by Stephen Grenville AO, consultant on financial sector issues in East Asia and Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy
There are so many issues, it’s hard to know where to start. But one old chestnut that needs revisiting is the geographical spread of AusAID’s activities.
The geographical distribution is a reflection of the myriad (often conflicting) pressures every aid program faces. To placate those who want to do something about poverty wherever they see it, AusAID’s funds are widely spread, including to the high-visibility poverty cases in Africa. This wide dispersal may also reflect the pleadings of our diplomatic representatives in these countries as they try to bolster the relevance of their positions. A much more important factor currently driving this scatter-gun distribution is our effort to win a UN Security Council seat. The FIFA bid should remind us how futile these things can be.
The case for narrowing the geographic distribution is strong. There are plenty of poor people in the countries closer to us, which (incidentally but additionally), have more strategic importance. Almost half the Indonesian population lives on less than two dollars a day. If we think that AusAID can shore up and reform failing governments, there are enough of those in the Pacific. Thus there is plenty to do close to home.
But the most powerful argument is about administering the program. Sure, aid funds are in short supply. The greater shortage, however, is effective and expert administration. Effective implementation requires detailed knowledge of the recipient country and a sharply focused experience of what can and can’t be done with foreign aid. New Zealand’s special interest in the Pacific demonstrates how geographic focus allows the accumulation of deep expertise.
All this was said a long time ago.
Here is a quote from Bob McMullan, formerly Parliamentary Secretary for International Development, at a conference at Deakin University in 1989:
"... the foreign affairs argument ... will inevitably influence the regional focus of our aid contribution. This regional focus is also influenced by efficiency criteria, ie. Australia can more efficiently manage an aid program in its region than one spread thinly around the world. Furthermore, seen in the context of international aid volumes, Australia can make a substantial contribution in our region whereas we make only a minor increment to a major concern when we spread ourselves to remote countries where the need may be greater. It is the not unfamiliar distinction between talking about important things and doing something important. Australia talking about the poverty in Mali will make us all feel better. Spreading our aid budget so thinly that we wish to make a contribution in Mali as well as Vanuatu; in Haiti was well as Indonesia, will simply mean that the impact of our aid on the poverty of individuals around the world will be the less because we are spreading our managerial and our financial resources too thinly."