Colonising with Aid


‘PM out, good governance now!’ is the chant that greets the palms swaying in the gentle morning breeze and the waves lapping the shore of a tropical idyll, not too far to our north.



The year is 2008 and an angry mob has gathered with the aim of overthrowing a government that has consistently failed to deliver basic services to the majority of its citizens. Led by a charismatic young man recently returned from Australia, where he received his PhD in Economics, many of those involved have also recently completed a course funded by AusAID aimed at strengthening civil society and boosting good governance.

Such a scenario would put Australia in a very tricky situation. But it is a likely scenario in the wake of the new approach Australia is pursuing through its aid program.
One of the approaches outlined in the White Paper on Aid which was released by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in April is a reinvention of the Colombo Plan, which was an intergovernmental aid organisation set up in 1950 to encourage economic and technical co-operation in South and South East Asia. (In the Australian context, the Colombo Plan is usually remembered for its role in educating many of the regions elites in the 1950s and 1960s.) The aim of this new leadership training program is to skill up young leaders in the nations that receive our aid so that they can think, act and talk like us. A key problem with this approach, apart from the obvious cultural impact, is what role these new ‘leaders’ will have.

Over the last two decades, Australia has spent enormous sums on education scholarships in our overseas aid program, with little apparent impact. In the new leadership training program, will the leaders go back to their countries and overthrow their elected governments, as the above scenario suggests thereby becoming the new elites. Or will these newly educated leaders like many before them become part of the brain drain from their countries and hop on the next flight to Sydney, where so many more opportunities exist?

Australia’s plan to colonise the consciousness of the next generation of Pacific leaders, as suggested in the White Paper, lacks specific detail but it does conjure up lots of potential hazards for an expansionist foreign policy. The Howard Government’s focus on expanding its influence throughout the Pacific region can be traced back to Timor in 1999. Since that successful venture there has been the troubled Solomons intervention, the failed attempt to intervene in PNG via the Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP), rising tensions with Indonesia over Papua, and now, again, dramas in Timor. The odds don’t look great.

The raging mob of my opening scene all either trained in Australia under the newly announced leadership program or trained in the recipient country through a beefed-up good governance program, and all set on the downfall of their Prime Minister is but one possible scenario.

Consider a few more. Alfredo Reinado, the charismatic young soldier at the centre of a group of military insurrectionists in East Timor, has spent a significant amount of time in Australia at the pleasure of Her Majesty’s Australian Government most recently, being trained at the Australian Command and Staff College in Canberra. How will his government and people see him and his connection with Australia when the present troubles subside? Such issues are likely to continue to dog our regional relations if Australia pursues this expanding foreign policy focus.

The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomons Islands (RAMSI), which began as Operation Helpem Fren in July 2003, was a response to the growing civil unrest fuelled by ethnic conflict that had been growing in the Solomons for over a decade. Previous requests to Australia from the Solomon Islands Government (SIG) for assistance had been refused although, what impact an earlier intervention would have had is now a moot point. To Australia’s credit, a long-term approach was taken from the beginning. However, while the first phase of removing weapons was very successful, the longer-term aim of maintaining the peace has proved more difficult, as the recent riots in Honiara illustrate. Whilst the latest election was deemed to be free and fair, the real wrangling began in the rush to be PM. Relations between Australia and SIG now appear very strained.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Fresh from the success of the initial stages of RAMSI, Foreign Minister Downer announced an intervention in PNG via the Enhanced Co-operation Program (ECP). A well-intentioned though badly thought-out strategy, the ECP mirrored the worst kind of ‘aid’ practice. Designed in Australia, outside of the organisation with the development mandate and by those with little experience of operating in PNG, the ECP was resisted by the PNG Government.

Threatened with the of loss of their aid program and 20 per cent of their Budget the PNG Government was forced to relent. Finally, the ECP came to grief on the rocky shores of the PNG High Court, which found the ‘indemnity from prosecution’ clause that the Australian Federal Police were demanding to be unconstitutional. Hence the police, already deployed and active, were flown home. Tens of millions of Aussie taxpayer dollars were wasted and relations between the two governments were heavily strained.

Early in 2006, a boatload of West Papuans landed on the Queensland coast, propelling the issue of human rights abuses in West Papua onto the front pages of newspapers around the region and garnering much public support from ordinary Australians. In the process, the courageous navigators upended the warm fuzzy boat of bilateral relations that had been developing between Jakarta and Canberra.

Meanwhile, back in East Timor, where a split appears to have emerged in the top leadership, the self-appointed Regional Sheriff has again been called in to assist. The Australian Government has firmly sided with the popular President, Xanana Gusmao, but the resilient Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri seems not so keen to shift. If Alkatiri stays put, this will create further tensions in relations between the two governments.

See a pattern emerging? Australia’s continual bilateral interventions in the region have made us few friends in the governments of any of the countries where we’ve intervened. While there are always conflicts in international relations, our current record seems to suggest we are doing something very wrong.

A key failing of Australia’s international interventions has been the tacit nature of the multilateral support we have garnered. There were several other (token) countries involved in RAMSI, none were involved in the PNG ECP fiasco, and now there is little real outside support in East Timor. While such an approach reflects the USA’s increasing preference for unilateral engagement, failing to utilise international frameworks and institutions leaves us very vulnerable should things go wrong as they often do.

The new approach promoted by the White Paper on Aid will not deliver stability in our region. The idea that development flows from economic growth does not have a great track record, particularly in terms of equity and key tensions remain around Australia’s promotion of economic growth as the main objective
of its aid program. At the same time, the good governance agenda continues to create tensions, particularly with those currently in power. These tenets will continue to promote suspicion among aid recipients.

To ensure long-term stability in our immediate region we need to work harder on improving the multilateral relationships that already exist. Prevention is always preferable to reacting to disasters and, again, the White Paper does little to move Australia onto the front foot in this regard. Where prevention fails, our interventions need to be auspiced by the UN and not prone to the vagaries of political whim, as they are today.

As Hugh White said at a recent PNG update for the Lowy Institute ‘multilateralism is a pain in the arse’ but it really is the only sustainable alternative.

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.