My article was originally posted in UWA’s Pelican Magazine.
Type “Foreign Aid” into Google and you’ll get a whole bunch of different messages. You’ll get links to Australia’s foreign aid page at australia.gov.au, to Wikipedia’s entry on foreign aid, news articles about foreign aid in general, and some with the headlines “Foreign Aid Overhaul To Squeeze More Value For Money”, “Who Profits From Our Foreign Aid?” and “The shame that is Abbott’s foreign aid policy”.
Foreign aid is a topic that has different opinions vying for prime position on the Google results page. Foreign aid, or Official Development Assistance (ODA), is money, food, or other resources given or lent by a donor country to a recipient country (Bilateral) or to a multilateral development agency like the United Nations (Multilateral). There are many criticisms of foreign aid including its ineffectiveness and its inability to overcome an unjust international economic system. On the other hand, you have defenders passionately rebutting the critics’ claim. Yet at the core of things, no one denies the importance of aid in humanitarian crises.
The history of foreign aid is an interesting one. Australia’s aid programme started before World War II when the government gave grants to Papua New Guinea, then administered by the Australian government. When Commonwealth leaders met in Colombo, Ceylon, in January 1950, they launched the Colombo Plan as a venture for the economic and social advancement of the South and Southeast Asian region through bilateral aid. Australia also hoped that the Colombo Plan would allow the United States to be involved in the region, cultivate diplomatic and commercial relations, support Japan’s rehabilitation and allow the US to play a part in the Cold War.
This isn’t the first time that a country used their foreign aid plan to promote diplomatic and political aims during times of conflict. Countries often use foreign aid in times of conflict to promote values of “democracy, human rights, and development”, with the belief that if these values are promoted, then the more stable and peaceful the world will become. This was an underlying theme of American foreign policy during the Cold War when foreign aid was used to promote democracy and the idea of free-markets. America was concerned about the “expansive tendencies of the Soviet Union”, and felt that to help regional security within western and northern Europe was to promote the integration of Western European economies. By promoting the integration of Western European economies, it backed US State Department official George F. Kennan’s call for “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” and America’s political interests in the region.
Theories underpinning development and foreign aid have changed quite dramatically over the years. The 1950s and 60s saw a focus on modernisation through a ‘one size fits all’ linear, economically centred development philosophy. The 1970s to the present time saw it change to widespread structural economic packages applied to the ‘developing’ world by global economic institutions to a more complex and culturally sensitive human-rights based approach. These changes have been largely in response to a significant increase in the amount and sophistication of empirical evidence from poverty-stricken regions of the world detailing success and failure of various programmes. Our understanding of poverty and its underlying factors has improved immeasurably.
In our modern age of non-traditional security actors and concerns in a post 9/11 world, the political stability and security within our Asia-Pacific region is critical. As Australia lies geographically close to areas of conflict, it is not surprising that our foreign policy, including our foreign aid programme, focuses on conflict prevention, conflict reduction and humanitarian relief, as well as post-conflict recovery and peace building.
We only need to look at our close neighbour Timor-Leste’s (East Timor’s) history to see how successful foreign aid can be in helping fragile countries build up infrastructure and establish peace through community development. Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony from mid-16th Century until 1975. It was then independent for only nine days before being invaded by Indonesia. After four centuries of occupation, Timor-Leste was internationally recognised as an independent nation in 2002. Timor-Leste’s turbulent history, marked with violence, led to 75 percent of its population being displaced before the UN peacekeeping force could arrive in 1999. Because of this, today 75 percent of East Timorese live in rural areas, and 37 percent live on the extreme poverty line of less than US$1.25 a day.
Since its independence, Australia has been Timor-Leste’s biggest development partner. Our foreign aid has assisted Timor-Leste in improving governance allowing its administration to take increasing ownership for poverty reduction efforts. Through helping Timor-Leste invest in strong governing infrastructure, as well as helping them to build a level of resilience to financial, social and emotional effects of disaster, the aid program is helping to minimise conflict and provide support in restoring the basis for development post conflict.
Foreign aid helps rebuild communities after conflict and sustainably develops communities during peace however Abbott’s drastic cuts are undermining success. The Government’s decision to go through private contractors, Coffey and GRM International, has meant that NGOs overseas have to undercut each other in order for their bid to win funding from the Australian government. By undercutting and undermining each other, the quality of programs enabling the extreme poor to get out of the poverty trap through vocational training, secondary and primary education suffers in a race for efficiency.
Foreign aid will always play a role in times of war and conflict, but for it to be effective, foreign aid cannot be tied to domestic political concerns and policies but rather consistent and sustainable. As a relatively rich and stable country in our region, Australia needs to show leadership in investing in the security, stability and development of our region. This means keeping to the once bipartisan promise of 0.5 percent of GNI for foreign aid.