Putting money where it matters: why Australian aid needs to be in urban areas

India will need to look after its own slum areas, now Australia is starting to withdraw aid. Flickr/lecercle

Putting money where it matters: why Australian aid needs to be in urban areas

India will need to look after its own slum areas, now Australia is starting to withdraw aid. Flickr/lecercle

The Australian aid program is a multi-million dollar enterprise. It has doubled in size over the past five years to $4,836 million in the current budget, and it’s still growing.

A comprehensive look at how that cash is spent, carried out in the form of the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, issued a series of recommendations - from scrapping aid programs to China and India to increasing emergency assistance and maintaining the focus on the Pacific region.

The Foreign Affairs minister Kevin Rudd, announced this week that the government will accept all but one of the report’s 39 recommendations.

China and India on their own

Among them, the phasing out of development programs in China and India. As key members of the G20, they are amongst the economic powerhouses of the world and have recently taken on their own development assistance programs.

Despite the vast gap between rich and poor in those countries, Australia is going to provide no direct help, although multilateral programs, such as those through partners, such as the Asian Development Bank, will still continue.

Focus on the Pacific

The Asia-Pacific region, particularly Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, will remain the focus of Australia’s development assistance program. It will receive $1,160 million (24 percent of the total 2011-2012 aid budget), of which $482 million will be allocated to PNG. But many of the small states there will continue to need to be propped up with development assistance. AusAID needs to ask the question of what gains across the thematic priority sectors - such as health, education, law, order and now infrastructure - can be most sustained.

Urban areas need help

Half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and it’s disappointing that the review didn’t express a more informed view about their pivotal contribution to national development - economic, social and otherwise.

They play a vital role in contributing to Gross Domestic Product, city productivity and environmental sustainability (including their contribution to climate change), yet the comments of the review panel do not move the debate forward.

Cities and towns in our closest neighbours continue to fill with squatters and settlements, and the urbanisation of poverty continues to escalate.

Over a million urban dwellers in the Pacific live in squalor in such camps. Urban poverty is rising faster that rural poverty in many countries. So what does the report mean for improving the lives of these people?

Not much, the wheels still spin. While the report acknowledges that urbanisation is a central part of development, it deals with it in the following way. The report says, on page p155: “As regards urban development, a growing number of the activities undertaken by the Australian aid program over recent years relate closely to this. These include physical and social infrastructure, waste management, water and sanitation and even housing in some disaster–related contexts. However, not a great deal of thought has been given to how such activities might be packaged together, and the Review Panel considers this might be worth further attention given the increased pressures of urbanisation in the developing world”.

Given the wealth of Australian practitioner and academic expertise involved in city planning and management in developing countries, including supporting Pacific small island states, is this all the review panel can muster up?

Action on the ground

Urban development in roads, drainage, water and sanitation is critical, and a shift towards “doing” on the ground and seeing visible benefits rather than just “advising” is to be applauded and long overdue. But it is only part of the solution.

What about dysfunctional land and housing markets, orderly land development, and the state of investment planning for public infrastructure and services?

However, looking at urbanisation as a positive phenomenon and addressing the urban management system - productivity, liveability, sustainability and city governance with an emphasis on those most in need - is also paramount.

Urban development is an end product - it is not the beginning.

AusAID’s changing agenda

Urban planning and management has not figured on AusAID’s agenda for the last 15 years plus, and remains a foreign concept to them and for many of our developing countries.

For example, last year the PNG Office of Urbanisation sought urban technical assistance from AusAID to continue rolling out urban land development programs to help customary landowners develop their land with water, sanitation and secure land title. The request followed the PNG government’s first National Urbanisation Policy for 2010-2030.

Noting in 2009-2010 there was 450 technical advisers in PNG, AusAID refused the request for one adviser, indicating that they did not have the expertise to oversee the adviser and that other sectors, such as finance and national planning, were of more importance.

This rose coloured response to a national request showed a top down dictatorial approach to the notion of “partnerships”, reflecting little understanding of the dynamics of urban areas.

Importantly, this includes recognizing pragmatic options for assisting urban dwellers to move out of poverty and hardship. If PNG is a priority development partner, and the report indicates that Australia is committed to the current “Pacific Partnership for Development”, then what will change?

The implications of the report will become clearer over the next few weeks as stakeholders ask what does this all mean for “on the ground change”. The intentions of the report are admirable and are to be commended, but getting there continues to raise familiar concerns.

Millennium Development Goals

There is much rhetoric in the report on the UN Millennium Development Goals, and while Australia has made some gains towards achieving them, their record on some, such as improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers - has been disappointing in the Pacific region, to say the least. But that’s simply not acknowledged in the aid review.

AusAID will need to listen and look at issues much more from the lens of local stakeholders, rather than their own agendas, if real gains are to be made in achieving aid effectiveness.

The report acknowledges that the effectiveness of aid hinges around the interplay of the aid recipient, the donor and their interaction. Finding and measuring this balance of “who is dancing to whose tune and how”, needs to be subject to continued robust debate.

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