurprisingly, he’s now scathing of the ways in which Canberra mismanages the situation.

This is the new face of Australian aid, outsourced to NGOs that should know better and firms that only see dollar signs from a policy-on-the-run government. We are exporting a development model that isn’t working.

Public debate over Australia’s aid budget is largely invisible, including during an election campaign. Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop recently said that “our diplomats will be required to understand our commercial interests.” In other words, the bottom line will always trump human rights. This should concern the peoples of Bougainville, Afghanistan or Mongolia. Take Rio Tinto, which stands accused of countless environmental breaches in the Gobi Desert and a host of other areas where Australian corporations operate with shoddy records.

It’s our responsibility to determine how we are viewed by the world, and our aid budget is a key component of this public face. Unfortunately, there are currently few legal or regulatory restrictions on Australian firms operating in foreign nations – a deliberate bi-partisan arrangement that runs counter to a recent call by the Australian Council for International Development who demanded greater accountability and transparency in foreign aid. 

Self-appointed experts aren’t helping either. Bill Gates, speaking on ABC TV’s Q&A in May, claimed that aid “never creates dependency” and critics of the system are “promoting evil”. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have undoubtedly contributed greatly to the reduction of many deadly diseases globally, but their commitment to human rights is spotty. In June this year, Gates bought a stake in the troubled Israeli occupation-backing British multinational G4S. Moreover, Gates is sending the completely wrong message to the general public: ‘trust us, we know who should get your tax dollars, and accept our rationale for ever-increasing aid budgets’.

The facts simply don’t bare this out, as I’ve seen myself in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine. Aid dependency routinely leaves the host community or nation lacking necessary skills to empower themselves. This is arguably the aim, with western contractors tasked to “educate” the natives. Look at Haiti, where untold millions of dollars of aid has done little to address endemic housing and social problems.

This is not a call to massively reduce aid while claiming we’re good global citizens. Aid-bashing is a favourite pastime of neo-liberals who don’t believe we should be helping anybody. Austerity in the aid budget should be resisted, but strengthened accountability and transparent democratic processes are necessary.

Truly humanitarian aid (such as vaccinations) are vital and should be administered fairly while empowering local communities. Funds directed to tackling corruption or enhancing security -– witness in Afghanistan the futile efforts by bloated US corporation DynCorp to train police and security forces – are usually prone to abuse and yet this doesn’t stop London, Washington and Canberra continuing to fund them, perhaps so they can say they’re making a valiant effort despite countless reports outlining the failures.

Aid can’t solve developing country’s problems, though it can help if pursued well. Australia should not follow the lead of other industrialised nations by intimately tying aid to business outcomes. The results can only be exploitation in the name of helping impoverished nations. Sustainable aid revolves around trusting local partners in developing countries, and building connections that empower people without the constant presence of enriched foreign consultants.


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