Judging from the tone of the current Interpreter debate on aid and development, it seems that the notion of a country's aid program doing double duty by meeting both humanitarian and national interest goals is an impossibility for some. 

Hugh White wants clarity about what Australia's aid program is trying to achieve. Garth Luke wants the program to focus on what it's good at: helping the poor, leaving self-interest to other parts of government.

But the reality, Hugh and Garth, is that achieving the national interest isn't all about military might and diplomatic negotiations. It's achieved through a range of means, including soft power. And one of the most potent and better resourced soft power tools Australia has is its aid program.

Let me try to give Hugh some clarity. To delete the national interest element from the aid program's current objective would drive it underground but it would still exist. Australia's geography has dictated since the 1950s that aid is not only a good thing for Australia to do, it is also in our geostrategic and commercial interest. The objective has been refined since that time but thankfully, the unusually honest acknowledgment that the aid program can walk and chew gum at the same time is still there.

What do you think the much lauded Colombo Plan was all about? Or tell me that the $250 million in aid that goes to Solomon Islands isn't in our mutual interest. Or that the presence of Australian aid supporting the Vietnamese Government in the early days of Doi Moi wasn't in our mutual interest. Or that the extensive development cooperation we have with Indonesia (our largest recipient) isn't in our mutual interest. And then tell me that none of that has been successful on both humanitarian and national interest grounds.

As for Garth's desire for other parts of government to deal with the self-interest, does this mean they should cease supporting the humanitarian goals of the aid program? Perhaps the ADF should stay at home next time there's a humanitarian crisis in the neighbourhood. Or perhaps Foreign Affairs officials shouldn't be involved in development cooperation negotiations or international humanitarian law discussions.

AusAID isn't an NGO; it's an arm of government and sits within the Foreign Affairs portfolio. Its status as an official development agency means that it is going to be called upon to use its development expertise to support broader government objectives.

There are times when this goes too far – last week's announcement about support to Manus Island is arguably a good example of that – but there is no impenetrable boundary which quarantines the government's aid program from the broader suite of Australia's international engagement.

Indeed, if AusAID did attempt to create such a barrier, its days would be numbered on one hand.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.