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Jaclyn McCosker

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Good vs. Bad Aid: Looking at Australia's foreign aid policy

Good vs. Bad Aid: Looking at Australia's foreign aid policy

International humanitarian and development aid are both essential. They are life-giving, world-changing things. Aid provides rescue missions during disasters, food for the starving, schools for the uneducated and economic boosts for sluggish economies. But both forms of aid are also constantly under attack from right-wing politicians and their voting bank as being pointless.

It is true that our global aid system is a bit sluggish and runs at high over-head costs with varying levels of inefficiency. Ironically however, this inefficiency is almost exclusively caused by those attacking the very principle of aid itself. When you don't have compassion for aid recipients and your only interests are political brownie points, then yeah, your humanitarian aid isn't going to be a well-oiled efficiency machine. It is going to be inefficient and wasteful.

There are three necessary criteria that constitute effective aid:
- Being needs-based
- Addressing long-term needs with sustainable solutions
- Aid beneficiaries have ownership over the assets

On the contrary, government-funded international aid often fails to meet any of these criteria. Increasingly aid is only being administered to countries of strategic geopolitical interests of the donor governments.

Australia's LNP government proudly announced after their 2013 win that they would be cutting aid to any countries that weren't beneficial military allies and distributing it through the Department of Defence. They seemed unashamed to admit that aid would no longer be given based on a needs assessment, and they've gone on to consistently discredit the importance of giving aid and annually cut millions from the foreign aid budget. By focusing only on military and security policy instead of morality or a sense of international duty, tens of thousands of people have gone without previously promised food and medical assistance.

Julie Bishop explained that they would redirect funding and funnel it into our immediate neighbours and Afghanistan, where our troops were stationed to support America's military interests. Unfortunately, there has been no records kept of the effectiveness of this strategy. How convenient! Afghanistan is our 4th largest donor recipient but we have no idea how the money was spent by our Department of Defence as they don't have the same monitoring and evaluation standards as foreign aid departments.

A great example of this policy in play is the decline of US aid to Somalia during the rise of conflict from 2008-2010. Over 2 million people were dependent on US aid for survival, but when a spate of terrorist activity was detected by individuals in the region, the aid was halved despite calls for more. When the country no longer suited US' political interests the civilians were deemed unworthy of survival, regardless of local recommendations that aid be urgently increased.

To read about where the Australian cuts are, e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa funding was cut by 70% in the 2015-2016 budget, visit the Lowy Institute.

This militaristic approach also sees governments maintain ownership and control over any aid given and doesn't allow the beneficiaries to develop a sense of accountability to the goals of the aid. Foreign intervention needs to be strongly aligned with the wants and needs of the recipients. You need full permission, ownership and accountability to ensure long-term success. Without the participation of the beneficiary community and their willingness and ability to carry on the good work after the need for aid subsides, the aid while remaining important becomes far less practical or effective and you're wasting money on what could be a much more meaningful project.

Good development of course will include monitoring, evaluation and reporting to track the projects. However there are specific intricacies involved in project management that locals are best at, and that's where donors need to loosen the reigns. For example, deciding who and where programs should reach. Which is the opposite of a program built with political intentions! Locals know their people better and they need to be able to adapt the assistance offered to most effectively help the most number of people. Rigid specifications are counter-productive and lead to wasted money with little result.

And then we have the lack of sustainability of projects dependent on military or political conditions. It is foolish to believe that humanitarian and military needs are going to align. Projects run by soldiers instead of peaceful, trained third-parties (such as the UN or Red Cross) are often doomed to become targets of opposition aggression, community resentment and suspicion, and overall inefficiency!

Aid designed to quickly boost infrastructure to create the illusion that foreign occupation is in some way beneficial is not good aid. If the aid doesn't match the needs, the aid is useless. If the aid isn't thoughtfully designed and strictly quality-controlled, the aid is useless. If the aid is only distributed by untrained, partisan groups with a priority on reputation before results, the aid is useless.

Politicians can not destroy the mission and purpose of humanitarian or development aid by aligning it with their personal military and political interests, then turn around and spout statistics about corruption and inefficiency. We need to keep a head on our shoulders and realise the critical importance of aid given, and treat our aid budgets and programs with the heavy respect they deserve.

  • Aid should not be used as political or military coercion
  • Aid should be distributed blindly, impartial to any conflicts
  • Aid agencies should be operated independent of foreign and defence agencies
  • Aid should be about long-term solutions, not small-term "success stories"
  • Soldiers should not be confused with humanitarians
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