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Why is Australian foreign aid so important?

For politicians subject to democratic accountability in today’s media-soaked world, two issues are particularly difficult to deal with. One is the future and the other is global development. More often…

Increased levels of Australian aid to Africa demonstrates the positive effects aid can have on a region. EPA/Kate Holt

For politicians subject to democratic accountability in today’s media-soaked world, two issues are particularly difficult to deal with. One is the future and the other is global development. More often than not they are put into the “too hard” basket and short-termism and parochialism are allowed to prevail.

The question of international aid is a good case study. It doesn’t necessarily win votes but it is very important to our future as a nation. We are called by our consciences to assist developing countries but it is also in our national interest as a trading nation to do so.

While it remains to be seen what the Abbott government’s decision to merge AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will mean for Australia’s aid priorities and delivery, it is important to reflect on what the planned A$4.5 billion cut to foreign aid may mean for Australia.

Africa is a good case in point of Australia’s aid priorities. For many years Africa was out of sight and out of mind for Australian policymakers, but in recent years it has come back into play. Our aid effort has increased from $100 million in 2008 to $355 million in 2012-13. In 2012, we provided 1,000 training opportunities to 50 countries through our Australia Awards scheme.

We focus our efforts in areas of Australian strength such as agriculture, natural resource development, public health and governance. In and of itself this helps our own educators and researchers in these areas both directly and for the leverage it creates with other donors and investors in Africa.

Grinding and unrelenting poverty is the daily experience for many in Africa, despite a wealth of natural and human resources. Most still live and work on the land where infrastructure is poor and the climate can be devastating. The oppression of women is commonplace, and civil war and political conflict fuelled by race and ethnicity - coupled with bad and corrupt government - have left a terrible legacy from which it is hard to escape.

There may have been economic growth in recent years, but Africa is still a case study in unfulfilled potential. That, of course, is “the point” of our aid efforts. An Africa that can develop sustainably not only releases people from poverty but creates opportunities for trade and commerce. For example, even the smallest surpluses from agriculture creates the potential for commerce.

Australia too is a resource-rich country, but this is because of its relatively small population and small market needs that allow international trade and investment to prosper. We are a trading nation and as such need to be “in the world” in every sense of those words.

It also means that opportunities are created for us when others prosper. We have seen this happen in a dramatic way with the recovery of Japan after World War Two and with China when it opened up after 1978. That we changed our attitudes and devoted resources to building our relationships with Japan from the late 1950s and China from the early 1970s produced good results for all of us.

In a smaller way, we are seeing this happen in Africa today. Over the last decade Africa’s GDP has more than tripled and Australia’s trade with the continent has grown by about 6% annually. More than 200 resource companies from Australia are involved in 650 projects in 42 countries. Many of our agriculture, education and water management companies are also involved.

Underpinning much of this investment and trade has been an increased understanding of Africa’s potential in business circles but also an improvement in our political effort, with Australia now having diplomatic relations with all 54 African countries. However, Australia’s aid program has also been part of the equation. It creates connections and builds trust. It is assisting with the development of infrastructure and better practices in a wide range of areas.

Our alumni are encouraged to be leaders in their professions and often continue links to Australia through research partnerships and particular projects. Indeed, we often see these partnerships being used to lever wider interest from the international community.

Most importantly, too, AusAID promotes gender equality and better government in all that it does, with 49% of all Australia Award recipients from Africa today being women.

At a recent conference of Australia Award alumni from all over Africa held in Cape Town (which I attended as the Chair of the Australia Awards Board), I was able to gain an appreciation of the breadth and depth of the Australian aid program and the further initiatives it generates.

It might be research on the post-harvest management of crops, the better use of existing sources of food and nutrition, the development of youth-friendly health services in a continent ravaged by HIV-AIDS, the application of up-to-date practices in geo-scientific survey, the better management of revenue flaws from mining or the wider engagement of the population - particularly the marginalised - in decision-making.

Australia does have its weaknesses as a nation - some acknowledged, and some not so. However, we also have strengths and a knowledge base that we can - and should - share with the developing nations. Not only do we gain from the production and export of a range of goods and services in the global marketplace, we also gain from the export of good will and the commitment to help.

Populism and the parochialism it generates holds us back, but a generous and well-targeted aid effort - when consistently applied - takes us forward.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    It would be much better for the third world if Australia donated its entire foreign aid budget to the Bill Gates/Warren Buffett Foundations. Leave it to the experts.

    1. Whyn Carnie

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Think you are right. AusAid had developed into a bunch of elitist bureaucrats who used membership as a means to promote some very strange preferences. Their modus operandi was to make sure desk offficers and section heads looked good internally for grading purposes while placing responsibility for performance of the actual Aid work onto closely over-controlled sub contractors. Some very costly wrong decisions have been made and mostly retained in house.

  2. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    I certainly think that Australia should look at some additional overseas aid for the inhabitants of an island not far from Victoria.
    "A report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 2011-2012 shows half of all Tasmanians aged 15 to 74 are functionally illiterate, and more than half are functionally innumerate—meaning they don’t have the skills needed to get by in the modern world, like filling out forms, or reading the instructions on their prescription."

    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Julian Burnside has been writing op-eds in The Age begging we turn Tasmania into a refugee camp.

    2. John Crest

      logged in via email

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      It would solve two problems Michael: housing boat arrivals AND improving literacy / numeracy rates in Tasmania.

    3. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to John Crest

      John, I fear we'd get the foreign aid industry bitching about how our foreign aid budget was being spent to benefit our own people - Tasmanians.

  3. Trevor S

    Jack of all Trades

    I am all for "aid", a couple points though:

    "a generous and well-targeted aid effort – when consistently applied – takes us forward."

    I spent a year working in Cambodia, the woeful application of AusAid to various projects was at best poor at worst corrupt . I suspect spending the money bring 1000's of Cambodians over here and training them as; Doctors, Nurses, Tradesmen, Engineers and encouraging them tog back and help rebuild their country would have been a better use of the Aid budget…

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  4. Stephen Morey

    Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

    It is incredible to me that, at a time when Australia has probably the highest living standards in human history, our nation is planning to cut the aid to the world's poorest by $4.5 billion.

  5. Jonathan Marshall


    Michael Sheehan is 100% correct - we should transfer all our aid money to the Gates Foundation who have invested in the infrastructure and expertise to ensure effective outcomes.

    Why does each small country like Australia create a whole new layer of aid administration other than for status/identity purposes.

    The objective of aid is measurable results nothing more nothing less and scale is critical for impact.

    Their should be a global table that measures the effectiveness of every aid agency…

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  6. Jenny Goldie

    population and climate activist

    I am all for foreign aid and so shocked by the cut of $450 million by the current government to build what? Roads. Roads that might be obsolete before long because of the rising cost of fuel.
    But there is good aid and bad aid. Good aid includes those measures that help stabilise a country's population: universal access to contraception; education for girls; and any measures that create greater equality for women. Gallop mentioned gender equality in passing and indeed, it has been a strong plank in recent AusAID aid delivery. It would be a tragedy if that was cut.

  7. David Michael


    Pity the article missed the main point of 'aid' today. It's about peace and security through development.