China May Have Spurred Australia's Aid Spending, But it Will Pay Off


By Tim Costello, Chief Advocate 

This week might have seen an important turning point in the fortunes of Australia’s aid program. The signing of an agreement to fund the undersea cable between Australia and the Solomon Islands, as well as Papua New Guinea, has caught the headlines, mainly because the cable is seen as a win for Australia in its efforts to counter growing Chinese influence in the Pacific. 

This is obviously the Australian government’s primary motivation, but the move demonstrates also that the importance and effectiveness of development assistance generally is now dawning on more and more minds in Canberra.

But I believe, perhaps optimistically, that Australian policy circles now recognise that a deep and committed engagement with Pacific Island countries is both in Australia’s interests, and a vital Australian responsibility. The test of this proposition will be the extent to which the government engages in genuine, productive partnerships with regional governments over the next few years.

There is certainly plenty of scope to improve Australia’s aid, both in its focus and its quantity. Australia’s performance as an aid donor, and our reputation as a reliable partner, has been greatly weakened in recent years, with aid as a proportion of national income dropping to a record low level, just 0.22 per cent and still falling, all on the pretext of a supposed budget emergency. As aid makes up only about 1 per cent of total government spending, slashing it was never going to do much towards producing a budget surplus, yet the impact of these cuts on our regional neighbours has been severe.

An expanded aid program, targeted towards the real purpose of aid – human development, especially through reducing poverty – has to be at the centre of such partnerships. It was encouraging to hear foreign minister Julie Bishop’s surprise statement that increased aid was “absolutely” needed. A staged increase towards 0.33 per cent of GNI over five years is an achievable goal. 

But it must be properly targeted. Aid is primarily about empowering communities to make their own positive change. While big-ticket infrastructure projects like the undersea cable are important, our Pacific partnerships must embrace the critical factors that really decide whether communities suffer or thrive.  

These include better health, safety from conflict and violence, including gender-based violence, and access to educational and economic opportunity. And in the Pacific particularly, affected by more frequent and intense weather events and threatened with population displacement, partnerships must also include action to address environmental threats.

The last thing we need is an ideological debate that frames aid as either only valuable as a means to achieve our national interest – or even of no value at all – or as a wholly altruistic endeavour whose purity is polluted by any thought of self-interest. This supposed realist-idealist paradigm is both delusory and unhelpful.  

The so-called “realist” view misses the point that being neighbours is not a zero-sum game – we do not lose anything if our neighbours enjoy greater security, better health and more prosperity. Quite the contrary – the advancement of the people in the Pacific is entirely to our benefit, promoting regional stability and better governance, and reducing the enabling environment for cross-border health threats, transnational crime and terrorism. 

So this week Australia has taken an important step, literally and figuratively, towards building links fit for the 21st century with some of our neighbours. The real value of the government’s initiative, and whether it will be valued by Australia’s partners, depends on what comes next. 


Published by The Guardian on June 16, 2018

Picture: Children growing up in Lord Howe settlement, Honiara. Their families are from Ontong Java, a cluster of 122 small islands in the northernmost part of the Solomon Islands. They move to find work, access better education for their children, and in many cases, to escape the effects climate change on their environment and livelihoods.

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