THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
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2014 AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT NATIONAL COUNCIL
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
I would also like to acknowledge:
- Sam Mostyn, President of ACFID;
- Marc Purcell, Executive Director of ACFID;
- Other ACFID council members;
- Senator Lee Rhiannon.
This week Gough Whitlam passed away at the age of 98.
Many of us have been reflecting on how much Australia changed under Gough’s Prime Ministership, and how much has changed since.
That in 1974, Gough brought Australia’s aid spending to its height of 0.5 per cent of GNI – working towards 0.7 per cent - saying it was ‘in recognition of the responsibilities that lie on all of the richer nations to assist the poor and undeveloped countries.’
That today, the Abbott Government has cut aid by $7.6 billion and walked away from the 0.5 per cent target altogether – meaning Australian aid has peaked at 0.35 per cent and is now declining.
Despite the mounting policy successes of recent years as we near the end of the Millennium Development Goals, in Australia we have to confront the fact that bipartisanship on aid is broken and that unprecedented political ground has been lost under the current government.
It has been a little over a year since the Abbott Government was elected, and in that time we have heard a lot about aid effectiveness, as though it were absent prior to the election.
It is important to defend the record and the reality. Australia has over many years built a highly effective aid program through our NGOs and our specialist aid agency AusAID:
- We have the headline statistics, like in Timor-Leste where we helped more than 30,000 farmers improve their yield, in some cases by as much as 80 per cent, or helped 67,000 people get access to basic sanitation.
- We have the anecdotes about individual programs, like the mobile courtrooms in Indonesia helping disadvantaged women get marriage and birth certificates, so they could enrol their children in school.
- We have the individual stories that we all carry around with us, like the women in Papua New Guinea who were able to use the local markets more freely because the ablution blocks our aid program had built meant they did not have to use the nearby bushes and risk being robbed or raped.
But we don’t just have statistics, anecdotal evidence and individual stories.
Positive findings in our own independent reviews were backed up by the most recent Peer Review from the OECD last year, which highlighted some of the strengths of our aid program:
- We were increasing funding in line with our target to reach 0.5 per cent of GNI, our areas of good practice were increasing and the overall degree of fragmentation was decreasing.
- AusAID was singled out for praise for its strategic planning and the coherence it brought to key policy areas.
- Our focus on gender and support of UN Women was among the best in the world, as was our expertise in disability-inclusive aid.
Aid effectiveness is not a new concept. We had a highly effective aid program.
It’s an important point to make, because aid effectiveness matters not just to development outcomes, but to public trust in foreign aid itself.
- You would all have seen the research produced by the Narrative Project this year with the support of a number of your organisations. It confirmed what many of us already knew: that the biggest barrier to mobilising public support for global development is the perception that aid is wasted and that progress is impossible.
Of course we should all demand effectiveness of our aid program.
But in addition to being an important goal in itself, the debate around effectiveness can also operate as a dog-whistle to the sceptics in the community, and a smokescreen for the vandals in government.
We must start the conversation by saying that aid works, and that Australian aid in particular is not just effective but transformational and world-leading.
Internationally, we are facing a changing environment for aid:
- The GFC has seen some donors reducing their efforts, while at the same time we have new entrants like China and India. Public and private donors are shaping the agenda through new partnerships like GAVI which has helped immunize 440 million boys and girls since 2000, saving six million lives.
- We’re seeing greater need around climate change, natural disasters, and disease – like the global implications of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and the need for a coordinated international response.
- At the same time, economic development is happening alongside rapid technological change – like in Kenya, where fishermen out at sea use their mobile phones to check the price of fish at different markets before deciding where to land, and 86 per cent of households report using mobile phones to make payments.
In this changing environment, government is increasingly looking to NGOs and the private sector to play a larger role in development:
- The private sector does have a role to play, but it will never replace effort and expenditure which government withdraws.
- And government also has a particular role to play in providing coordination and accountability which won’t easily be filled by the private sector or NGOs.
- NGOs are partners in the design and delivery of aid programs, and advocates for communities in developing countries, not just a way to outsource our country’s responsibility to the international community.
That partnership between government, NGOs and the private sector only works when it is built on respect and transparency. But the evidence is that the government needs to do much better on this front:
- Since the change of government, our ranking on the Aid Transparency Index has dropped and the adoption of the Open Government Partnership has stalled. Labor joined over 60 other countries in the Open Government Partnership to commit Australia to improving access to information about government activities, through a concrete action plan.
- The Abbott Government says that they will redirect resources to NGOs which are effective on the ground, but so far there is little to no information about how that effectiveness will be evaluated.
- In June, Labor asked when the effectiveness benchmarks would be released – the response from the Government was to point to their new performance framework, and yet all that framework said was that benchmarks would be included in country and regional plans over the next 12 months.
- As you know, it is estimated that the value of aid is reduced by up to 20 per cent when funding is unpredictable and volatile. So the Government’s approach not only means ongoing uncertainty for NGOs who don’t know whether their funding will be cut, but decreased effectiveness for our aid program more broadly.
As we build towards a new international consensus around the Sustainable Development Goals, it is important to be clear about what the purpose of our aid program is:
- I cannot understand a government which removes poverty alleviation as an objective of our aid program, as the Abbott Government did. Surely helping people and countries overcome poverty is the central purpose of foreign aid?
- While trade is important for developing countries, the Abbott Government seems untroubled by the prospect that the gains flowing from increased “aid for trade” may only trickle down unevenly with no guarantee of helping those most in need
- As we know, economic growth does not necessarily reduce inequality. Countries like Cambodia and Indonesia have seen growth and income inequality rise together – and the IMF has even found that inequality ultimately threatens long-term growth.
- So it’s vital that we maintain clarity about the purpose of our aid program – not to drive growth for growth’s sake, but to help people overcome poverty.
The biggest challenge of all, though, is the broken bipartisanship on aid and development.
For the Abbott government, ‘aid effectiveness’ and private sector investment are fig leaves to hide their cuts and failures of political leadership.
To put it bluntly, if the two greatest challenges faced by the aid sector are inequality and climate change, then the Abbott Government has vandalized your agenda for global development:
- Cutting $7.6 billion from aid and walking away from the bipartisan commitment to the 0.5 per cent target of GNI which John Howard signed up to.
- Tearing up the carbon price and taking us backward on climate change at home, and undermining momentum for international action abroad.
These cuts aren’t just a headline statistic. $7.6 billion in aid could contribute to:
- Connecting 600 000 people to basic sanitation or sewerage; and
- Creating 180 000 new school places; and
- Training almost 30 000 health professionals, and ensuring over 300 000 births are attended by a skilled health worker.
But what disturbs me most is the lack of consequences:
- With the 2014 Budget, the Abbott Government bet that even though the cuts to aid were the largest in the Budget by far – one in every five dollars of cuts – the political consequences would be minimal.
- Although some organisations and individuals have spoken up, the lack of a coordinated response by the sector has proven them right.
In Parliament we call “Dorothy Dixers” the planted questions that government ministers are asked by their own backbenchers – named after an American advice columnist who answered her own questions.
It is the way the government of the day draws attention to their political successes, and the things they are most proud of.
This year, Julie Bishop has been asked seven Dorothy Dix questions during Question Time by her own backbenchers about their cuts to aid.
They aren’t just keeping quiet about these cuts, they actually see them as a political windfall. They are crowing about them.
And why shouldn’t they? They can pander to the aid-sceptics in the community while at the same time being welcomed for their ‘commitment to Australia’s aid’ – as ACFID publicly did earlier this month.
When Labor was in government we nearly doubled the aid budget and maintained our commitment to the 0.5 per cent target. The Liberals have cut aid by $7.6 billion and abandoned the 0.5 per cent target.
In this new partisan paradigm, it’s worth remembering that Australia’s commitment to development isn’t just a story about political leadership – giants like Gough Whitlam, and vandals like Tony Abbott.
It’s also a story about the development sector, mobilising the Australian public and lifting our aspirations.
I remember the extraordinary energy of the Make Poverty History campaign which locked in bipartisan support for the 0.5 per cent target – I remember it not just as a moral argument, but as a political strategy for the sector to exert influence over Australia’s place in the world.
And I remember that it worked.
When we ask ourselves why so much political ground has been lost, two features stand out.
Leadership from government.
And a strong, coordinated campaign from the sector which can mobilise public sentiment.
I've been told today that you'll be launching such a campaign tomorrow. I cannot say how thrilled I am to hear it and how pleased I will be to see and support the work you will be doing in communities. I know that there will be people around Australia who will have been looking for this leadership who will be delighted to sign on.
When the Millennium Development Goals were agreed to, we rose to that challenge together – a political success that matters because of the human lives it changed and saved.
Through the MDGs we have:
- Halved global poverty;
- Averted 3.3 million deaths from malaria;
- Provided primary education to 90 per cent of children in developing regions.
As we near the end of the MDGs and the development of the Sustainable Development Goals, it’s clear that these new targets will require more – not less – from the international community.
More commitment to tackling poverty, inequality and environment degradation.
More resources to translate that commitment into results.
We will be asked to lift our ambition and our efforts, and at this crucial moment we cannot allow Australia to think smaller and do less.
The SDGs will articulate the development challenge for the international community, and the roadmap for responding to it.
Whether Australia rises to that challenge and does its fair share is up to us.