In whose interest?
More often than not, Australian aid reflects our own commercial interests. Our tendency in the past and the direction set out for the future is to marry notions of ‘national-interest’ by asserting that Australia’s interests are best served by economic aid programs that benefit poor people in developing countries.
When aid programs operate in the national interest and economic paradigms, aid can often be a destructive and undermining force to communities that wish to articulate their own development. It can favour cash crops and agricultural exports over food sovereignty, a race to the bottom on labour rights, a rapid escalation in inequality and environmental damage through unmitigated resource extraction.
Here in Australia , it results in “boomerang aid” – the favouring of Australia’s commercial interests in aid delivery by funding private Australian companies, consultants, advisors and goods and services.
Most Australians imagine that the aid program is a panacea to global poverty. The stark reality is that many of our aid programs simply serve to promote Australian businesses and support the Australian ‘aid’ industry. Even more concerning is aid programs that serve to worsen the position of the poor.
Funnily enough, the Coalition Government echoes this sentiment in part – however their response is not to address the systemic causes that perpetuate poverty. The response so far has been to focus more heavily than ever on economic growth which has led to the gross income disparities which we are seeing in middle income countries, and a strong focus on trade, despite the gross global inequalities perpetuated by unfair terms of trade.
The term ‘national interest’ is usually employed by governments to refer to a unitary interest that is meant to embody the interests of the nation. The problem is that while the concept of national interest is a seductive one, it is often too broad, too general, too vague and too all-inclusive to provide a reliable guide to understanding Australia’s actual foreign policy practices. In essence, the national interest is really just a proxy for transient political and economic interests of the government and private sector of the day. This tension between what the national interest is and how to go about realising it has shaped the development of the Australia’s aid program.
Aid budget as a foreign policy instrument
Australia no longer has a dedicated aid agency. As announced by the Australian Government on October 31 2013. It is now part of the DFAT. This means that aid must be in line with the objectives of DFAT and its identification of the Australian ‘national interest’. As part of Australia’s foreign policy, DFAT defines the Australian interest as “the security and prosperity of Australians” – which encompasses both security and economic aspects. By tying our economic and security interests to the growth and stability of the neighbours in our region, the government is using foreign aid as a tool of foreign policy at the expense of poverty alleviation objectives.
Greater independence for aid delivery, away from broader ‘national interests’ would be served by the separation of the aid portfolio from DFAT, and the creation of a cabinet level minister responsible for International Development. This would be in line with the successful United Kingdom model, as outlined below.