By Anthony Bubalo, Program Director, West Asia, Lowy Institute
The Arab uprisings, the West’s military intervention in Libya and the activist role played by Foreign Minister Rudd on both issues have thrown Australia’s development aid to West Asia (the Middle East, Central and Southwest Asia) into sharper relief.
Less than a decade ago, Australia gave a relatively small amount of aid to the region - some $9.9 million in 2001-02 on the Middle East and $4.5 million on Pakistan. According to the government’s budget estimate, in 2010-11 Australia’s aid to West Asia will have grown to $273.8 million (and that is not counting the recent announcement of $15 million for Libya).
There are two obvious explanations for this spectacular increase: Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan. Both account for the bulk of this assistance, although there has been a steady increase in aid to the Palestinian Authority as well.
It is fair to say that much of this growth has been contingent and reactive. We found ourselves, for foreign policy reasons, engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and our aid policy tagged along for the ride.
Of course, a lot of foreign policy, and I suspect, a lot of overseas development policy, gets made this way. Nevertheless, we have gone from sending a nominal few million to West Asia, largely by writing cheques to the UN and NGOs, to spending more than 6 per cent of our total ODA budget.
This begs a couple of questions: is such spending justified in terms of our overall foreign and aid priorities? Is there a strategy or even some relatively coherent medium-term plan associated with it?
At the risk, indeed in the hope, of incurring howls of protest from the ‘we should be focusing on the Asia Pacific’ crowd, let me argue that, however we got to this level of aid, it is entirely justified by our interests in the region. In fact, I would argue we will probably need to spend more.
Foreign Minister Rudd has done a decent job at spelling out why this is the case. He is right to argue that the future socio-economic and political evolution of the Middle East (but I would also include Southwest Asia) will impact on everything from the price we pay for our petrol, to the terrorist threat we face, to refugee and people trafficking flows and to the pace of the global economic recovery.
Australia is never going to be a decisive player in West Asia, but as a reasonably wealthy, fairly well-educated, technically capable, outward looking country we have the capacity and resources to make a meaningful contribution to the region’s development.
Indeed, the Middle East’s current political upheaval offers that possibility of transforming the West’s - and Australia’s - relationship with the Middle East. For much of its modern history the West's engagement has been a negative one. That is, we bomb, sanction and peacekeep, because of something that is going wrong in the region. Now, there is an opportunity for a positive engagement with the region based on something good that is happening in the region.
Take for example the West’s military intervention in Libya. It may have been necessary and right (even if I am not sure it is smart), but we will still cop flack for having double standards (when we don’t do the same or similar in other countries), or for killing civilians - and that’s even if the thing works. By contrast, if we support the democratic transition in Egypt with money and expertise we provide a more positive example of the West’s engagement in the region as well as having a greater impact on the region’s potential transformation than Ghaddafi’s removal will ever have (much as I would like to see that too).
As Rudd rightly notes, Australia has the added advantage that in supporting these transitions we do not carry the colonial baggage of other western countries in the region. We also have experience of supporting Indonesia’s not dissimilar political transition to draw on - particularly the role played there by the Australian Electoral Commission. All of this would seem fairly uncontroversial except for the fact that the suggestion that Australia has interests and a role in the Middle East has pretty consistently drawn everything from quiet to dismissal to open scorn from many of our foreign policy practitioners and observers.
This is hardly surprising given that most in this group have made their careers focused on the ‘Asia Pacific’. But it is also reflects the dearth of official thinking about where West Asia fits into our foreign, security and aid policy landscape.
Which brings me to the second question. By definition, the reactive and contingent nature of these aid disbursements means there is probably not much of a West Asian development strategy - but correct me if I am wrong.
This is understandable. It echoes what has happened on the military and foreign policy fronts, as our presence and engagement in West Asia over the last decade has developed so rapidly that there probably has not been a lot of time to catch our breath.
Nevertheless, as we look to the future, as we try to make some coherence out of this patchwork of programs, and as the Arab uprisings, in particular, make new calls on our aid budget and our stretched diplomatic resources, it is time we defined our aims and means in West Asia, including where they sit in our overall foreign, defence and aid priorities, not just for today, but in years to come.
Image by Flickr user Oxfam International.