Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:51 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:51 | SYDNEY

Aid as protected species


Graeme Dobell

27 September 2010 09:07

Overseas aid is one of only two areas exempt from government spending cuts. The other is health. Defence faces fiscal amputation with speculation about the military budget shrinking by 10 to 20 percent.

This is the state of play in London, not Canberra. The shape of the horrors will be revealed in the British Chancellor of the Exchequer's review of public spending on 20 October. In Canberra, stated policy from both sides of politics is to guarantee cash growth for both aid and defence out to the end of the forward estimates and beyond.

The privileged place of aid in the budget scramble is a new truth of Australian politics that has arrived without much public debate. During the election campaign, the new golden foreign aid consensus got a brief mention in the equally brief foreign affairs debate. Both sides of politics underlined their promise to keep lifting aid spending to reach the target of 0.5 per cent of Australia's Gross National Income by 2015-16.

Kevin Rudd has taken personal charge of the climb to the Millennium Development Goals. His first formal speech as Foreign Minister was at the MDG summit in New York. The speech is another example, if one is needed, that when on his game on the international stage, Kevin Rudd is a class act. The MDG speech was a moment when Rudd spoke both from the heart as well as to the policy. Judge the heart element of the speech for yourself, but here is the policy meat:

 Several years ago, halfway to the 2015 deadline, we saw that our efforts were not sufficient. We realised that we had to do much more. Today, Australia's aid budget is double what it was in 2005 – including a 200 per cent increase in our aid to Africa alone. By 2015, on current projections, our aid budget will double again. This will make Australia the fastest-growing donor country in the OECD.

The 'we' element in this statement matters. The Howard Government signed up the MDGs and started the spending climb. Rudd, as Prime Minister, took up the project with gusto.

The MDG effort rates as one policy where Rudd's Christian principles counted. Rudd delivering his political sermons outside the church gate on Sundays became part of the political landscape. The Prime Minister at church became a TV cliché to match Howard's morning power walk. 
Rudd's willingness to express his Christianity perplexed the Labor Party, and made him unusual in modern Australian politics, just as Blair the Christian was a different sort of British politician. The sectarian divide that ran so deep through Australia's first 200 years of settlement produced a remorselessly pragmatic, secular political culture. That pragmatic culture means it is not going to be Christian charity alone that continues to deliver the golden aid consensus that Rudd and Blair did so much to deliver.

Perhaps what we need are some clear policy guidelines on where and how the cash will be spent. As Annmaree O'Keeffe notes:

The strong embrace of the MDGs has not been matched by a fresh look at how Australia will use its expanding aid budget to contribute to the goals' achievement.

Note also Danielle Cave's reference to the survey which found that only six per cent of Australians have actually heard of the MDGs. We don't have a plan, but we have doubled our aid budget and will quickly double it again. Come 2015, Australia will spend $8-9 billion annually, and will be marching quickly towards $10 billion by the end of the decade. 

The new golden aid consensus is being taken by some in the aid lobby as the new normal. It's worth remembering, though, that the old aid consensus was to agree to an international target but not spend the money to get there. Both sides of Australian politics spent decades giving lip-service to the 1969 World Bank report (the Pearson Commission) calling for all nations to lift official aid to 0.7 percent of GNP by 1975. No real Oz cash got attached to the pledge.

The reference to how far short Australia was of the 0.7 percent target became the standing embarrassment in each year's aid budget. That is why the new consensus is so amazing: our aid limped along on a low growth trajectory for decades; suddenly it is turbo-powered.

Some in the aid lobby want to rev up the new consensus to get 0.7 back on the radar. Ambition is a wonderful thing, but assumes quite a few billion yet to be delivered on the 0.5 target. Make sure not to fall off the mountain you're climbing before you eye the next peak. And perhaps come up with some explanation about why Australia is powering towards 0.5 per cent using the impetus of the MDG, when we failed so dismally in our commitment to the Pearson Commission's 0.7 per cent.

Photo by Flickr user 1981Adam, used under a Creative commons license.