The nation’s peak aid group has called for a complete reset of the development program, urging the Morrison government to create 10-year “development cooperation agreements” with nations to ensure money is better targeted including on climate change, education and health.
Foreign policy analyst Allan Gyngell, former head of Australia’s top intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, said letting the aid agreements expire was symptomatic of the fact “we haven’t got our act together to deal with an international environment that is more uncertain than at any time in the past 70 years”.
Mr Gyngell, national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, said the government was also making a mistake in not lifting the overall foreign aid budget.
“The development assistance program is at historically low levels and staying where we are robs us of our opportunities to shape outcomes,” Mr Gyngell said.
Melissa Conley Tyler, director of diplomacy at AsiaLink, said focusing exclusively on the Morrison government’s “Pacific step-up” at the expense of Asia would have “real implications” for Australia’s influence both economically and geopolitically.
“It is an environment where other countries, including China, are rapidly increasing their development assistance spending as a means of securing not only opportunity for their companies but longer-term political influence,” she said.
“Entering into long-term partnership agreements might be part of reversing the current underinvestment in development and diplomacy, which has led to Australia losing influence in the Indo-Pacific.”
In its submission to the government’s review into the aid program, the Australian Council for International Development has called for 10-year agreements with nations to set out its foreign aid objectives.
Backed by expert advice from a panel of 20 development, security and diplomacy experts, the ACFID also says 90 per cent of all new aid programs over $10 million should incorporate climate change risk, impacts and opportunities.
While investment in infrastructure has increased over the past seven years, funding for health and education has dropped by more than $690 million.
Bridi Rice, director of policy and advocacy at the ACFID, said Australia’s development program has to be about investing in human development and alleviating poverty, “not buying friends with short term shiny projects.”
“At the very time we have the re-emergence of tuberculosis, measles and now things like coronavirus, we’re divesting from the core foundations of development like investment in health and education,” she said.
“Australia’s development program can build relationships, but for that to work, the program has to be unyielding in its focus on the core foundations of development – what matters to our region.
“But if we just use the development program as a tool to serve our domestic interests, it won’t get us anywhere in either foreign policy or poverty reduction terms.”
The government insists the current aid investment plans will be replaced following the release of a new aid policy after the review is completed, and says it is still using benchmarks to measure its performance.
A spokesman for DFAT said the government welcomed the contributions from aid groups and would “carefully consider their recommendations”.
In its submission to the review, Save the Children called for the Australian government to invest $20 million over five years to resurrect the Community-Based Climate Change Action Grants program, which ceased in 2016.
The aid development agency said the Morrison government’s Pacific step-up had come at the expense of south-east Asian nations including Indonesia, Cambodia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The roughly $4 billion Australia spends on aid – or 0.2 per cent of gross national income – is not being looked at as part of the review into the development budget, despite criticism that Australia doesn’t spend nearly as much as comparable countries.
In its submission to the review, Oxfam called for the government to develop a plan to increase the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of gross national income.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.