Looking beyond our backyard

4 February 2011

By Tim O'Connor, Director of Communications and Advocacy, UNICEF Australia

Ever since the landmark Simons Report into Australia’s aid program a dominant theory amongst academics and aid wonks has been to push for a closer alignment of our aid program with our geographic proximity as Stephen Grenville emphasised recently here on this blog. Since 1996 when the 'One Clear Objective: poverty alleviation through sustainable development' report was commissioned (released in 1997), this has been one of the few recommendations to be continued to be implemented and advocated for.

As Jenny Hayward Jones pointed out here  just 7% of the Australian aid program in 2010/11 is allocated for ‘other regions’; in Australia’s case these ‘others’ are Africa, the Middle East and South and Central America. Whilst this figure is boosted through funding to the multilaterals who engage in programming in these ‘other’ geographic areas, Australia’s aid is still firmly focused on our own backyard.

With the imminent surge in aid funding over the next four years seemingly pending and the significant advances in development practice, it is now time to re-investigate this geographic foundation stone. UNICEF, under the direction of Executive Director Anthony Lake has renewed our focus on what he terms reaching beyond the ‘low hanging fruit’.

By comparing the effectiveness of different strategies for delivering critical health interventions to those in greatest need, the UNICEF study ‘Narrowing the Gaps to Meet the Goals’ found that targeting the poorest and most disadvantaged children is actually a smarter investment that will save more lives per dollar spent. Using the equity approach, a US$1 million investment in reducing under-five deaths in a low-income, high-mortality country would avert an estimated 60 per cent more deaths than the current approach. Because national burdens of disease, ill health and illiteracy are concentrated in the most impoverished child populations, providing these children with essential services can greatly accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and reduce disparities within nations. This is a challenge for Australia if we continue both our current efforts to meet the MDGs and our geographic focus. For instance, we know the vast majority of poor in our region are in China and India – both relatively minor recipients of Australian aid. In addition, all are aware sub Saharan Africa will also struggle to meet many of the MDGs yet remains a minor Australian aid focus.

If we are serious about meeting the MDGs, it is imperative we expand our aid to those communities where development is desperately needed.

Australia is located adjacent to what former Foreign Minister Downer was fond of referring to as the, ‘failing states’, more commonly known as the Pacific to Australians and as Oceania to the rest of the world. These small island states have suffered from what could understatedly be called ‘governance issues’ but whose primary disenablers are their small resource base and their geographic isolation. Particularly considering the increasing aid commitments our government has agreed to, there are real capacity and effective resource utilisation issues at stake if we narrow the pool of countries we engage as development partners.

Concentrating more of our aid on fewer countries runs the risk of creating dependency of course - yet it also endangers the independent voice of governments who become reliant on the aid dollars to meet basic needs. This risk in our immediate region where we have a lot of small island states with similarly small economies is particularly great. We can see such challenges playing out in the current RAMSI program and in the failed Enhanced Cooperation program in PNG.

Secondly, much of AusAIDs engagement in the sphere beyond our regional one is done through multilateral organisations (World Bank, ADB, etc) and International non-government organisations (NGOs). These NGOs (Caritas, Oxfam, World Vision etc) have enormous coverage, community engagement, capacity and local expertise outside our region and are well placed, and in my overall experience, doing very well in improving development outcomes with Australian aid dollars. Similarly the extensive work and impact of organisations such as UNICEF, WFP, the Global Fund etc suggests too that our aid is being utilised in the main very effectively beyond our region.

A telling example is Australia’s engagement with Zimbabwe. Donors were extremely reluctant to engage with Zimbabwe for obvious reasons following the appointment of the Mugabe/Tsvangarai government.  Yet Australia took a brave step in quickly focusing on the pressing need of clean water and sanitation provision. Cholera was approaching epidemic levels and now, thanks to the conviction of the then Foreign Minister, dedication of committed Zimbabwean government bureaucrats, careful planning of AusAID and capacity and networks of NGOs, the looming epidemic was curtailed. Similarly, the Australian support for UNICEFs education work has enabled tens of thousands of kids to get back to school and to have the necessary resources available that are appropriate such as textbooks, school bags and writing equipment. Australia’s leadership in Zimbabwe encouraged others to follow, illustrating how relatively small inputs in financial terms can leverage significant development outcomes for the very needy.

Thirdly our engagement in the broader global development challenges signifies to the world our interests go beyond mere national ones. The fact is we need more committed donors in our neighbourhood to keep us on our toes both from policy and practice perspectives -  and to shoulder some of the heavy burden we carry across the pacific. Spending our aid dollars beyond our regional national interest objectives can and should encourage more donors to follow our lead and this can only be a good thing for the people and the governments of many pacific countries.

Fourthly, Australia is a significant player in the resources sector globally. Greg Sheridan estimates more than 200 Australian resource companies are involved in $20 billion of investment in Africa across 600 projects in more than 40 countries, generating $6 billion in trade. We know investment can bring great benefit to developing countries but it can also cause enormous rifts (Bougainville, eastern DRC and Nauru are some examples). The onus of course is firmly on the companies to ensure local development ensues – though the overall record in this regard is at best patchy and Australian aid has a role to play here too.

Australia is a global middle power and our aid program should reflect this standing. We should and are focusing on our nearest neighbours yet to restrict our aid to our own backyard smacks of the bad old days when national interest overrode a focus on alleviating poverty.

Photo by Flickr user airpark.




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Where is Australian aid delivered?

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