Tony Abbott, Aid and the National Interest

The Greens are currently running a campaign that declares “Tony Abbott has removed poverty reduction from the goals of the aid budget.” My politics lean more toward the Greens than the Coalition, but this campaign is outrageously misleading.

This was the stated objective of Australia’s government aid department prior to the Coalition coming to power:

AusAID advances the Government’s objective of assisting developing countries to reduce poverty in line with Australia’s national interest and where we have the capacity to make a difference (2013-14 Budget Portfolio Statement).

Outcome 1 is listed as

To assist developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development, in line with Australia’s national interest

This is the “change” the Abbott government has made:

From 1 November 2013, the department will advance the Government objective of assisting developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development, in line with Australia’s national interest (Portfolio Additional Estimates 2013-14)

So it’s just plainly wrong to clam poverty has been removed from the goals of the aid budget.

But neither does this mean aid will remain the same or improve. Four things are critical:

1. how aid is thought to reduce poverty;
2. how development is understood;
3. how the national interest is understood;
4. the value placed on aid.

On the first two areas the Government looks like it will place a much greater emphasis on economic growth. The updated portfolio statement referred to above includes this:

The department will deliver an effective and high-quality aid program that promotes Australia’s national interests by contributing to international economic growth and poverty reduction.

And in his speech to the World Economic Forum Prime Minister Abbott described economic growth as the key to solving almost every global problem.

Just how strongly the Government runs this line into the aid program remains to be seen, but I am waiting with apprehension. There is no doubt that economic growth is important for poor countries to sustainably lift out of poverty. But this doesn’t mean aid should be linked to economic growth. It has proven notoriously difficult for economists to demonstrate the impact of aid on economic growth, and a focus on economic growth easily bypasses the poorest. It is however clearly demonstrable that aid can impact positively on social dimensions of wellbeing, such as education, health, and public infrastructure, and that this yields strong outcomes for the poorest.

On the matter of national interest it seems there is a narrowing of focus. The notion of “the national interest” rose with the development of the modern nation state, but is notoriously difficult to agree upon.

In a democracy, the national interest is simply the set of shared priorities regarding relations with the rest of the world. It is broader than strategic interests, though they are part of it. It can include values such as human rights and democracy, if the public feels that those values are so important to its identity that it is willing to pay a price to promote them. (Rye, Joseph, “Redefining the National Interest”, Foreign Affairs, July/August, 1999)

More often than not our shared priorities regarding relations with the rest of the world are understood in terms of securing our material wellbeing. Taking this line on aid would take us into pretty dark territory, where aid would really be about giving to ourselves. I believe that we need to see our shared priorities as including our vision for a just world where everybody has sufficient to lead a decent life and experiences peace and freedom. This would place aid in an entirely different light.

Finally, regarding the value placed on the aid program, the Government sent a pretty strong signal when it abandoned the previously bipartisan commitment to increase aid by $4.5 billion over the coming three years, and Treasurer Joe Hockey justified it on the basis that we needed more money for infrastructure.

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