Article originally appeared on SBS website. 20th September 2013

Aid should be used to solve poverty, not further Australia’s overseas interests. AusAID’s merger into DFAT is a blow to be sure, but there have been strings attached to our aid program for far too long, writes Thulsi Narayanasamy.

By Thulsi Narayanasamy

This week’s news of AusAID’s integration into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is disappointing though not wholly unexpected. AusAID has always operated with a tension between its often conflicting objectives of the national interest and poverty alleviation, and removing the barrier between the two simply provides a greater avenue for programs focussed on national interest.

Programs which have clearly served Australia’s commercial and strategic interests – such as the Mining for Development Initiative (M4DI) – have existed alongside more appropriate poverty alleviation initiatives. The M4DI promotes mining as a vehicle for ‘sustainable’ development and provides an opportunity for Australian mining companies to showcase themselves as best practice companies. We have also seen aid money used to assist the furthering of our inhumane asylum seeker policies abroad with: funding for the Sri Lankan government – who have been accused of genocide and war crimes against the Tamils – to stop people attempting to flee; additional aid given to PNG for co-operating with the previous government’s plans to process asylum seekers on Manus Island and resettle refugees in the country; and the diversion of $375 million of the aid budget to fund the punitive policy in Australia.

In spite of this, aid agencies cried foul over the Coalition’s announcement that aid would be cut, as well as AusAID being subsumed into DFAT. The assumption being that all aid money works effectively to alleviate poverty, and that the integration into DFAT would represent a categorical shift with a new focus on Australia’s interest. While things are likely to become worse for poverty alleviation and better for Australian business, this provides an opportunity for the NGO community and their supporters to take stock of the continuation of what is already happening under the aid program.

Land alienation in the name of tourism, mining in the name of foreign investment, loss of livelihood in the name of free trade – and all facilitated with the stamp of approval when coupled with aid.

In addition to programs which blatantly work in favour of Australian interests, is the incidence of boomerang aid where aid money to foreign countries ends up funding Australian companies and consultants rather than the people it is meant for.

The last few years have seen a groundswell of campaigning for an increased aid budget with a swathe of organisations focussing their efforts on the goal of meeting the OECD agreed target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI).

Young people leading a movement to end global poverty by increasing the amount governments spend on aid spells both a dangerous over-simplification of what causes poverty as well as a flawed premise that aid is effective in addressing those causes. The focus has been on quantity, rather than the quality of aid.

AusAID’s integration into DFAT is likely to see a marked increase in aid programs facilitating Australian business to expand in Asia and the Pacific and a significant decrease in the accountability and transparency of our aid program. But there is a chance here to stop simplifying the way we think and talk about poverty and to come to terms with the role aid plays as part of a broader system of trade, investment and debt repayments that ultimately perpetuate and sustain poverty and injustice.

We can only hope that with the now blatant alignment of aid delivery with foreign policy goals, calls to increase the aid budget will be replaced with a push to spend aid more effectively. The aid community have been poor at taking stock of what aid has done for alleviating poverty or thinking about who has benefitted from aid. For Australia, now would be a good time to start.

Thulsi Narayanasamy is a Director at AidWatch.