No, taxpayers should be concerned because the government does not have a clear plan for how it is going to use that money, and prevent it being wasted.
Ten years ago the world agreed to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. This was the first of the Millennium Development Goals. Australia’s aid increases are a part of trying to achieve that objective. Increasing aid to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015 is a commitment supported by both sides of politics, and opinion polling done by the aid sector indicates the Australian public supports this too.
But consider this: there is no concrete plan or strategic framework setting out how and where this extra $4 billion will be spent in the next five years.
Matthew Morris, the deputy director of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University, asked in a recent blog: ‘How will we know what programs aid is spent on, which programs work and what results have been delivered?’ All excellent questions.
Another question is how AusAID, Australia’s international development agency, is going to keep up with the immense burden that an escalating aid budget will have on its ability to cope. An auditor-general’s report has already found the agency is struggling; staff are stressed and its turnover is high.
Some more food for thought. Twenty per cent of Australia’s existing aid budget is spent by departments other than AusAID – the Immigration Department, the Australian Federal Police and the Defence Department, for instance.
That might sound OK, until you realise that money spent on offshore immigration detention centres (like Nauru, under the Howard government and, presumably, East Timor under the Gillard government, should that go ahead) counts as foreign aid. It also might sound OK until you discover that in Afghanistan, the Australian Defence Force does not disaggregate its aid operations from military operations.
According to the Australian Council for International Development, the ADF ‘do not appear to have formally evaluated the effectiveness of their aid work’. In other words, we have no idea what the ADF has delivered in aid, and whether it worked. In Afghanistan, where the Taliban routinely blow up schools built by Western military forces, this is a significant question. The Canadian government reports in detail to parliament every three months on how aid has been spent in Afghanistan. That doesn’t happen here.
Australia also has one of the highest rates of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development donor countries for the amount of aid spent on ‘technical assistance’ or, to put it more plainly, expensive consultants. Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd has taken steps to improve this situation, but the ratio of aid money Australia spends on consultants is still one of the highest in the world.
Where does poverty eradication fit in to this murky picture, you might ask? Well, when the objective of Australia’s aid program is to assist developing countries to reduce poverty ‘in line with Australia’s national interest’, almost anything goes, doesn’t it?
So, for instance, we see aid for the first time being set aside for Central and South America. Three years ago Australia’s aid allocation to this distant region was zero, two years ago it was $20 million, and now it is $36 million. The obvious question is why is Australia spending money in a region with which it has limited connection? The United Nations Security Council bid perhaps? The more thinly aid is spread across multiple countries and programs, the greater the burden on the recipient states to manage multiple donors. So a further question becomes, is this aid to Latin America really helping?
While Australia’s aid program has its problems, what is not in doubt is that it has a person in charge who cares about it deeply. This stuff matters to Rudd.
His big challenge now is not only to set out, as transparently as possible, the Gillard government’s plan for what it is going to do with Australia’s aid money; he also has to bring public opinion along.
Rudd’s task will not be easy, in part because it requires dramatically changing a risk-averse culture, which has marked AusAID until this point, and has seen it shy away from scrutiny. There are signs the new director-general, Peter Baxter, might be changing things.
Things could be a lot harder for Australia. Take the situation in Britain. There, conservative newspapers are calling for the foreign aid budget to be cut because the coalition government is slashing public expenditure in areas of domestic policy – in some cases by up to 30 per cent – while it has quarantined, and will increase, its aid budget to 0.7 per cent of national income by 2013.
In the meantime the British government has established an Independent Commission for Aid Impact to scrutinise development spending, and has commissioned several reviews of its program. It has also announced plans to set up MyAid, which would allow members of the public to vote on how some of Britain’s aid money should be spent.
For Britain not to court public opinion on this issue – not to appear to be scrutinising its aid spending as it rises – would be foolish. With a much stronger economy, the challenge for Australia’s political leaders is nowhere near as stark. But the government should not be complacent.
Recent work done by AusAID researching community attitudes shows 77 per cent of Australians believe Australia is a ‘lucky country’ and should share its wealth. The government is obliged not to squander that goodwill.