The Abbott government may be prepared to commit half a billion dollars to a military intervention in Iraq, but earlier in the year it decided that even a single cent would be too much direct aid for the beleaguered Middle Eastern nation.
In a move at odds with the Coalition’s newfound concern for the people of Iraq, Australia’s development aid to the country wound down to zero this year, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has confirmed.
“In line with the Australian Government’s refocusing of the aid program to the Indo-Pacific region, Australia has now ended its development aid program in Iraq,” a DFAT spokesperson said.
The Coalition’s fazing out of Australia’s assistance to Iraq followed deep cuts to the aid budget, which included $4.5 billion in savings over four years and were preceded by the then Labor government’s decision to hold off on promised increases to Australia’s foreign aid.
After assuming office, the Coalition took the unusual step of implementing its aid cuts immediately, stripping $650 million from the budget handed down by Labor and reducing the amount assigned to Iraq from $16 million to just $3.7 million.
At this year’s Budget, that amount was reduced to zero.
Independent MP and former intelligence analyst and Iraq war whistleblower Andrew Wilkie described the decision to cut development aid to the country as a “deadly mistake”.
“It is self-evident that one of the foundations for peace in a country is nation building and to help a country establish the basic needs of the community – medical care, education, law and order, economic development – because if you provide a community with all of those needs they are far less likely to become radicalised and far less susceptible to the influence of trouble makers,” he said.
DFAT budget documents show Australia’s commitment to other global programs and money flowing from other departments is estimated to benefit Iraq to the cost of just $300,000 this financial year.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott pointed to the welfare of Iraq’s citizens as justification for Australia’s growing cooperation with American military actions, including the deployment of 600 defence personnel to the Middle East.
“It is right for Australia to do what it prudently and proportionately can to support international efforts to prevent the spread of ISIL, roll back its gains and alleviate suffering in Iraq,” he said.
Attorney-General George Brandis also hosed down suggestions that Australia was at war by describing the situation as a “humanitarian mission with military elements”.
But Wilkie was scathing of the Coalition.
“The government has been breathtakingly dishonest because if they genuinely cared about the humanitarian situation in Iraq they would have piled on the nation building assistance over the last eleven and a half years rather than reducing it to zero,” Wilkie said.
The changes to Australia’s aid to Iraq reflect the Coalition’s broader agenda to find massive savings in the aid budget, refocus spending in Australia’s backyard, and push for aid to be used to increase Australia’s own interests.
As part of the move, aid agency AusAID was rolled into DFAT and aid to Latin American and Caribbean nations was phased out, while assistance to sub-Saharan Africa was wound back.
The government has since offered a series of one-off assistance measures to Iraq.
In June, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop committed $5 million in emergency humanitarian assistance, used to help deliver food, medical assistance, tents, clean water and hygiene kits.
The Coalition also assigned 4,400 places in Australia’s annual refugee intake to Syrians and Iraqis, but the places will not increase Australia’s total refugee intake and thus come at the expense of other asylum seekers.
After coming to power, the Coalition lowered Australia’s annual refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,750.
While Australia has engaged in two humanitarian airdrops in northern Iraq, DFAT did not indicate any immediate plan to resurrect long-term support for the country.
“We continue to monitor developments in Iraq and will consider future funding according to the needs and our priorities,” the spokesperson said.
Aid provided to Iraq has rapidly decreased in recent years, as successive governments have chipped away at contributions.
In its 2008/09 budget, AusAID provided $366.9 million in assistance to Iraq.
That number collapsed in subsequent budgets, as the memory of Australian involvement in the American-led war faded in the mind of the electorate, and both Labor and Liberal governments raided the aid budget to help find savings and cover other costs, including the detention of asylum seekers.
Labor’s final budget saw the amount provided to Iraq level out, before the Coalition’s new round of cuts reduced it to nothing.
In January, DFAT defended the cuts, arguing Iraq’s need for assistance was waning.
“Australia is phasing out development assistance to Iraq in response to Iraq’s growing capacity to finance its own development through increased revenues from oil production,” a spokesperson told New Matilda at the time.
“Iraq is estimated to have the world’s fifth largest reserves of oil and gas, earning around US$8 billion a month in revenues. Oil production in Iraq is projected to reach 12.5 million barrels per day by 2016.”
“The reduction in Australian development assistance is in line with other major donors which are also scaling down assistance as the Iraqi Government seeks to normalise bilateral relations through trade and cultural links.”
The reassurances came in spite of growing insecurity in the country, which had just endured its deadliest year since 2008. AusAID’s 2013/14 budget also acknowledged that poverty remained a huge issue for the war ravaged state.
“Although the Iraq Government’s capacity to provide basic services is improving, overall levels of poverty are high and many Iraqis, especially women and children, still live in extreme poverty," the budget papers noted.
Wilkie dismissed DFAT’s explanation and said Australia had a special obligation to assist in the rebuilding of Iraq after helping to start the war that tore the nation apart.
“Clearly we should be accompanying our military intervention with substantial nation building aid,” he said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was approached for comment but her office had not returned NM’s calls by deadline.
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