Helping Others to Help Ourselves


Nobel Prize winner in economics, Amartya Sen has said that human development should be about ‘advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live.’

Our approach to aid in Australia is vastly different to Sen’s. The Australian Government believes that ‘trade not aid’ and ‘broad-based economic growth’ are central to reducing poverty.

The Commonwealth Government’s aid delivery arm is the Australian Agency for International Development, or AusAID, an autonomous body that sits under the umbrella of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). AusAID is resourced to impose ‘development’ on our less developed neighbours.

To suggest we can ‘bring development’ supposes that where we do so, there currently is none or at least less than we can offer. While adopting this position can be viewed as pessimistic, it is useful in discussing the complex nature of modern development practice. In the unequal relationship that exists between aid donor and aid recipient, allegations of neo-colonialism are never far from the surface.

The truth is that development is complex, and the trickle down nature of growth alone has not proved a panacea to the billions who continue to exist on less than US$2 per day. Further, the manner in which Australia delivers its aid program suggests that reduction of poverty is not really the main aim.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Australia’s aid objective is ‘to advance Australia’s national interest through the alleviation of poverty and the promotion of sustainable development.’ Such an objective raises an important ethical issue: does Australia provide aid when it is not considered to be in our own interest? The recent South Asian earthquake brought this dilemma to the fore.

According to the United Nations, at least 60,000 people died and more than 2.5 million required immediate shelter in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan after the earthquake. In the weeks following the disaster, as the scale of the catastrophe and urgency of the situation became evident, the UN doubled its required aid appeal to US$550 million.

The Australian Government initially provided $10 million in humanitarian assistance, the same amount we donated to the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While Australia’s final donation to earthquake-affected countries was eventually increased by $4.3 million, international aid has gone little way to meeting the urgent needs of the many affected.

The obvious question is on what grounds Australia decided to give $10 million for Hurricane Katrina, when the US is far better equipped with infrastructure and resources to deal with such a disaster than the Government of Pakistan, who face a much greater rehabilitation effort with far fewer resources.

The ‘national interest’ lens through which Australian aid is delivered raises many ethical issues, and increasingly blurs the line between reactive humanitarian aid and development, or proactive aid.

Although the common perception of aid is that it is delivered by well meaning charities (such as Oxfam, the Red Cross, and others) in response to local needs, these non-government organisations receive just under five per cent of the $2.5 billion Australian aid program.

Most Australian aid is delivered by private companies operating for profit through proactive programs and projects that aim to tackle the structural nature of poverty. Building new roads to allow access to markets, better health systems, and improved educational access are the traditional pillars of aid work, but increasingly Australia is funding so called ‘good governance’ programs instead.

In the 2005/06 financial year, good governance funding takes up 36 per cent of Australia’s entire aid budget. Its goal is economic and political reform, building stronger government institutions, the construction and running of prisons and the like.

Proactive aid projects have historically brought substantial dividend to Australian firms operating in a for-profit context. Kerry Packer, one of Australia’s most prominent businessmen, is heavily involved in the delivery of Australian aid through his company GRM (which is a subsidiary of Consolidated Pastoral Company Pty Ltd).

In 2001, GRM was  awarded a  $13 million contract to  strengthen the law and justice sector in the Solomon Islands. Observers who witnessed the sending of Australian troops to the Solomons in 2003 (as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands or ‘RAMSI’) questioned how successful this contract had been.

Yet seemingly without independent evaluation or tender, this contract was extended to more than $48 million as RAMSI moved in. Today, GRM operates the main prison outside Honiara and is involved in organising High Court trials in addition to effectively acting as ombudsman for the prison system.

Leaving aside the effectiveness of the work by GRM in the Solomons, it may be worth questioning the suitability of a company operating in the gaming sector which also has a close association with the legal sector. It’s likely such potential conflicts of interest would come under scrutiny if they were happening in Australia.

More recently, the Australian Government has used aid money for foreign policy imperatives. The Pacific Solution, designed to head off and detain asylum-seekers in offshore processing centres such as Manus Island, Christmas Island and Nauru, was funded through the Australian aid program. It is difficult to see how the program alleviated poverty or what its development outcomes were but it certainly suited the Government’s own interests.

The so called ‘$1 billion tsunami response’ by Australia was also a victim of the national interest agenda. Australia’s decision to deliver aid in direct partnership with the Indonesian Government, although edifying our relationship with our neighbour, has meant that just $190 million has been allocated to tsunami ravaged Aceh, and the remainder of the funds allocated to programs in other areas of Indonesia.

While it is arguable that these other programs including scholarships, economic and political reform and building of infrastructure are of merit, it is undoubted that they have nothing to do with the tsunami.

It is one thing to be delivering a commercial and security advantage to Australia through an aid program, but it is entirely another to limit the development future of a recipient country by pursuing our own national interest.

For Australia to ensure the stability of our region, we need to rethink the framework through which we deliver our aid, with a clear focus on human security rather than the current multifaceted approach, which is undermining recipient countries’ ability to choose their own development paths.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.