To discuss some of the major issues of 2013, AidWorks host Albion Harrison-Naish, was joined by the heads of three prominent Australian aid NGOs. CARE Australia’s Dr. Julia Newton-Howes, ActionAid Australia’s Archie Law and Act for Peace’s Alistair Gee provided an engaging conversation about a variety of issues.
After a brief discussion of the recently-announced further cuts to Australia’s aid program, the panellists discussed the various cuts, diversions and delays suffered by Australia’s aid program over 2013. The conversation also covered issues like climate change and the developing world, the evolution of emergency humanitarian responses, the rise of the BRICS nations and how this will likely impact on development models, as well as the debates over the post 2015 development agenda.
To state that the announcement of AusAID’s integration into the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) was met with consternation is an understatement. A very fitting and reflective eugoogly was given by Robin Davies on the Devpolicy blog. Among other remarks, Robin points to the anxiety many staff inside the organisation-formerly-known-as-AusAID (#WasAID) must be feeling about their livelihoods. The first sign of the coming aidpocalypse was when @DFAT followed us @WhyDev on Twitter. (We are one of 501!). The Government was also quick to announce after its election victory that $4.5 billion would be ‘cut’ from the foreign aid budget. (Around $700 million supposedly in the first year).
The second sign of the aidpocalypse was when WhyDev was contacted by a friend, who had been accepted into AusAID’s graduate program earlier this year. They had signed the employment contract and were due to start as part of next year’s intake. However, they received a phone call earlier this week informing them that not only had their position been terminated, but the entire intake of foreign aid graduates for next year had also been terminated. Aid will not be back. (It is not known what the fate of the DFAT graduate intake will be for next year). The formal letter of termination was shared with WhyDev on the condition of anonymity. (See below). Another friend of WhyDev received the same phone call today.
It is not known what other staff, programs and sectors within the Australian aid program are also considered by DFAT to be “excess to requirements”. The current Government plans to reduce the number of public service jobs by 12,000. DFAT’s Peter Varghese, in The Conversation, says, “We don’t know what our share of that reduction is going to be, but we know that we will have to deal with a reduction in staff”. He goes on to portend, “There has to be a general acceptance that we’re going through this integration process but that the spine of our organisational structure is going to rest with the DFAT organisational structure”.
In the Canberra Times last week, it was reported that AusAID staff saw a DFAT officer standing on the balcony of the Department’s building, pretending to shower the AusAID crowd below in a hail of machine gun fire. (I can imagine this same DFAT officer saying, “Say hello to my little friend”). We can only assume that the worst is yet to come for the remaining foreign aid orphans.
Thursday, September 5, 2013. It was a day where I managed to bask in three minutes of wonderful news, before the sky seemingly crashed down, co-workers went into a frenzy and the atmosphere in the office transitioned from relative calm to utter despair.
It wasn’t the Australian election – although I’m sure there were enough people in the office disappointed at that result as well. Instead, the Coalition had just announced that, if they were to win Government, they would cut $4.5 billion from official development assistance (ODA) over the next four years, including a $656 million cut to this financial year.
How dare they!? In the face of a number of cuts and delays to Australia’s aid program, I know many that held the feeling that it had to stop somewhere. There was a largely unspoken expectation that any incoming Coalition government would cut ODA spending, but most didn’t expect the cut would be this large – or damaging – to Australian aid.
In reality, the development sector in Australia have backed themselves into a corner, with no easy way to forge ahead.
Australia, you’re doing it wrong
For at least 10 years, agencies and campaigners in Australia have put much effort into campaigning for an increase in ODA to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI), with 0.7% as the end goal. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a target that Australia has agreed to multiple times at the international and national level. It’s a target that many have latched on to as an easy way of communicating aid and our responsibilities as a nation to the public.
It is a target that I have wholeheartedly supported for years, and I still do.
It’s also utterly demoralising for aid supporters when leaders decide to renege on commitments, cut aid and throw the target down the toilet without a second thought.
Perhaps this single-minded emphasis on percentage targets has been misguided. At the very least, it has allowed the sector to be backed in – at one stage the sector pushed hard on the target of achieving 0.7% by the 2015-16 financial year. When it became obvious that this was unrealistic and would ultimately be detrimental to the work of AusAID, as it would require such a massive scale-up in a short amount of time, the target became 0.7% by 2020, with an interim target of 0.5% by 2015-16. Then we were promised by 2016-17. After the most recent announcement by a now-new government, where do we head now?
The more I think about it, the more I believe that aid communication in Australia has to drastically change from an emphasis on funding, commitments and promises to a focus on success and the ultimate end goal.
Change it up. After all, that’s what we’re asking our politicians to do
I know that I’m ruffling a few feathers among many friends who work in the campaigning space. After all, we’ve all spent countless hours crafting that perfect email to supporters or thinking up ingenious ways to encourage supporters to pick up a phone and call their local MP. But I think we’ve all missed something along the way: the end game.
No matter what you think of the Millennium Development Goals, what form you believe the next international development agenda should take, whether you think there should be an overarching set of goals in the first place, or your feelings toward neat catch cries that couldn’t possibly account for the complexities of “doing development,” the end of poverty is a compelling message. After the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda handed down its report, it seems that the catch cry for the next 15 years will be eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.
If anything, that throws a bunch of opportunities out there for campaigners in the development space.
I throw these thoughts out to create discussion, not as a blueprint on how to move forward. Some of these ideas may indeed be crazy and in the end may not work, but that’s okay.
1. Highlight stories of success. And please, no more celebrity endorsements
The world is full of amazing stories of success and stories of why aid works. Bring them to the front, shine a light on those stories and show the public their tax dollars at work. Many agencies pay lip service to this idea, but it’s time to go all in on this. Also, these stories should stand on their own. We don’t need to adopt celebrities again as endorsements and the major drawcard.
2. Call out bad policy, and don’t be afraid to criticise
Sometimes governments get it wrong. They release a policy or make an announcement that is clearly bad and ill-thought out. The sector shouldn’t be afraid to call out bad policy for what it is, even if that means putting some people off-side. In the end, better policy means better development, which means we’re closer towards the end goal. Agencies need to become more aggressive and proactive in this area.
3. Experiment in how we communicate aid
We need to take some risks and experiment with how we communicate aid to the Australian public. Do something different that actually grabs the attention of the public. If that means BASE jumping off a building with an ironing board (extreme ironing, it’s a thing, Google it), try it. And if anyone figures out how you could link that to aid, please let me know!
4. Focus on the end goal, not the interim targets
In the end, we all have an end goal that we want to see. Instead of framing the debate around the interim targets, frame the debate around the end goal. The end of poverty, while being a lofty goal, is a much more powerful story and rallying cry than a continual focus on percentages.
Continue to focus on development financing – in the end, it’s an extremely important aspect, and the 0.5% and 0.7% goals remain international commitments.
But frame it around the end goal. Don’t frame the end goal around achieving a certain level of funding.
Olivia Rosenman is a Masters of Journalism candidate at Hong Kong University. She has lived in China for almost two years, including spending one year as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development, working for a small cerebral palsy organisation in China’s south-west. Olivia speaks Mandarin fluently, is deeply interested in China’s rapid development and would love to connect on Twitter @olivesophierose
The Australian Government’s so-called “aid raid”, exposed in 2012’s home stretch, has settled to little more than a blip on the radar. On December 16, a Treasury leak to Channel TEN revealed that the Government was redirecting a large portion of the Overseas Development Aid (ODA) budget to caring for asylum seekers in Australia. Bob Carr later confirmed that $375 million will be used for “basic subsistence” for asylum seekers waiting to have their claims processed. But the Treasury Trojan Horse suggests this is not the whole story, the amount is likely to rise to at least half a billion.
In short, the Australian Government is paying a large chunk of ODA money to itself.
Considering the health, wealth and freedom the average Australian citizen enjoys, without the context, this fact appears ridiculous.
Carr was quick to qualify that this is an entirely legitimate use of aid money, according to OECD DAC guidelines. On his blog, he also offered the ‘everyone else is doing it’ argument, insisting it is “consistent with the practice of other OECD countries including the United States ($895 million in 2010); France ($435 million in 2010); Sweden ($397 million in 2010); Netherlands ($339 million in 2010); Norway ($335 million in 2010); and Canada ($284 million in 2010).”
Is it is legitimate? Is it another broken promise? Is it legitimate but just plain mean?
Most importantly, do Australians really care?
The news got out as the mercury was rising and Canberra emptied out for summer. Labor’s popularity problem was such an old story that the last poll for the year did not cause much more than a ripple on Lake Burley Griffin. Peter Slipper’s supposed exoneration the week before also slid by, possibly because the notion that MPs would exploit sexual harassment as a tool for political gain was so bleak we thought it better ignored.
The opportunity for a scandal was there and the Opposition took it up with gusto.
Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, said, “There can be no more excuses… this is a direct attempt to take money away from developing countries overseas to make up for their border protection failings.” No doubt she got top marks from Tony Abbott for that one, if only she could have somehow squeezed in “stop the boats”. She also said that the Government had misled the world by committing to increasing the aid budget to 0.5% of GNI when running for a UN Security Council seat.
Scott Morrison, Shadow Immigration Minister, called it a “massive hypocrisy”. Tony Abbott stuck with the ‘protect the borders’ bombast, with a dash of ‘broken promises’: “This is a government which can’t manage the budget, which can’t protect our borders, and which simply can’t be trusted.”
The Opposition was keen to make this an issue of budget incompetence and border protection. They certainly know what strikes a chord with the punters; after all, it’s a chord they’ve played on loop, and with great success. But not much attention has been given to what the Opposition would do with the aid budget. Considering this is an election year, it merits some scrutiny. On the surface, the Liberal Party upholds the 0.5% target (which has now been postponed). However, the Coalition’s leaked Speaking Notes from July 2012 revealed that funding increases would be “dependent on AusAID meeting strict performance benchmarks.” The Liberal Party’s Plan for Real Action on Foreign Affairsstates “The Australian National Audit Office raised serious concerns about AusAid’s ability to effectively manage the large increases in aid required to meet the 0.5 per cent target”.
But, the truth of the matter is most Australians are uninformed and apathetic towards ODA. Last year, a Lowy poll found almost one-third of Australians think we give 20% of our budget to aid (around 50 times more than the actual amount). According to a survey conducted this year by ChildFund Australia, over a third of the population believes aid has been ‘ineffective’.
To the Government’s credit, since 2007 they have overseen an increase of nearly $2 billion, or over 60% in ODA spending. On election, Kevin Rudd pledged to double the aid budget to bring us closer in line to the OECD recommendation. When, in May 2012, the Government announced they would have to delay the target by one year in order to reach the surplus, the Opposition endorsed it.
As Thom Woodroofe noted in ABC’s The Drum, we are all to blame for the aid budget cut, and for Carr’s creative acrobatics. Since the story broke, neither DFAT nor AusAid have explained the details of what will be cut; there has been almost no follow up. The fact is that ODA doesn’t scare politicians because Australians on both sides of politics just don’t really care.
But we should.
We should also care about the integrity of our politicians. The Opposition’s sudden interest and strong feelings on the issue demonstrates the race to the bottom that has characterised Australian politics in 2012. It may well be the last political story Australians read this year before the newspaper is traded for a trashy, beachside novel. With colourful words like “extraordinary” and “bizarre”, you can bet Tony Abbott is hoping these are the ones that will linger on as we lie in the sun.
Dr. Nichole Georgeou is currently an Honorary Research Fellow, Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong. In 2013, she will commence atAustralian Catholic University (Strathfield) as Lecturer in International Development Studies and Global Studies. Nichole is also a Board Member of Palms Australia.
There has been a surge in numbers of people volunteering abroad since the 1990s and the practice of tying development volunteering to the National Interest has exploded globally. There are well over 50,000 volunteers from the 23 OECD sending countries (plus programs sponsored by developing countries), working in development activities in any given year. The number of volunteers abroad,who are in government funded volunteering placements for periods of over one year, amounts to well over one-fifth of all skilled international personnel working in developing countries.
These numbers are swelled by a diversification in the form that development volunteering has taken including the proliferation of for-profit businesses in development volunteer sending (short term “voluntourism”), as well as e-volunteering, south-to-south volunteering and reverse volunteering.
Australia is part of this global trend and the Australian government has welcomed this interest. Like many other OECD countries Australia has linked volunteering closely to the aid program. These closer ties have removed the traditional radical elements from development volunteering that were present when the idea first emerged with work camps after WWI. Gone is the emphasis on cross-cultural engagement, participation and empowerment at the grassroots level of people in their own development. Now a service-driven approach has volunteers as the human face of Australian aid. They provide funded, specialist and “non-political” advice. Volunteering has become “duchessed”, but it looks great on a CV.
NGOs are part of civil society; they are formed by volunteers who have ideals and causes. By their very nature, they are political. Yet since 2004, for Australians, the ethos of volunteering for development has been methodically stripped of its political element. Australia’s volunteer sending program has been systematically restructured and integrated into our Overseas Development Aid agenda. In May this year the final nail went into the coffin. In line with other OECD countries, AusAID’s organisational restructure now clearly reflects a market-based logic. NGOs and businesses, which would appear to be two unlikely bedfellows, are now linked in the same section, while the Volunteer Branch has been delinked from NGOs and placed with Scholarships.
These changes in AusAIDs organisational structure exemplify the shift in the Australian Government’s volunteer sending program – one that has occurred in conjunction with the deepening of neoliberal ideology in Australian aid policy. Our “embedded neoliberalism” has provided the ideological and procedural rationales for the tendering and contracting out of volunteer sending to select “service providers”. It has firmly linked the objectives of creating open markets and efficient state sectors to serving Australia’s national interests. While the market is deified, the language of “participation” and “empowerment” is utilised to distract from the new managerial processes that facilitate and obscure the economic, ideological and political intent of these restructures in the overseas aid program.
In this context I employ the term “duchessed” to describe the “professionalisation” and “institutionalisation” of development volunteering. Old time leftists used the term duchessed to describe comrades neutralised of their radicalism when drawn into the system they opposed through flattery, rewards, promotions and other such enticements. Those duchessed maintained they were still true believers serving the cause. The term originally referred to people, but I use it here to describe the de-radicalising of once “dangerous” political ideas such as “participation”, “partnership” and “empowerment” that were once historically central to much development volunteer activity.
Since 2001, the Australian government has capitalised on this popular interest and recognised the importance of volunteer sending programs. It developed a series of Ministerial statements titled “Volunteers and the Aid program”. More recently, on 24 October 2011 when Australian Volunteers International (AVI) celebrated 60 years of volunteer sending at the Royal Perth Yacht Club, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop, referred to volunteers as the “human face” of the aid program — they spread goodwill in our region and bring hope for a brighter future to thousands of developing communities. The Australian aid program also claims that volunteers build people-to-people linkages between Australia and developing countries. This veils the political agenda of volunteer assignments that “support the priorities of the Australian Government’s aid program”.
The emphasis in volunteering on “participation” and “partnership” masks the centrality of “national interest” to development aid. It is this radical contradiction in intent that often confronts development volunteers when their altruistic humanitarian concerns and motivations sit uncomfortably with the regional and economic agenda of the Australian government. Both the 2003 foreign policy White Paper and the 2006 overseas aid White Paper emphasised “Australia’s national interest”, and demonstrated a willingness to use the foreign aid budget to advance Australia’s regional and economic ambitions. This is now clearly seen in Australia’s increasing militarisation of the aid program, but also through its push at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in July 2012 in Rio for mining to be adopted as a sustainable development practice, and for aid to be used to promote private financing.
From “Participation” and “Empowerment” to “Vocationalisation”
Historically, “participation” referred to the process of redistributing power through the involvement of oppressed peoples in decisions that affected their lives and opportunities. The concept was shaped by the ideas of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, who in the late 1940s, linked emancipation from poverty to the empowerment and liberation of disadvantaged people. He put this into practice in the 1960s. Political change was central to his praxis, and such an approach joined education and mass literacy programs to collectivist political agendas that were often anti-capitalist. Volunteers lived in solidarity with local people, working alongside them towards local agendas of political change — volunteering was a radical activity centred on cross-cultural relationships and learning.
Now volunteering has been “duchessed”, along with the emancipatory language of “participation”, “partnership” and “empowerment”; it is no longer seen as politically radical but as part of the “development industry”. While it looks good on CVs, the view of volunteering that now dominates is one disassociated from political action. Volunteering has been reconceptualised as “service provision”. This framework has been adopted by multilateral institutions and governments and is reflected in the Australian Government’s Volunteer Sending program. Specifically, development volunteering has been reduced to “technical exchange” and the transmission of skills.
The focus on service provision promotes the “vocationalisation” of volunteering. The emphasis is on the job to be done. Placements become assignments requiring particular “skill sets” within the development project. The direct linking of the aid program to volunteer sending agencies means local elites encourage placements that align with “good governance” agendas. The reconfiguring of institutions in recipient countries to speak to the market benefits the elites in both recipient and sending countries. Some 45% of volunteers work in the governance sector or professional bureaucratic positions in government departments. The remainder are spread among private enterprises, NGOs (often international) and educational institutions. Grassroots volunteer placements are becoming a thing of the past.
Development volunteering has been stripped of its political meaning and has lost its social justice and political dimensions — in short it has been “duchessed”. Government sponsored volunteer placements emphasise a technical approach of experts “doing development”. Yet, some volunteer agencies still cling doggedly to their principles. While the majority of volunteers are motivated by humanitarian and social justice concerns it is imperative they consider the political framework they engage in when they undertake development volunteering. They should carefully research the agenda of the sending organisation and the form of development that its placements promote.
The Australian Federal Government has once again earned the ire of NGOs, refugee advocacy groups and any one with a sense of social justice. It announced that $375 million (or 7.2% of Australia’s 2012-3 aid budget of $5.2 billion) will be “used to pay for the expenses of asylum seekers on the Australian mainland” (ABC News, 18 December 2012).
Senator Bob Carr, Australia’s Foreign Minister, justifies this allocation: “As the OECD sees it, money spent supporting refugees on your own soil is a valid expenditure of aid money”. And, although the response from Australia’s aid/development sector has been swift in denouncing the move, Mr. Carr is correct. Grinch or not, Australia can, and already does, do this; and so do many other OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) member countries.
This is not a ‘cut’ in Australia’s aid as many are claiming. It is a re-allocation. However, neither perhaps is it a standard practice (read: accounting practice) that should still exist. It is indicative and representative of a global aid system that fails to allocate aid in ways that could have the greatest and most transparent impact.
To under what this $375 million decision means, we need to get beyond the rhetoric of #dontcutaid, and delve into the murky abyss that is OECD DAC reporting guidelines and directives.
“In-donor refugee costs”
This is the label for the line item in OECD country’s reported aid budget referring to money spent in-country on the needs of refugees. According to the OECD, specific instruction on reporting was first introduced in 1988, in which donor countries could report expenditures on refugees as aid. This directive has essentially remained unchanged since.
In 2010, only $4.4 million (or 0.17% of Australia’s aid budget) was ‘in-donor refugee costs’. This year was also the first year Australia allocated any significant part of its aid budget to ‘in-donor refugee costs’. According to OECD statistics, between 2006-2008, nothing was reported in Australia’s aid budget as ‘in-donor refugee costs’.
Needless to say, this is a very significant increase, and may be justified in the context of increasing the annual number of refugees resettled in Australia by 6,000 (per the recommendations of the independent review panel earlier this year).
This is a standard practice of OECD countries. The Netherlands and Norway, both which have strong refugee resettlement programs, allocated 5.3% and 7.3% of their 2010 aid budget respectively to ‘in-donor refugee costs’. Switzerland allocated a sizeable 15.9% of its aid budget.
Indeed, ‘in-donor refugee costs’ are trending. According to OECD DAC reporting, “Over the period 2006-10, the total volume of ODA in-donor refugee costs reported by DAC members has doubled in nominal terms, from USD 1.8 billion to USD 3.6 billion. The share in total net ODA has also risen steadily from 1.6% to 2.5% over the same period”.
Is it aid?
Yes, technically it is Official Development Assistance (ODA); the DAC’s official term for the aid its member countries disburse. But, there are a number of things to keep in mind in light of Mr. Carr’s announcement and our response to it.
1. It may be used to cover a variety of expenditures beyond basic necessities. The $375 million will be used for “expenditures for the sustenance of refugees in donor countries during the first twelve months of their stay. This includes payments for refugees’ transport to the host country and temporary sustenance (food, shelter and training); these expenditures should not be allocated geographically” [This is according to Line I.A.8.2 Refugees in donor countries (code 1820) of the DAC Statistical Reporting Directives]. However, there is no standard practice in this regard, and the costs of various assistance programs can also be covered (e.g. professional training, administrative costs, police, interpretation, or counselling, resettlement assistance for quota refugees).
2. According to the Government, it has already ‘released’ 400 asylum seekers on bridging visas while their claims are assessed. However, according to the above DAC guidelines, only 12 months of expenditures can be covered under ‘in-donor refugee costs’.
3. Australia could spend the money to cover costs of detention centres on Nauru and Christmas Island. The costs, expenditures and ‘type’ of refugee covered vary from country to country. For example, many countries, including the Netherlands and Norway, spend ‘in-donor refugee costs’ while asylum seekers are waiting for a decision on their claim to refugee status. Others, including Canada and the U.S, allocate it cover expenditures after a decision has been made regarding asylum seekers’ claim (see table below for an overview). This includes the expenditures on asylum seekers who have their claims rejected.
4. The average cost per refugee under this budget item varies from country to country. In Canada, it was just above an average of USD10,000 for 12 months in 2009. In Belgium, the average was over USD32,500 for 12 months for the same year. Clearly, the $375 million will not just cover the 12-month expenditures of the 400 asylum seekers on bridging visas (unless the Government spends $937,000 per asylum seeker over 12 months).
The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) has called on the Australian Government to identify what programs will be cut as a result of this re-allocation. In addition, the Australian Government should further identify, in the current spirit of transparency and accountability, what ‘in-donor refugee costs’ will be covered by the $375 million.
In 1994, concerns were expressed by a number of DAC member countries to a Working Party, and the Secretariat recommended phasing out the reporting of ‘in-donor refugee costs’. That is, many members felt that the 12-month up-keep of refugees in donor countries should no longer be reportable as ODA. However, no consensus was reached. Austria, Germany and Japan originally objected. The Director of Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD) wrote to delegations in June 1994, observing that:
“Members have increasingly come to query the developmental relevance of expenditure on refugees in developed countries…Moreover, the ODA definition requires expenditures to be made ‘with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries” as [the] main objective’. Thus ODA-eligibility depends on the intention of the donor at the time of the transaction, not on the ultimate impact of the transaction….As donor assistance to incoming refugees is designed to meet their welfare needs, and not to promote the development of their countries of origin, it falls outside the ODA definition, even though it is patently a component of humanitarian assistance…”.
The Director then suggested that each member country create a schedule of how to achieve the elimination of ‘in-donor refugee costs’ from ODA by the year 2000. When member states reconvened on this issue after 2000, and after extensive statistical research and dialogue, there was still no consensus by 2002.
Australia, at the time, wanted to maintain ODA reporting of these ‘in-donor refugee costs’. Although Australia is under no obligation to either report or not report, the Federal Government could join Korea and Luxembourg as the only other DAC member countries that do not report ‘in-donor refugee costs’ as foreign aid; and become a true leader in calling for the more effective allocation of aid.
Should AusAID get more involved in conflict mediation in developing nations, especially those of our region? This was a suggestion posed recently on the Development Policy Blog, by Nate Shea and Melbourne academics John Langmore and Aran Martin. They suggest that AusAID should embrace peaceful conflict resolution processes and establish a specialist unit dedicated to conflict mediation, in particular intrastate conflict.
In this extended interview, Nate and Albion discuss:
The hopes of AusAID favourably hearing this suggestion, especially considering the recently published ‘Framework for working in fragile and conflict-affected states: Guidance for staff’ report.
The efficacy and previous successes of peaceful conflict resolution.
At the recent Pacific Islands forum the Gillard government annoucned a number of new aid initiatives. Amongst them was the announcement of a 10 year, $320 million Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative, aimed at empowering women in the Pacific politically, economically and socially. Ambitious in its hopes, it has been widely praised and lauded by the aid community in Australia.
Sydney-based AID/WATCH celebrates their 20th anniversary this year. Albion Harrison-Naish caught up with their Campaigner, Liz Barrett to discuss the highs and lows of the last 20 years as well as what still needs to be done. This extended interview includes 11 minutes of new material, in which Liz talks about mining for development, the Cambodian Railways Project and the need for civil society to keep government aid programs accountable, transparent and ethical.
The recent High Court judgement in Australia upholding legislation to enforce plain packaging for tobacco products provides a good opportunity to look at the impacts of tobacco in low and middle income countries, and what’s needed to stem the tide of poverty and mortality they cause.
It’s increasingly recognised that non communicable diseases (NCDs) are among the greatest threats to global public health. According to the WHO, in 2008 NCDs (consisting of cardio-vascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases , cancers, and diabetes) were responsible for 63% of all deaths worldwide. The key source for statistics on the burden of NCDs – the WHO’s Global Status Report on NCDs 2010– presents clear evidence that NCDs primarily affect low and middle income countries. In 2008, 80% of all NCDs deaths occurred in low and middle income countries – an increase from 40% in 1990.
Tobacco use is a major driver of the NCD epidemic, and is one of the single biggest public health threats the world has ever seen. Tobacco causes around 6 million deaths each year, and ultimately kills around half of its users. 10% of people killed by tobacco aren’t even smokers – but instead are killed by exposure to second hand smoke. Importantly, 80% of all smokers are in low and middle income countries. Tobacco use isn’t only a health problem, but is actually a development issue. Tobacco users who die prematurely deprive their families of income, raise the cost of health care and hinder economic development. Money spent on tobacco would obviously be better spent on healthy food and education.
Over recent years there has been increased momentum in global tobacco control. In February 2005, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control came into force, and since then it has become one of the most widely embraced treaties in the United Nations’ history, with more than 170 Parties covering 87% of the world’s population. The WHO Framework Convention is an important contribution to global public health – it reaffirms the right of people to the highest standard of health, provides legal foundations for international health cooperation and sets high benchmarks for compliance.
Much more, however, is needed if we are to stall and reverse the growth in tobacco use and NCDs more broadly. One of the key elements of the tobacco threat, as countries like Australia recognise and address this problem, is that tobacco companies are adopting increasingly aggressive strategies to increase their infiltration of developing countries. In countries like China, India and Indonesia, overall rises in economic development have led to an increase in tobacco use. A good example of this is the Tobacco Asia Conference, which is scheduled to be held in Indonesia on 19 September 2012. A coalition of civil society groups came out strongly against this conference, noting that ‘The conference committee deems Indonesia a tobacco-friendly market with no smoking bans or other restrictions or regulations compared to other ASEAN countries. That is an insult to our nation because it means we are supporting death, and we are urging the government to ban this conference.’ Such protest and awareness raising has a vital role to play in ensuring that the tobacco industry and governments are held accountable and that the damage to low and middle income countries is halted.
It’s also vital that the tobacco control lessons that have been learnt in the developed world are shared with low and middle income countries. In July 2012, the Australia India Institute Taskforce on Tobacco Control launched a report outlining steps that could be taken in India to reduce the use and impacts of tobacco products. Drawing upon achievements in Australia, the report outlines how legislative change, public education, enhanced Government accountability, plain packaging and pictorial warnings will help reduce the roughly 1 million Indians who die from tobacco use each year.
It’s also important that tobacco control is seen as a core element of efforts to improve global public and eliminate poverty. One way this can be achieved is through elements of tobacco control being funded through the aid programs of developed countries like Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. AusAID has started funding tobacco control in the Pacific, including through activities like surveys on youth smoking, promotion of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and interventions including enforcement training. AusAID is also providing funding to address the disease outcomes of tobacco use, including cancer. This funding is currently focused on the Pacific, and it’s important that Australia’s commitment broadens to include other countries with major tobacco and NCD problems in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Finally, it’s vitally important that international development agencies embrace the need to tackle tobacco use. At present, programs to reduce tobacco use and control NCDs are largely limited to agencies that have a specific focus on these issues. The World Health Assembly’s decision in May 2012 to adopt a new global target of a 25% reduction in premature mortality from NCDs by 2025 was a step in the right direction; as was the inclusion of NCDs in the Rio + 20 Earth Summit’s outcomes document The Future We Want. What’s needed now is for tobacco control and NCDs to be placed at the centre of the international development discourse. The Oxfams and World Visions of the world need recognise and respond to the problem, and the post 2015 MDGs need to have a clear commitment to this crucial public health and development issue.