Dr Wendy Jarvie, a visiting professor at UNSW@Canberra, is an independent member of the Australian Awards selection panel for Latin America.This post draws from interviews with Latin American applicants for scholarships carried out in July 2012.

There have been disturbing signals from Liberal Party leaders on the future of Australia's engagement with Latin America. Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have talked of refocusing aid on Asia and the Pacific and of re-establishing the Colombo Plan. Neither, as far as I'm aware, has referred to the Latin American continent. The Labor Government too, while it has talked up the opportunity for business links with Latin America, has been noticeably quiet on the future of AusAID engagement.

An AusAID retreat would be a serious mistake for Australia. It would undo a small but important element of traction Australia is gaining in Latin America; it would be a loss for Latin American countries, and a loss for Australia. So here are 10 reasons to continue AusAID's engagement:

1. Stop-start relationships are sometimes worse than no relationship at all. AusAID went into Latin America in 2010, with its Australia Awards being the biggest and most visible activity. It takes years to get a scholarship program recognised, generate interest, and build up alumni that value and work on their links to Australia. Stopping the program at the end of 2014 would be seen as rejection by Latin American governments, business and education institutions, and leave Australia Awards alumni in limbo.

2. Latin American countries need help. 

  • There  are LOTS of poor people in Latin America – about 56 million live below $2 a day. This is vastly more than in the Pacific where we spend much more aid money.
  • Europe isn't a lot of help. Europe is busy fixing itself and is limiting aid.
  • The US is a mixed blessing. It takes a lot of Latin American exports and USAID is active, but America's negative influence is pervasive. Drug demand in the US is huge, and it drives violence and corruption. 'The drugs go up and the guns come down' observed one Australia Award scholarship applicant from Central America.
  • There is a limit to Brazilian aid effectiveness. Brazil gives a lot of cheap loans but is seen as a domineering power.
  • The demand for commodities from countries such as China will drive economic growth, but without social and economic assistance Latin America will at best be caught in the 'middle income trap', with increased social dislocation and inequality.

3. Latin American countries want new approaches to solving problems. Latin Americans recognise that they need 'less passion and more process'.

They know they need highly skilled people in government, NGOs and business who can manage projects, develop regulation and have an orderly approach to government. They need new ways of tackling problems, divorced from ideology and rigid positions. They are looking for frameworks and skills that support negotiation and peaceful power shifts (see the next item, on mining). They also want to be partners in development, not beneficiaries. Australia is good at all of these things.

4. Mining needs support. Mining is expected to be one of the big engines of growth and poverty alleviation in Latin America. But there are obstacles, particularly a lack of legal frameworks that protect communities and the environment and allow for negotiated, enforceable resolution of disputes. The industry's failure to alleviate local community concerns about adverse impacts from mining has been a problem in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Many Central American countries as well as Argentina could have a mining boom if governance and conflicting interests could be resolved. Australia is an expert in this. We can help.

Photo by Flickr user Jack Zalium.