Published from transcript of SBS World News Radio 3 March 2015

By Greg Dyett

Aid organisations have launched a campaign against any further reductions to foreign aid in the May budget.

Instead, they’re calling on the federal government to start rebuilding Australia’s aid program, after having cut it by billions of dollars.

Greg Dyett reports.

The head of Care Australia has been busy lobbying in Canberra.

Julia Newton-Howes says what’s striking is that many coalition MPs she’s met haven’t really grasped the magnitude of the cuts made to the aid program by the current government.

“The aid program has lost $11.3 billion. About 25 per cent of the cuts that have been made by this government have come out of the around one per cent of government spending that goes to the aid program. The aid program has taken a massively disproportionate hit in these cuts and actually this is damaging Australia’s long term interests and I think it’s been very, very useful to really bring the facts and figures to the attention of a wide range of MPs.”

The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has told SBS News the reduction in foreign aid is a direct consequence of Labor’s refusal to support alternative savings measures currently before the parliament.

She says this includes five-billion dollars in savings that Labor itself proposed at the previous election.

James Goodman is a member of the management committee of AidWatch, which monitors the foreign aid budget.

It encourages governments to make sure aid goes where it’s needed, rather than to meet national or commercial interests.

He says too much foreign aid is being misdirected.

“Too much aid has been used to in a sense persuade governments to sign up to trade agreements, for instance, or to change the way their government operates, to open up their markets to Australian companies. Aid, for instance, has been used to fund the offshore refugee processing program that’s been in place for some years now so there’s plenty of misuses of aid by the government in pursuit of its commercial security and general diplomatic interests and we’ve been very concerned about that down the years. We’re not against aid per se, but really very critical about the misuses of aid not just by Australia but by a number of countries around the world.”

James Goodman says Australia is heading towards a situation where foreign aid spending will fall to 0.2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, an amount he describes as negligible.

He says other governments that are in far worse economic shape are spending much more on foreign aid than Australia.

“I know that the current government argues it has to, you know, reduce its expenditure and deal with this terrible deficit Labor’s left it well actually in Britain debt is running at 90 per cent of GDP and yet they still hit this 0.7 per cent (of Gross Domestic Product) target of aid. In Australia, national debt is running at about 29 per cent of GDP and yet Australia is going backwards it’s halving its aid and directly it even more to national interest concerns.”

Julie Bishop’s position on foreign aid leaves the way open for additional cuts in the budget.

Julia Newton-Howes from Care Australia says Africa could be targeted.

“I think given the magnitude of the cuts to the aid program overall the government will have to make some difficult judgments about whether it remains what it is now, a very small donor in Africa or it pulls out entirely and which of those two options will be least damaging to Australia’s clear interests in Africa.”

The Australian Council for International Development is the main body representing 140 Australian aid charities.

Its executive director Marc Purcell believes African countries have reason to consider Australia a fair weather friend.*

“As a result of scaling up our poverty alleviation aid there but then axing it, effectively halving it in the past year. We also see that Australia has a lot of interests there. We have a big trade and investing relationship of about 40 billion dollars, we have a big diaspora of Australian Africans in Australia, about a quarter of a million so it’s actually in Australia’s interests to be developing countries in Africa where working in partnership where having poverty alleviation programs but you have to find a billion dollars from somewhere and it looks like they will cut from Africa because it’s not part of the government’s Indo Pacific focus at the moment.”

James Goodman from Aidwatch says he’d like to see much more public debate about the aid cuts that have been made.

“It really is quite an abomination. And what really shocks me is the extent to which this has been normalized. This hasn’t really hit hard in terms of public debate. I don’t think it’s been much of a public debate about what is happening to the aid program and what this means for the role of Australia in the world really.”




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