Lowy Institute

Debate: Australian aid to Africa

Learn more about Interpreter debates  |  View debate archive.

Reverse order

Order: earliest first

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, writes:

One element of Tony Abbott's speech on foreign policy which has received little attention was his pledge that the 'Coalition would match the government's commitments on overseas aid' — that is, to increase spending to 0.5% of Gross National Income by 2015/16.

This is good news but also puts the onus on the Coalition (and for that matter the Government) to clearly outline how the increased spending — essentially a doubling of the current budget of approximately $4 billion — would be directed. Mr Abbott's only comment on the future direction of the aid program was to signal a reduction of spending on Africa. This is regrettable; the need remains on that continent and Australia has much to contribute, and anyway Australia only spends 4.3% of its overall aid program on Africa.

It's to be hoped that Mr Abbott and his Foreign Affairs (and International Development) spokesperson Ms Julie Bishop step up to the plate in the coming months with a detailed aid and development policy.

I'm slightly surprised by Andrew's reaction to Abbott's comments on aid to Africa. There's no debating that the need is real in Africa, but that's clearly true of our region too. And given the persistent fear that our Africa spending is motivated by the Government's bid for a UN Security Council seat, isn't Oxfam concerned that the modest contributions we do make to Africa are misallocated toward headline-making projects rather than long-term development? 

Comments

Joel Negin is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and co-author of a Lowy Institute Policy Brief on Australian aid to Africa.

Sam notes the 'persistent fear' that the Government is only increasing interest in and funding to Africa in order to win a Security Council seat. This 'fear' has been promulgated by a small number of commentators including those at the Lowy Institute and, yes, those comments have made headlines. But those commentators can't have it both ways — creating headlines by accusing the Government of focusing on Africa only for Security Council votes; and then turning around and saying that the aid to Africa is mis-allocated because it creates headlines. 

The investments Australia is making in Africa are long-term development activities including water and sanitation, sustainable local agricultural systems and education. Sam seems to think that Australian engagement is to make headlines, but when was the last time he saw a headline about a latrine in Tanzania or fertiliser being distributed to farmers in Zambia? 

In Africa, AusAID has an opportunity to position itself as a flexible and responsive niche player working closely with government to address neglected areas. Early signs suggest that this is the emerging direction of AusAID's engagement rather than the suggested headline-grabbers.

The suggestion that Australian engagement with Africa is largely motivated by the Security Council issue just doesn't ring true for me, for a few reasons. 

Read More

In its engagement with Africa, the Government is only following the business, cultural, NGO and academic communities who have been building their engagement for years. Australian people, organisations and businesses are already invested in Africa's progress (and not because of the Security Council) and the Government is now supporting that move with its own diplomatic investment. 

Furthermore, if it is true that Australia is only increasing aid funding to Africa to get votes, then it is doing a very poor job of it. Luxembourg and Finland are Australia's Security Council competitors and, in 2008, they both gave considerably more to Africa in terms of aid than did Australia. According to the OECD, in US$ millions, Australia gave 80, Luxembourg 137 and Finland 262. If aid to Africa were just to win Security Council votes, one would think that Australia would jump ahead of Finland's contribution, but that is not the case.

Photo by Flickr user Yang and Yun's Album, used under a Creative Commons license.

Hide
Comments

As one of those at the Lowy Institute who has claimed Australian aid to Africa is motivated by Australia's bid for a temporary seat at the UN Security Council in 2013-14, I feel compelled by Joel Negin's post to explain my thinking.

DFAT's own promotional brochure for its UNSC candidature claims Australia is an active partner in global efforts to realise the Millennium Development Goals. Progress in achieving the MDGs is slowest in sub-Saharan Africa, so if Australia wants to be recognised by the international community as a player in eradicating poverty, it has to increase the visibility of its aid efforts in Africa.

Australia increased aid to Africa by over 40% to an estimated $165.2 million in 2009-10. The Rudd Government has indicated Africa will benefit from its scaling up of the aid program towards an ultimate target of 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015-16. 

Any country bidding for a temporary UNSC seat cannot ignore Africa. The African bloc at the UN has 53 member states. Australia's relations with all but a few of them are narrow and in many cases non-existent. Canberra will need to work hard to attract African votes. 

The normally cautious Rudd Government has undertaken the task of ramping up engagement with Africa at great speed, which suggests it is concerned about more than 'following the business...community', as Joel suggests. Indeed, this DFAT summary outlines three priorities for engagement with Africa – trade and investment, development cooperation and peace and security. 

Read More

Trade in goods and services with Africa has grown by 7.8% over the last five years but still only accounts for A$8.3 billion or 1.5 per cent of Australia's global trade. Australian investment presents a better story, estimated to be worth up to US$20 billion. But Australian trade and investment is unlikely to translate automatically to recognition of Australia in a UN context. Unlike China, the Australian Government does not direct the Australian private sector's decisions or put its stamp all over Australian foreign investment or Australian goods and services. 

The delivery of aid is by far the easiest way to achieve recognition of Australia in Africa. Increasing the number of scholarships available to African students and increasing allocations to AusAID's NGO partners and UN agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance is relatively simple, especially in the context of an expanding aid program. It does not require the same bureaucratic expertise as the delivery of complex aid programs in PNG and Indonesia.

Australia may be less direct than some others about linking its aid to support for its international candidatures. Canberra prefers to rely on its international standing and implicit understanding of the benefits of its aid program to obtain support rather than offering a cheque in return for a written commitment. But it still has an expectation of a return on its investment in building Australia's reputation. 

In delivering the aid budget last year, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said:

Australia's standing as a good international citizen, working regionally and internationally, is critical to promoting and advancing Australia's foreign policy and national interests.  A strong and effective aid program advances Australia's reputation and our influence in the international community. Our aid program is not separate from our foreign policy. It is a crucial part of it.

Just as the UNSC candidature is important to promoting Australian foreign policy interests, so is the aid program.  Happily for some projects in Africa, the Australian Government has decided that its standing as a good international citizen – a key plank of its UNSC campaign — will be enhanced by funding them.

Photo by Flickr user dpup, used under a Creative Commons license.

Hide
Comments

Australia’s delivery of aid, and in particular, the motivation behind Australia’s increasing aid to Africa has received a bit of attention on The Interpreter this past fortnight. Debating Australia’s increasing aid funding to Africa is a difficult one as the opportunity cost of giving increasing amounts of aid there means less is going towards our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific.

The needs of Africa are enormous and are being served by an almost equally enormous swarm of country donors, multilateral donors, NGOs, the private sector and philanthropists (aka Bill Gates and Bono).

There is always room for more assistance but I am not confident AusAID could be the nimble and responsive player Joel Negin suggests.  Last year’s Australian National Audit Office report indicated otherwise.

A UN Security Council bid certainly muddies the waters and confuses the potential positive impact with the ethical motivations behind its aid.

I am less concerned with where the aid is going and more concerned with how much we actually give after seeing the latest figures released by the OECD that show Australia is not as generous as I had thought. It falls well below the average country effort of 0.48% of gross national income (GNI) and is less than half of the UN’s 0.7% target — coming in at 0.29% by the OECD’s calculations or 0.34% by the Australian Government’s reporting measures.

Australia’s aid budget for 2009-10 is $3.8 billion which seems a significant figure. As a comparison however, Read More

the Australia Defence Force is spending more than that to acquire just half a dozen Wedgetail military aircraft. It really does seem like Australia gives the world’s poor little more than our spare change.

The Australian Government has made a commitment to increase its official development assistance to GNI ratio to 0.5 per cent by 2015‑16. The last budget increase following this announcement was constrained by the demands of the global financial crisis — as to be fair, were aid budgets in many OECD countries. However, bucking this trend are France, the UK and the US that have all seen large increases in their aid budgets this past year and no surprise to see Finland and Luxembourg paving the way as well.

Next week’s aid budget increase will need to be higher if the government wants to demonstrate it is serious about upscaling in a sustainable fashion, rather than backloading its commitment after the election. Let’s hope the government doesn’t reach for excuses and instead proves its commitment to doing all it can to assist people living in developing countries, who are in a less fortunate position than ourselves.  

Photo by Flickr user riacale, used under a Creative Commons license.

Hide
Comments
Loading...