By Sam Byfield, Global Advocacy Adviser for Vision 2020 Australia
On 16 November last year, Foreign Minister Rudd announced that an ‘Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness’ would take place. Rudd noted that this review was ‘a timely thing to do’ and that since ‘the last time the Australian Government took a root and branch review of the aid budget was in 1996…the time has come to do it again.’
In 1984 the Hawke Government commissioned the Jackson Report; while the Howard Government undertook the Simons Review in 1996 and a decade later the first White Paper on Australia’s aid program. These reviews played an important role in revising Australia’s aid program in response to altered circumstances, and it’s likely that this current review will have real influence on the program’s future focuses, starting with the May 2011 federal budget.
The review is likely to explore the aid program’s sectoral focuses. Increases in overall aid levels have led to a perception in some quarters, both within and outside of government, that Australia’s aid program has become too stretched and that it is necessary for programs to go narrower and deeper.
The review should highlight those areas in which there is greatest need, and where Australia is best placed to make a difference. This point was highlighted in a 2008 Lowy paper on Africa. It was also a key message from the recent review of the PNG-Australia Development Cooperation Treaty, which stated that Australia should strive to back winners, to provide funding for those programs that demonstrably work.
One niche area in which Australia is playing a lead role internationally is in improving eye health and reducing levels of blindness. Globally, approximately 400 million people live with blindness and low vision caused by uncorrected refractive error, eye diseases and other conditions – an unacceptable statistic, given that 80 percent of all blindness and low vision is preventable or treatable. Eliminating avoidable blindness has a central effort to play in global efforts to achieve the MDGs – it traps people in the poverty cycle, limits employment and education opportunities, discriminates against women and girls, and reduces the dignity and quality of people’s lives.
In 2008, Australia committed $45 million to an Avoidable Blindness Initiative (ABI), which is now being implemented across the Asia Pacific. Australian agencies, building upon the work of such icons as Fred Hollows, have a long history of tackling blindness and building the capacity of health systems in developing countries, thereby reducing the need for Australian aid.
Programs to tackle avoidable blindness are cost effective and tangible. The Global Consortium’s programs focus on a range of areas and further details can be found here.
One novel element of work being undertaken under the ABI is the partnership between the Australian Government and Vision 2020 Australia’s Global Consortium, which consists of nine leading eye health NGOs. The Consortium’s approach maximises the geographic and sectoral expertise of agencies, reduces programmatic overlap and inefficiency, and ensures common quality standards and a rigorous approach to project selection. It is a terrific demonstration of what can be achieved by partnership between the Australian Government, Australian NGOs, governments across the region and other local stakeholders, and is closely aligned with the national health strategies of governments across the regions - taking forward the harmonisation and alignment agenda of the 2005 Paris Declaration.
Another area the review will explore is geographic coverage. Three quarters of Australia’s aid budget is still spent in the Pacific and East Asia, though recent increases have taken place in Africa, Central and South Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East. While it has historically made sense that the lion’s share of Australian aid be spent in our regional backyard, it is increasingly recognised that Australia has a role to play in other parts of the world - especially Africa, which has seen increases of 42 percent and 17 percent in the past two aid budgets. This is based largely on the ongoing lag in development indicators in Africa—and also recognises that closer engagement with Africa serves Australia’s national interests, for instance in lobbying for votes for Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council (it will be interesting to see if the review refers to this broader interpretation of what Australia hopes to achieve with its aid program).
Countries in Africa remain behind in efforts to achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals. One crucial reason for this is the prevalence of avoidable blindness, which is much higher than in other regions. Avoidable blindness is a key public health problem in Africa, and Australia’s leadership role in eliminating avoidable blindness in the Asia Pacific has established a strong foundation upon which to expand into Africa.
Australia’s aid program has doubled over the past five years and is set to double again over the next five years. With Australia looking to enhance the aid program’s effectiveness and justify further expansion, the Review should highlight programs like the ABI as an example of what can be achieved when need, expertise, strong service delivery models and Australian leadership come together.
Image courtesy of the International Centre for Eyecare Education