Last week, both Alex and John made some important points and as this debate kicks on, which has been surprising but very interesting, there seem to be two broadly-defined camps emerging:
Camp 1 — promoting Australia's aid success stories is okay but has limitations;
Camp 2 — there is no need to promote success stories at all (and in fact some responses have insinuated it is wrong to do so).
Interestingly, responses have, so far, not taken a forward-looking approach to this debate. I would like to widen the debate and look further at my other initial point — engagement. There has been very little mention of whether it is important (or not?) for the Australian Government to engage with the Australian public on the future direction of its ballooning aid program.
Australia's aid budget for 2009-10 is $3.8 billion and is set to ramp up to 0.5% of Australia's Gross National Income by 2015-16 and hit an estimated figure of $8-9 billion. In five years Australia will have one of the world's largest aid budgets, behind only the US, Japan, France, Germany and the UK if you look at current OECD development assistance figures (country donors only).
With Australia's aid budget set to more than double over the next few years surely it is both wise and fair (to the Australian public) that this will be accompanied by an increase in public engagement. By engagement I mean establishing a clear dialogue with the public over this unprecedented increase – what is the strategic vision for this additional $4-5 billion? How will this money be spent? Where will the money be spent? And while we are here asking the tough questions it may be worth asking why? Read More
John is right – an additional PR department situated within AusAID is not what is required here (there is already a communications branch that takes care of public affairs) but I would argue a more proactive organisation that engages the Australian public would in fact help to give Australia's aid program long-term sustainability.
I certainly agree with a number of the contributors to this debate that the greatest success story would in fact be an effective aid program, and that would, in many ways, speak for itself. There certainly appears to be a lot of work being undertaken in this area. However, it needs to be questioned whether, in the near future, the Australian public would support an $8-9 billion aid program it knows very little about and a program whose future strategic vision has not been effectively communicated.
What has been missed in this debate is that public support is important. Barnaby Joyce's comments on foreign aid being cut (to ease Australia inflationary pressures on food) seemed to be widely dismissed by the media, but his thoughts exposed an interesting dilemma — the government's commitment to double the aid budget by 2015 comes at the opportunity cost of spending that $4-5 billion domestically.
The 2010 Lowy Poll (from page 15) shows that public opinion is divided when it comes to Australia's aid program but I think there are also positives that can be taken from the poll's results. 55 per cent of those polled believe 'the government is currently giving the right amount of aid to developing countries' with 22 per cent believing we currently give too much and 19 per cent responded 'too little'.
It is also interesting to note that older Australians (45 years +) were 3.5 times more likely than younger Australians (18 to 29 years) to say the government is currently giving 'too much' aid. Men were also more likely to say this than women.
Developing a stronger dialogue with the Australian public does not have to come at considerable expense — the resources already exist, they just need to be given breadth and flexibility. Failure to do so could result in further division in public opinion about why the Australian Government has decided to commit to doubling the aid budget. The Australian Government should build greater public awareness around the aid program and give AusAID a voice to explain and communicate the strategic direction and vision, of Australia's soon-to-be very hefty aid program.
Photo by Flickr user michael scott, used under a Creative Commons licence.