RICHARD MOORE | Canberra Times | Extract
CANBERRA - So here we are. Almost five years after the start of the Abbott government's 30% cut to Australia's international development cooperation, we have talk of more cuts.
Fairfax Media reported last week another 10% may be lopped off Australian aid in the May budget. Coming a mere three days after the OECD castigated Australia for spending so little, it illustrates contemptuously the aid sector's lack of impact and influence.
The chances are the media report was leaked by those who support further cuts – or by those who oppose them! It is a test of whether this is an easy budget saving or whether it will have a political sting.
But more importantly, this mooted measure is a test of whether the Turnbull government has a strategic, long-term vision of how we work with countries in the region, to mutual advantage. Further reducing our capacity to do so would be national negligence.
Conservative governments typically start with a sceptical view of ‘foreign aid’ but, in time, come to realise just what development cooperation can achieve.
John Howard reset the relationship with Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami with a $1 billion investment that delivered one of the world's best development programs. Unfortunately, there's little sign of such a renaissance in the border-force era.
How the Asia-Pacific region fares, how it works together, and the rules and values that predominate are critical to our future. Belatedly, we seem to be recognising this, but are showing signs of panic over the rise of China and its influence on regional countries.
Our development programs can help here – addressing common problems, building enduring partnerships, strengthening our regional reputation – but, unfortunately, we have settled for a very limited, inadequate and shrinking role for ‘aid’.
If aid is just charity for the poor, the regional case for it is clearly diminishing. However, if it's about working collaboratively to reduce threats to stability – including accelerating inequality – and build the governance, norms and modes of cooperation that allow us all to prosper, then the case has never been stronger, especially in Asia.
Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop understand this, but many others in parliament and the bureaucracy do not. A complete change of tack is required.
We must recognise that NGO and government assistance are different products and stop trying to turn one into the other. We should separate aid and development cooperation so that each can be presented, funded and organised to suit its purposes.
‘Aid’ would be what the public takes it to be: emergency assistance, direct poverty-alleviation programs and support for non-government grassroots efforts.
It would often be welfare-related and have as a purpose the immediate alleviation of deprivation. It would be needs-based, with less emphasis on geographical focus. As a much smaller part of the whole, it might be easier to win aid increases.
Development cooperation, on the other hand, would have a long-term focus and a much more overt national-interest rationale. The objective would not be to underwrite a trade deal here or an asylum-seeker agreement there, but to focus relentlessly and rigorously on what is needed to maximise long-term regional development in our neighbourhood.
It would be policy, institution and systems-focussed, rather than project-based. It would have a high intellectual content and help drive policy coherence across our diplomatic, security and economic agendas. Funding decisions could then be made rationally on the basis of much better-informed consideration of international threats, opportunities and shared interests.
Unfortunately, Australia has settled for a very limited, inadequate and shrinking role for 'aid'.
Richard Moore is a former deputy director-general of AusAID