Trevor Flugge, the wheat farmer from Western Australia who recently appeared on the front of a national newspaper smiling, shirtless, sweating and aiming a handgun at the camera, may not be the first person you would associate with Australian aid. But Flugge became the face of the Australian aid program in Iraq when on 28 April 2003 he received a seemingly open-ended AusAID contract to the value of $679,345.70.
Representing Australian taxpayers, Flugge’s position with AusAID was to provide high-level advice on agriculture reforms and food security issues to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture.
A former Director of the Australian Wheat Board and later the privatised AWB, Flugge had considerable experience as a grain trader, but his appointment was criticised by Oxfam International due to his lack of specialist expertise in agricultural development. Oxfam argued that the Australian Government was blatantly putting the interests of Australian business, in this case wheat farmers, before the development needs of the people of Iraq.
If Flugge’s job was to ensure the growth of Australian wheat exports to Iraq, then his mission was certainly successful. In the year prior to his appointment, Australia exported 1.03 million tonnes of wheat to Iraq. By 2005 this figure had grown by over 50 per cent to 1.55 million tonnes, ensuring Iraq remained one of the Australian wheat industry’s most crucial export destinations.
Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian
While the interests of Australian wheat farmers were well served, it seems the people of Iraq did not fare so well. In August 2005 the World Food Program found that:
… approximately 25 per cent of the Iraqi population is highly dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS). Some 2.6 million people (11 per cent of the population) are extremely poor and vulnerable to food insecurity. An additional 3.6 million people are highly likely to become food insecure if they are not provided with the PDS rations.
The problems with food aid are well understood. A report by the OECD last year found that delivering food aid from donor countries was inefficient in every regard except supporting the interests of the donor’s own commercial interests.
In March 2003, 100,000 tonnes of Australian wheat was sailing towards Iraq to fulfill a contract under the Oil for Food program. When the war was announced by President Bush on March 20, the shipload was cunningly transformed by the Australian Government from contracted wheat likely to sit and rot as the war raged to humanitarian food aid. An AusAID release from 21 March announced: ‘The Government has today decided to provide 100,000 tonnes of Australian wheat to Iraq in the form of humanitarian food assistance.’
It continued: ‘Today’s decision reflects the Government’s concern that the welfare of the Iraqi people be safeguarded as a consequence of military operations in Iraq.’
The wheat, conveniently ‘just three days steaming from Iraq’ when the decision was announced, was of course from the AWB and, if nothing else, confirms that the Government and AWB were in very close contact throughout this period.
The current objective of Australia’s aid program is ‘to advance Australia’s national interest through the alleviation of poverty and the promotion of sustainable development.’ In practice, the ‘national interest’ appears to translate to ‘commercial and strategic interest.’
The ethics of using the aid program for such narrow and domestic interests are difficult to reconcile and raise the question: are projects that do not have some commercial or strategic advantage to Australia therefore not funded, regardless of their positive impact?
As the controversy surrounding the use of corrupt payments by AWB continues to rage, the fact that aid is being used to advance Australian business and strategic interests manages to escape serious scrutiny.
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