Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday 19 September 2013
By Tim Costello, World Vision Australia chief executive
The Abbott government has wasted no time in reshaping Australia's aid program. Within hours of being sworn in on Wednesday, the new government created confusion around the status of AusAID, the independent agency that has managed Australia's aid program with integrity for more than two decades.
Our aid program is now to be ''integrated'' into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade where, according to the new Prime Minister, aid priorities can be more closely aligned to diplomatic interests. The decision is worrying because rather than the two objectives of aid and diplomacy being complementary, the livelihoods and health of our neighbours are now at risk of being subsumed to other, more short-term and politically expedient agendas.
Although only two weeks ago the Coalition retreated further on a bipartisan commitment to take Australian aid up to the global benchmark, its message that it would begin ''reform'' of the foreign aid program by redirecting funding towards non-government organisations was welcome. These organisations enjoy public support and trust. (World Vision Australia now only receives 11 per cent of its funding from AusAID.)
Canada and New Zealand have also taken the ''integration'' path in their aid programs, with negative results. Since the abolition of CIDA, AusAID's Canadian counterpart, that aid program has shrunk considerably and Canada's standing as a global citizen has diminished. The New Zealand experience is similarly discouraging.
As for AusAID, by and large it has delivered an effective program in an efficient way, borne out by the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, carried out in 2011 and given bipartisan endorsement. The review found that an already effective program could be further improved and made 39 recommendations as to how that might be achieved. At the time both parties appeared to accept the advice.
Equally AusAID has benefited from skilled and dedicated staff. It is always easy to point fingers at agencies that carry the responsibility of major spending. It is difficult to see how the performance of our aid program will be improved by being transferred to a non-specialist agency with less expertise and with an enormous workload of its own. If Australian aid is to maximise its potential impact, it needs both adequate resources and strong, informed leadership. It needs excellent technical capacity and coherent long-term planning.
Purists in the aid community have always felt that the purpose of aid should be solely about reducing poverty; realists have always understood that governments of all persuasions also take into account national interests. There is in fact no contradiction between promoting our national interests and meeting our moral obligation to the world's poorest people - especially in our own region - as a stable, healthy and prosperous region benefits Australia just as much as it does our neighbours.
The decision to slash the aid budget, the failure to appoint a dedicated minister for international development, and now this troubling development for our specialist aid agency all create grounds for serious misgivings about the program's prospects. This is not a simple matter of politics or a decision about administrative efficiency. It goes to the heart of what aid is for, and our capacity to save and improve lives. It goes to the heart also of our ability to shape our regional future and bring about security and prosperity for all.