In our national interest - effective aid to the Pacific

28 April 2011

By Jenny Hayward-Jones, Program Director of the Myer Foundation Melanesia program, Lowy Institute

I’ve written before on the geographic focus of the aid program and argued that it was important we maintain our focus on our neighbourhood. 

In exploring that theme a bit further, I found there was no shortage of support for a strong focus on aid to the Pacific. 

Debate about Australian aid to Pacific Island countries draw a diverse range of views. They tend to fit into distinct schools of argument but all of them add up to a conclusion that increasing aid to the Pacific is in Australia’s national interest.

1. The national security argument
The national security arguments for aid to the Pacific were recently prosecuted by the think-tank ASPI (in this report). Some would argue the national security-aid nexus is a new one, having seemingly just been discovered by President Obama and the coalition government in the UK. But there is little that is new about this nexus – it’s just different people talking about it. A reminder that every government needs to make its own case for foreign aid spending rather than relying on the accepted orthodoxies of its predecessor.

In fact, those who argue aid should support Australia’s national security interests held sway in Canberra throughout the Howard government’s time in power – at least since 11 September 2001. Significant aid allocations to Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and Solomon Islands and the development of arguably a model 'whole of government' approach to deal with security challenges in our neighbourhood are proof of this. 

Despite a new focus on the Millennium Development Goals when the Rudd government came to power, Rudd himself (both as Prime Minister and now as Foreign Minister) has continued to define aid in terms of Australia’s national security interests. In March 2008, he said:

“a failure to act on the development challenges of the South Pacific Island states will result long term in rolling Australian military interventions, together with the risk of a large-scale influx of refugees from the region.” 

In February this year Mr Rudd said in a speech in Tasmania that national security interests were central to Australia’s aid.

2. The moral argument
Driven primarily by NGOs, this argument says that Pacific Islanders need Australian aid to lift them out of poverty or to use the correct terminology, to "assist Pacific Island countries meet the Millennium Development Goals".

3. The geography argument
Australia can’t change its geography. Australia is unusual in being a developed country surrounded by developing and in many cases fragile states. Australia has the greatest capacity to assist. Other donors expect Australia to take the lead in delivering aid to the Pacific because of our geography.

4. The demography argument
The predicted consequences of the youth bulge in Melanesia, referred to in this Graeme Dobell article, are increasingly being used to call for specific attention from the aid program.

5. The sceptics
This argument, promoted by Helen Hughes AO says aid has failed the Pacific. Others argue that Australian aid is maligned because behind every Australian aid dollar or Australian initiative, there is a demand from the Australian government for a quid pro quo.  Opposition to the Australian government’s support of PACER Plus trade negotiations is a case in point. But even these arguments acknowledge that Australia has a vital role to play in the region.

6. The diplomatic argument
The Pacific Islands region offers rich pickings for countries seeking UN votes, which we have written about and debated on The Interpreter at length. I would really like to argue that Australian international diplomatic objectives are pursued very effectively through the aid program. AusAID’s position in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio and the fact that Kevin Rudd is the Minister for Foreign Affairs with responsibility for international development assistance suggest this should be true. Bilateral diplomatic objectives are mostly well supported by the aid program, if not actually fully realised in every case, but the same is not true of international diplomatic objectives. 

Australian diplomats, long outsmarted at the ‘aid in return for a vote at the UN’ game by much smaller spenders, might well say “if only.” Many an Australian diplomat has wondered what they have to do when major beneficiaries of Australian largesse vote against Australian interests in international forums, despite sincere promises in capitals to support Australian initiatives.  Although Pacific Island countries have agreed to support Australia’s candidature for the UNSC, the reality is that their actual support on the day of the vote will depend on how persuasive Australian diplomats are compared to their competitors – it will have little to do with the $1 billion of aid Australia spends in the region. 

All these arguments – national security, moral, geographic, demographic and even diplomatic – all contribute to the conclusion that increasing aid to the Pacific is in our national interest. While it may be necessary to keep convincing Australian taxpayers that this is the case, Pacific Island governments tend to understand this very well. They know they can rely on Australian generosity and expect that it will continue. For me, the question is not “how do we justify increasing our aid to the Pacific” but “how do we meet the increased expectations of Pacific Islanders and of Australian taxpayers for better development outcomes?” 

Australia is the dominant player in the Pacific. If we are successful in making a substantial and measurable difference to the future prosperity of Pacific Islanders we can then make a claim, alongside highly regarded donors such as the UK, to be one of the world's most effective donors. This should rightly be one of the key objectives of Australia's aid program.

Images by Flickr users afagen and United Nations Photo.


4/29/2011 2:12:07 AM #
Thanks for a most informative post Jenny. I see your argument as something of a pragmatic one, whereas the angle that I and others have come from ( is more of an idealistic one. However, I do feel uncomfortable that we should be justifying regional approach to aid on the grounds of national interest. I understand the point about geography and that from a purely logistical angle, we may be the best placed country to assist countries in the Pacific. However, your number one point is that national security is improved when we take such a geographic focus. Do you believe that national security and the like should be one of the primary focuses of Australia's foreign aid program? If so, do you see any potential for conflict in the future if the situation changes? If regionally, there is no longer a threat to our national security, but there is still a great need for development assistance, do we then simply withdraw all offers of aid?
4/29/2011 7:23:27 PM #
I would have to strongly agree with Weh Yeoh's comment. Your entire post is about Australia's national interest and hardly touches on the needs of the people the aid program is aiming to benefit.

It is a very dangerous thing to justify aid only from the perspective of national interest. In fact, aid delivered with nation interest front of mind doesn't really deserve to be called aid at all.

And this blog is supposed to be about aid effectiveness - unless your measurement of effectiveness simpy equals "benefits Australia", then your post effectively becomes  meaningless.

There is a role for the government in protecting our national interest and ensuring we have a secure and stable region, but this should not be funded out of our aid program, which the majority of Australians agree should be used to help people living in poverty, not ourselves.
Sam Byfield, Vision 2020 Australia
Sam Byfield, Vision 2020 Australia
4/29/2011 11:45:58 PM #
Good article, Jenny. it seems that the point you are making is that national self interest is one of the several compelling reasons behind Australia's aid policy; you don't seem to be, as one commentator suggests, arguing that the national interest argument should in any sense be to the detriment of the fact that aid reduces poverty.

The truth is that NGOs, and AusAID, need to demonstrate to the Australian public that increases in Australia's aid  budget are worth while. Some people - including i would suspect most people reading or commentating on this blog - need no further convincing that there are very real moral imperatives behind Australia's aid program. There are plenty of articles on here going over that argument. On the other hand, others are typically not convinced by this argument and need to understand that aid is in Australia's interests. All these people vote.

It's arguable that the rolling of aid policy into the current Foreign Minister's portfolio is an indication that he sees Australia's foreign policy interests and aid policy as being intertwined. While I'm personally in favour of the Parliamentary Secretary for IDA role being re established to ensure sufficient attention to aid issues, it does seem to indicate that the national interest rationale isn't being removed any time soon. Sandy Holloway was asked this question on radio recently and stated that while the meaning could use some clarification, he doesn't see a reason to remove national interest from considerations around aid policy. I think this is a sensible line of reasoning, and that instead of detracting from the core outcomes of Australia's aid program it contributes to them. Accordingly, 'effectiveness' takes on a broader meaning than simply the achievement of the MDGs.
4/30/2011 1:26:10 AM #
Designing our foreign aid future

Designing our foreign aid future
4/30/2011 2:03:30 AM #
Thanks for the post Jenny. Although I do not agree with your argument, you make a nice logical case. Both Weh and Mark make sensible comments, and Sam rightly observes that this is taxpayer money. However, lets look at this from another angle. If 99.77% of Australia's GNI is spent on securing national interests, what impact will a further 0.33% have (or 0.7% if we reach the international target)?

And this really is a glaring question not being addressed in this debate. if we are discussing aid effectiveness and value for money for the Australian taxpayer, then we are not asking the following: Is using foreign aid to secure national interest effective? What impact does aid have on securing Australia's national interest? I am no so sure aid delivers on securing national interests. If there is any data on this, I would be very interested to have a look. I am sure there are many more other ways to secure Australia's interests without robbing ourselves of moral leadership.
Michael Hutak
Michael Hutak
5/2/2011 10:54:18 PM #
To take a moral view ahead of a realist's one, the first corollary of Australia's aid program should be "do no harm" -- that it should always contribute to alleviating and reducing poverty, not to add to it, and that its actions should support sustainable human development, not stifle it. Only then should a check against potential conflict with its own national interests be applied. Jenny identifies the new aid paradigm where there are new players challenging the hegemony of the DAC, and this may mean that a recipient country's own long-term interests and Australia's national interests converge in seeking to stymie the no-strings-attached gifts of the new actors. How Australia convinces Pacific countries to embrace that wisdom is anybody's guess, considering it is in my experience widely regarded (off the record, of course) as a bully who prefers to lecture rather than collaborate as an equal partner.