WITH characteristic aggression laced with a splash of paternalism, Australia's international development minister, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, has rejected a Papua New Guinean government request to restructure the way development aid is delivered.
At bilateral talks last month, the PNG government unexpectedly requested Australia to convert its $558 million annual aid program to provide direct assistance to the PNG budget.
At the time, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop said the request would be considered but now Senator Fierravanti-Wells has overruled the proposal.
"We will look at that, but suffice to say that in the past this request has been made and in the past this request has not been acceded to," she told Fairfax Media.
"Aid is not charity. We refer to it as aid but it's actually overseas development assistance. That's what it is - helping countries to develop and to get on their feet and to end up building their own systems.
"The bigger picture is confidence in the system and ensuring the Australian public does understand where their money is being spent, why we're spending it in particular areas and more importantly, what is the direct benefit to the Australian public of that spending?"
The senator said that “there are certain elements of the political spectrum that do not believe that we should be spending money on overseas development.
"We owe it to the taxpayers to ensure that we are spending our aid money in a way that provides a direct benefit to them," she said.
“Australia used to cut cheques to its former colony but abandoned that approach in the early 1990s due to endemic corruption in the nation of eight million people,” reported Fairfax journalist Michael Koziol.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells said PNG was pulling its weight "in some areas" but the effectiveness of its cooperation with Australia remained an issue.
In a Facebook article you can download here, PNG lawyer and former anti-corruption chief Sam Koim said, “Although the government denies the request is driven by the cash flow crises the country is facing, it is an open secret that it is desperate for cash.
“It is arguable that the aid needs to be aligned to the PNG government’s development priorities as well as to reduce the number of consultants and middlemen who consume a significant portion of the total aid budget,” Mr Koim wrote.
“To that extent, it may also raise sovereignty issues, in that Australia should allow the government to drive its own development agenda. However, it must also be understood that it is the Australian taxpayers’ money and Australia decides the form and structure the aid should be delivered.
“As the Minister responsible for International Development stressed it, aid is not a charity.”
Mr Koim said PNG is “experiencing deepened financial crises and Australia’s intervention in such a critical time would augment the true friendship between the two countries.
“However, there are concerns that the current economic crises experienced by PNG was partly caused by mismanagement of the economy hence such assistance, though well intended, may be seen as condoning the financial malady.”
Mr Koim concluded that the present structure of Australian development aid was appropriate, writing that “sometimes, it may serve well to help a friend, by giving him not what he wants, but what he needs and I believe this is such a time.”