Murdoch’s war on Australian development aid

In the last three years, articles by Rowan Callick of the Australian and Steve Lewis of the News Limited tabloids, amongst others paint a pretty negative picture of AusAID. Apparently AusAID spends obscene amounts on individual consultants, diverts way too much of its budget to “feed fat profits for corporations”, is “plagued by fraud” and “filling corrupt coffers”, “wastes too much money on Kung Fu training for staff and furniture for their offices and homes, is a front for Kevin Rudd’s UN ambitions. Aid is a controversial rip-off, a fraudulent, corrupt debacle; a gravy train without a clear strategy; a scam with an undeserved virtuous aura.

As extreme as this seems, criticism of AusAID is not wholly misplaced. Previously I have expressed concerns about the neo-liberal paradigm which sees so much of the aid budget spent through corporations, the managerialist requirements which eat up time and resources of NGOs and public servants, the risk aversion and fear which discourages genuine relationships between aid workers. I’ve written submissions to Senate Inquiries, the AusAID Volunteer Program Review and the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness with criticisms, praise and suggestions for positive change.

Yet, reading the news articles above left me feeling that Rowan and Steve weren’t on the same side as me – they weren’t interested in improving development assistance, merely reducing or eliminating it.

A few facts to start with:

  • Australia’s aid, as a percentage of total federal budget is set to grow to 0.5% by 2015 (from about 0.3% in 2007).
  • With presumed economic growth, the percentage target would see a doubling in dollar value of the aid budget.
  • Yet, it would still fall short of the 0.7% target first pledged in 1970 and reaffirmed repeatedly since.
  • This promise was made by the Labor Party, and matched by the Coalition, in the lead up to the 2007 election. It has since been reaffirmed by both major parties, with the Greens favouring 0.7%.

Obviously, a massive increase in funding must be managed carefully.  It would be foolish to think simply multiplying current programs would be the most effective use of the budget. It is not  inconceivable that some opportunists might want access (or more access) to this growing pile of moolah. And so, it is right to question the effectiveness of government programs, challenge what would be considered overspending, and ensure that the people the program intends to serve are better off as a result of the increased funding.

And taking care and asking questions appears to be what AusAID has done.  Aid effectiveness has been front and centre of AusAID’s priority under Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd. The Office of Development Effectiveness, founded under Alexander Downer in 2006, has produced internal evaluations and published independent reports by the Brookings Institution.  The Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, (which featured numerous submissions from whydev contributors/friends) was the first independent public review since 1996 and “will guide the growth of the aid program to 2015-2016”, the end target date for the MDGs.

Callick sometimes mentions the reviews, occasionally quoting senior AusAID staff or the Foreign Minister defending the program or vowing to keep focussing on aid effectiveness.  More evident though is a particular animosity towards AusAID and towards the current Labor government.  For example, in recent articles critical of the corporations receiving AusAID funds, there is no mention that this practice was the norm under Downer.  If there were articles critical of this practice during Downer’s 11 years, a quick search indicates they did not seem to directly target him. None of the articles mention that the amount contracted out has been halved under Labor.

The authors appear to be skeptical of development’s value at all, outside disaster relief, and make snide partisan attacks, drawing tenuous parallels between Kevin Rudd and Mao Zedong. Valid criticisms are given little context – “We should spend aid money in the Pacific (where, by the way, we can’t get it right), not Africa” but never mention the poverty in sub-saharan Africa (except when making emotive points about priorities). They imply AusAID’s growth is just another example of Labor’s wastefulness, rather than pointing out its bi-partisan support. When discussing FOI documents which “reveal the difficulties of trying to manage a $4.5billion budget while dealing with some of the most corrupt nations in the world”, they bury how admirably small fraud is as a percentage (0.017%) in this context towards the bottom of the article, instead highlighting seemingly high dollar amounts first. Another contributor’s whine that “an overseas consultant, who believes women are more vulnerable to climate change than men, was given almost $20,000 by AusAid last year” was comprehensively demolished by Archie Law of ActionAid. Of course, fewer people read the thoughtful blogs of experts than hysterical sensationalist tabloids.

Steve Lewis' articles - recommended by no one in three states.

What’s really going on here is that, in this one instance, the market fundamentalism which supports supply and demand and which demands that if the government must pay for a service it should tender it out, is being put aside because of a particular distaste for AusAID. It’s just a populist dog-whistle designed to use the “virtuous aura” of aid workers against them, by holding them to a loftier standard than other citizens.  It’s a classic culture war trick of turning your opponents against each other by selectively pointing out hypocrisy (never mind the sheer chutzpah of using emotive images of the suffering of refugees to score points against aid in papers which regularly stir up hysteria against asylum seekers). One wonders if AusAID’s funding of aid advocacy would even be necessary if it wasn’t for such disinformation campaigns by aid opponents.

Australians generally support our overseas aid expenditure, but few would think aid workers should earn $500,000 – a new house every year.   Personally, I don’t believe anyone really “earns” this amount, no matter what field they work in.  But this is where the criticism falls silent – there is not a single mention of the context in which other consultants get paid similarly huge amounts. As a society, perhaps we need to challenge all who earn such obscene amounts, not just aid consultants.  When I tried to make this point in response to an article in 2010, Callick selectively quoted me to support the anti-AusAID case being put by Barnaby Joyce (no relation).

Development may be the only field where you might regularly engage with people earning 100 times less than you but still be the lowest paid of your friends.  It sometimes feels strange, knowing that your income exists because people are donating (or having tax deducted) to reduce poverty.  But should we be more critical of an aid consultant than a military consultant on the same pay? Both are using tax-payer dollars. Should earning a below-average, but liveable, wage in any part of the social sector be considered ethically worse than earning more in a different, perhaps ethically dubious or simply ethically neutral, field?

The big question here is broader than aid. Partisan, anti-aid and small-government agendas aside, there are some valid questions about our priorities as a society.  I am all for recognising the flawed assumptions inherent in competitive tendering. We should end massive consultant salaries, occasionally dubious spending priorities and all undeserved virtuous auras across the entire public and private sectors. Let’s also be honest though that sometimes a thing we want – like the end of Malaria, education for girls, human rights for all – may cost us some money and that achieving it is worth the cost.  A just world is such a massive project that it would be foolish to think all in it will be saints.

And if you think aid workers should earn bugger all, Rowan and Steve, why not encourage your readers to live on 99% of their income to help us support those who do? It’s tax deductible, which will mean less for your nemeses at AusAID but more for development work overall.

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Brendan Joyce

Assistant Director at Palms Australia
Brendan Joyce has worked in development since 2003. He is currently the Assistant Director of Palms Australia (@palmsaustralia), an independent development volunteer sending agency. He has previously volunteered for two years teaching ex-combatants in Bougainville and has qualifications in Science, Education and Development. Opinions are his own.

2 thoughts on “Murdoch’s war on Australian development aid”

  1. Enjoyed your post. Great point about these particular papers using emotive images of refugees. Looking forward to reading further postings.

  2. Great post. Foreign aid isn’t popular with the small government, people should look after themselves philosophy Murdoch’s outlets promote. Putting the blame for any failings on the Labor/Greens Government, whether or not those failings existed under Howard, suits News Ltd’s regime change agenda. It’s always easy for the anti-foreign aid lobby to point to any aid project and ask the question, “Why aren’t we helping those other people instead?”

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