Jeni Whalan's post on the issues that should get more attention in Australia's aid debate is full of good ideas. But can I suggest we add another issue to her list of things that need to be debated: what is Australian aid trying to achieve?

The need for us to think about this question more deeply is clear enough from this passage in Jeni's post. She says participants in the aid debate need to...

...establish a few initial parameters. For starters, aid is not benevolent charity, but neither is it an extravagance that Australia can't afford. More aid does not necessarily produce better development, but aid is neither dead (the case from the political right) nor a neo-colonial instrument of oppression (the case from the left).

So, this tells us what aid is not. But what is it, then? What are the objectives of the aid program? In particular, if it is not charity, not something we altruistically do for others, then presumably we do it for ourselves. So we need to know as clearly as possible what it is supposed to be doing for us before we can begin any useful debate about whether it is working.

Now Jeni would probably file me away in the category of what she calls 'aid sceptics (who usually have little other engagement with development policy)'. I plead guilty to the second charge, but I'm not so sure about the first. I don't see myself as an aid sceptic. I can easily be persuaded that aid is good policy and worth spending money on. But first we have to know what it is for.

I am sceptical that we can rigorously debate how to spend the aid budget until we are clear about what aid is trying to achieve. And I am sceptical that we can rigorously debate the size of the aid budget against other government spending priorities until we can compare the cost-effectiveness of aid against other forms of spending in achieving overarching national objectives. Which of course means we need to know what the overarching objectives are that aid is supposed to support. Can I suggest that this question needs to go at the top of the list of issues to be debated?

Photo by Flickr user Bethan.