By Dr Michael Wesley, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute
What do Australians want and expect from their government’s foreign aid program?
What should be more, less or different to make it a better program as it continues to expand now and in the future?
Four months ago, as part of the consultation process informing the team reviewing Australia’s aid program, we invited you to submit your blogs on what the program should be focusing on. The review team has finished its report which means this dedicated Lowy aid blog is also coming to an end.
During its brief life, Interpreting the Aid Review has shown very clearly that there is a disparate lot of views on what, how and where our aid program should be operating. The blogs included pieces on the familiar see-saw argument between encouraging macro-economic growth and focusing on grass roots and civil society. There was advice on how to scale up; what to do and what not to do and suggestions on innovative ways for delivering a bigger aid program.
Surprisingly, there was limited discussion about specific sectors which are almost synonymous with aid programs such as health, education and rural development. Even the discussion on women and gender issues seemed to be encouraged more by the coincidental timing of International Women’s Day in early March than a powerful, abiding concern that gender considerations should be at the centre of Australia’s aid policy. As for the Millennium Development Goals which have been the core tenet of the current government’s aid philosophy, they received scant attention.
What did attract the most words and blogs were two essentially geo-strategic issues: one was the geographic focus of the aid program (which expanded as we blogged) and the second was the emergence of non-traditional state donors, particularly China.
In the case of the geographic focus, there were strong arguments put forward warning about the risk of fragmentation and the advisability of keeping the program geographically focused and in sync with Australia’s broader national interests. The degree to which the approach to aid by non-traditional donors and notably China was covered reminds us that the operating rules for international aid programs as determined by the OECD’s long standing “aid club”, the Development Assistance Committee, are no longer the final, or at least, only word.
It’s true that a blog hosted by the Lowy institute is likely to attract contributions from people with a strong interest in geo-strategic issues. However, the breadth and depth of the topics covered by the contributions since the blog started in January were much broader than this. Overall the range and quality suggest that thinking on aid and development has moved to a new level where there is a deeper comprehension of the complexities associated with foreign aid. This is to be welcomed and encouraged.
As we move into the second phase of the review process – the release of the report and the government’s response – the Lowy Institute will continue to find ways to provide a forum for informed discussion and debate on the issues which are shaping our aid program and the policies guiding its implementation. This will be an equally important opportunity for those interested in the quality of Australia’s aid policy framework to inform the aid discussion.
Image by flickr user madhavaji.