What with all the hullaballoo over whether Kevin Rudd was only going to New York to meet Missy Higgins, everyone, including the Prime Minister himself, seems to have forgotten exactly why he is in the Big Apple this week.

After being labeled ‘Kevin 747’ by the Opposition for his hands-on approach to international affairs, the Prime Minister has defended the trip as necessary to work on Australia’s response to the global financial crisis.

‘There’ll be one subject, one core subject on people’s mind [in New York], and that is the global response to the global financial crisis,’ he said in an interview with Sky News. When pressed further, the Prime Minister said he was heading to the UN General Assembly ‘to make Australia’s case known … on our response to the global economy, on our response to the great challenge of climate change as well as the enduring challenges of security.’

Before he writes his speech Rudd might want to check the topic of today’s conference. If he had read his briefing notes, he would know that the focus of the UN General Assembly this week is not security, climate change or the financial crisis – it’s actually poverty. Specifically, global efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015.

Economic crises, international insecurity and particularly climate change do impact the poor in profound ways but in the numerous comments Rudd has made justifying his jaunt to New York, not once has he mentioned the MDGs or the urgent need to combat global poverty and inequality. This is a worrying reflection of Rudd’s supposed commitment to addressing poverty in our region.

The MDGs are not perfect. Their one size fits all, top-down approach does little to address the social justice dimensions of global poverty. Despite their shortcomings, however, the MDGs have for the first time managed to unite global players around the single goal of addressing global poverty. We are now placed at the crucial half way point on the road to 2015. It would be useful for Rudd to make some time in his busy lobbying schedule to consider exactly how far we’ve come with the MDGs and what is yet to be achieved by 2015.

The short answer is that there is still a long way to go.

In the case of Australia’s closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, the most recent progress report by UNDP grades the country ‘very unlikely’ to meet even one of the eight MDGs by 2015. It’s a similar situation in the Solomon Islands and Fiji where poverty and health indicators suggest the situation is getting worse, not better.
There have been some success stories in Asia and Latin America but global progress towards the MDGs has been slow; African states are lagging particularly badly.

A key reason for the poor progress so far is the failure of developed countries to fulfill their end of the MDG targets. In particular, that of providing 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income (GNI) as aid by 2015. To date only five countries have met this target and over half of the OECD donor countries (including Australia) are not expected to meet this goal by 2015.

The Rudd government has pledged to increase Australia’s aid to 0.5 per cent of it’s GNI by 2015 but even that less ambitious target won’t be met unless the existing aid budget is scaled up significantly.

More significant than the amount of aid provided is the quality of the aid program. As an AID/WATCH report revealed last year, under the Howard government, up to one third of Australia’s $3.1 billion aid program wasn’t being directed at poverty alleviation at all. Instead it was focused on national security and foreign policy objectives, as well as repaying Iraqi debt – much of which was accrued during the Australian Wheat Board scandal.

For all the talk of re-orienting the aid program towards the MDGs and establishing ‘partnership approaches’ to regional development, it’s difficult to see how the Rudd Government’s approach will differ substantially from the Howard years.

The 2006 Aid White Paper, developed under Alexander Downer, remains the backbone of the aid program despite the criticism received in its OECD-DAC Peer Review for being overly concerned with economic growth and not focusing enough on poverty alleviation. The focus on ‘good governance’ also remains in the face of a wealth of evidence (including a recent report from the Lowy Institute) that this approach won’t be enough to meet the MDGs.

Efforts to redress Australia’s poor support for multilateral efforts to meet the MDGs are certainly welcome, as is the commitment to increase spending on water and sanitation by $300 million. But on the bilateral front health spending has stagnated and when inflation is factored in, education aid has actually decreased. These are alarming signs given that the MDGs are large focused on improvement in health and education. Similarly, at $150 million over three years, funding to assist our regional neighbors combat climate change remains extremely low considering the impact global warming will have on the poor in the Pacific.

More concerning still is the continuing preference for Technical Assistance and aid conditionality within the aid program. A report by AusAID’s Office of Development Effectiveness earlier this year showed that half of Australia’s aid is delivered by highly paid foreign consultants, more than double the OECD average. The Rudd Government has not indicated that this will change any time soon.

Similarly, while Australia has officially untied its aid program, Rudd seems determined to continue the new forms of aid tying introduced by Howard through so-called ‘performance-based’ aid initiatives. These conditions go far beyond the basic fiduciary accountability requirements and are in direct opposition to the principle of aid predictability, reaffirmed in the last month’s High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra.

Given the urgent challenge of meeting the Millennium Development Goals, Rudd should be applauded for making the trip to New York this week. But he would do well to remember that the financial crisis facing the developed world at the moment is felt ten times over in the majority world every single day. Australia still has a long way to go before we can genuinely say we are doing our fair share to address poverty and inequality in our region.