THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
2015 AUSTRALASIAN AID CONFERENCE
THE AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
THURSDAY, 12 FEBRUARY 2015
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Every now and then, an image, a story, a funny cat video goes viral on the internet.
A couple of weeks ago, a news story originally from the BBC achieved that status. It was – you’ve probably seen it – about a 90 year old great-grandmother attending primary school in Kenya. Born when Kenya was still British occupied, never having had the opportunity for formal education, this remarkable woman [Priscilla Sitienei] has worked as a midwife for more than 65 years, and in fact delivered many of her classmates.
She enrolled in school to be an example to other women, particularly young mothers who had dropped out of school, by proving that you are never too old for an education – saying: "I want to say to the children of the world, especially girls, that education will be your wealth, don't look back and run to your father."
It’s a great story with lots of feel-good factors, and you can see why it was shared so widely, especially when you get to the bit about how she still practices as a midwife out of school hours – in the dormitory she shares with one of her great-grandchildren.
And it reminded everyone who read it of the power of education, to create opportunities, ignite aspirations, to transform lives – and of the hunger for education among those who have been denied it.
That transformative power of education, to create the preconditions for individuals and nations to rise from poverty, is why the second Millennium Development Goal is to achieve universal primary education.
And the not-so-feel good part of that BBC story is that while in many places, that goal is almost achieved, sub-Saharan Africa is falling behind.
And what hasn’t gone viral, but has instead sunk without a trace, is that the Abbott Government has cut the aid to sub-Saharan Africa by more than half – cut $118m out of what had been a $224m budget under Labor.
Plan International estimates that the aid cuts mean that in the next year alone, 220,000 girls will be denied the chance to enrol in school. We have been told just in the last few days that a program to allow young women to attend school in Uganda has ended, and that programs to support youth livelihood, so critical to economic growth, in Timor and Bangladesh can’t continue. The Fred Hollows Foundation was forced to axe programs in Indonesia, China, Vietnam and within Africa .
Australians are a generous people, as the overwhelming public response to disasters and crises shows. By May 2005, Australian individuals and businesses had donated $313 million in response to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. That was a high point – but even in 2013, funding raised in Australia by humanitarian appeals in response to disasters around the world was more than $98 million.
Even in countries where foreign aid has become a hotly contested political football between parties, a large majority of people support the idea of bringing food to the hungry, medicine to the sick, education to those denied it and hope to those who otherwise have none.
Our fellow Australians are not the only ones to have an inherent understanding of a truth the current government seems unable to grasp: in a globalised world we are all connected: not merely in an abstract, ‘no man is an island’ sense but by a complex web of economic links, by trade, travel and cultural exchange.
When vaccination programs eliminate communicable diseases, we are all more healthy; when nations become markets for our goods and suppliers of their own, we are all more wealthy; and when education levels rise and skills expand, we may not all be more wise but we all reap the benefits of innovation, invention and creativity.
However, while support for aiding others is and remains strong, support for “foreign aid” as an abstract concept, divorced from specific crises, needs and goals, is far more tenuous.
For a period, the “Make Poverty History” campaign successfully drew a direct connection between government investment in foreign aid and addressing the ills that people care about, and built a powerful consensus between citizens, NGOs, and governments.
But, as with everything, consensus must be renewed and rebuilt on a constant basis. If there is one thing politics has taught me, it is that no victory is final, no cause is ever over, and public support for any policy can never be assumed.
When it comes to foreign aid, we have seen old caricatures about waste and bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption, once again exploited for base political gain both here and overseas – as that clear connection between our aid and the good it does slid out of the public eye and faded from people’s minds.
And in Australia, with the destruction of the bipartisan approach to aid since the Abbott Government’s election, we have seen that consensus dwindle.
When Labor was in government we nearly doubled the aid budget and worked toward the reaching the 0.5 per cent target by 2017-18. The Liberals have slashed $11.2 billion dollars from the Australian aid program, a cut at every budget and financial update since they were elected, and they have walked away from the previously bipartisan agreement on the aid program. They have now cut more money from aid than was budgeted for by Labor in our forward estimates. In the last budget, 20% of all cuts, one dollar in every five cut, came from this one area – the biggest cut to any program was to aid.
These cuts aren’t just a headline statistic. They mean:
- 1,424,796 children could be born without a birth attendant
- 2,237,280 children may not get to enrol in school
- 3,775,052 children may not be vaccinated
- 4,710,642 people may not get access to safe water
- 21,944,521 people in emergency situations may go unassisted.
In the next year alone, as Plan International has calculated, the latest cuts to foreign aid could mean:
- 220,000 fewer girls will be enrolled in school, and;
- 400,000 fewer girls will be immunised, and;
- 3,153 fewer classrooms where girls can learn will be renovated or built, and;
- 157,000 fewer girls will get better access to safe drinking water, and;
- 750,000 fewer textbooks will be made available for girls.
To retain public support, aid must be effective, it must be efficient, and it must be argued for.
Now, in the 18 months since the Abbott Government was elected, we have heard a lot about aid effectiveness, as if it were some kind of new discovery.
In fact Australia has over many years built a highly effective aid program through our NGOs and our specialist aid agency AusAID:
- Look at 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.
- Look at the mobile courtrooms in Indonesia helping disadvantaged women get marriage and birth certificates, so they could enrol their children in school.
- Look at the women in Papua New Guinea who were able to trade their goods in the local markets 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.
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. Australia had a highly effective aid program.
It was the Abbott Government which has made Australian aid less efficient and less effective.
Abolishing Ausaid saw the loss of a tremendous reserve of expertise in aid delivery. As you all know, delivering aid programs takes a different set of skills to consular and diplomatic work – and as Australia’s record shows, the expertise, knowledge and experience of Ausaid staff enabled Australian aid to be more effective and more efficient. It was a force multiplier.
Australia needs specialists to design, run, measure and assess aid programs and to build effective partnerships on the ground.
Expertise allows us to go further than the simple platitudes so beloved by this Government, such as ‘give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime’.
Expertise leads us to ask questions like –
- who is going to build and staff the school that provides the vocational training to teach that man to fish?
- Who owns the cannery where he sells his excess catch?
- Does the cannery owner pay their fair share of tax so that the government can fund education for the next generation to learn to fish? Or will different training, for different jobs, be necessary?
- What about the downstream industries?
- How sustainable is fishing in that area – will emphasis on fishing as a preferred trade lead to overfishing, fish stock exhaustion, and the collapse of the industry?
- Does the fisherman get a fair price? And what role does technology have in that – for example, can he, as fishermen in Nigeria do, use his mobile phone to check prices before deciding which market to put in to?
Proverbs and platitudes fail as aid programs negotiate the challenges of tax justice, of strong governance, of inclusive and sustainable development.
Of course every dollar counts.
Labor wants to be sure our aid programs, our NGOs and private sector partners have the expertise, the skills and the professionalism needed to achieve maximum value from our investment.
We have seen – just in our own lifetimes – that goals once believed unachievable, like a polio-free India, can be attained, with methodical and targeted efforts. I believe that with focus, with application, with the appropriate expertise, other seemingly impossible tasks are within the international aid community’s capacity.
But I also know that when Australia once again has a government committed to taking aid seriously, a Labor Government, we will be trying to plant in fields sown with salt.
Australia’s government agencies have lost skilled personnel - lost expertise and experience. Successful projects have closed. We have lost skilled activists in the community and we have lost the critical community consensus.
It will not be a simple matter of pressing the restart button. Australia will have to concentrate on what we can do well, where our investment will do most good, as we rebuild an Australian aid program.
It is important to be clear about what the purpose of our aid program is: it is to attack poverty.
Aid cannot by itself lift a nation out of poverty; but it can create the preconditions for individuals and nations to lift themselves. The idea of a basic level of food, shelter and support necessary to live rather than merely exist, contains within it the understanding that no-one can innovate, can thrive, can work to reform their government and institutions, if all their energy must be ceaselessly bent to surviving each day. It is hard to learn if you don’t have enough to eat; it is hard to work if you have malaria.
Without addressing the crippling effects of poverty, other aid goals cannot be as effective as they ought to be.
I cannot understand a government which removes poverty alleviation as an objective of our aid program, as the Abbott Government did.
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 – growth is good, not for its own sake, but to help people and countries overcome poverty.
The Abbott Government has neither clarity about aid’s purpose nor clarity about the role of government.
The partnership between government, NGOs and the private sector only works when it is built on predictability, respect and transparency. But since the change of government, our ranking on the Aid Transparency Index – an independent measure of how much and how frequently aid information is made available, crucial to avoiding overlap and enabling long term planning – has dropped.
The adoption of the Open Government Partnership - an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens - has stalled. And while the Abbott Government says that they will redirect resources to NGOs which are effective on the ground, so far there is little to no information about how that effectiveness will be evaluated.
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. Organisations can’t commit to the long term initiatives that may be necessary for real change, and they spend too much of their time chasing funding rather than doing their core work.
In fact, NGOs have described signing contracts with the Australian Government, contracting with local partners for delivery and then being told funding is no longer available. Successive waves of cuts mean just as new budgets, cutting staff and programs are settled, new cuts from the government require more retrenchment.
Ladies and gentlemen, I began by talking about the benefits that we receive from the foreign aid we invest in health, education and economic development. Australia cannot be secure in an insecure world, and poverty and inequality have been a cause of insecurity throughout recorded history.
But there is another reason why we aid those in need – the reason giving remains popular even when ‘foreign aid’ is not.
Our fellow Australians know well the voices of what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. We all know the names of those angels: empathy, understanding, compassion, generosity.
We hear those angels most clearly when it is people close to us in need: when our own child is sick, when our own friend is ill; when our own family is in hardship. But we also hear those angels when they speak on behalf of the stranger, the foreigner, the dweller in a distant land.
We aid those who need it not only because of what it gives to us, but because of what it does for us: show us that despite our differences we are all share similar needs and aspirations, we all feel similar fears and loves. To turn our back on that is to accept a narrower, cramped soul.
Those of us who understand the importance of foreign aid – the importance of the role that government alone can play, the effect that foreign aid has on alleviating and preventing suffering, uplifting horizons, and opening opportunities – have an obligation to build and to ceaselessly rebuild that bridge between public understanding of the good of giving and our own understanding of the good of aid. No consensus is ever permanent, and the consensus for foreign aid is no different. It is, I know, a tiring task to make and make again the argument for something which we know to be good policy. But to turn away from that responsibility is to accept a narrower, cramped Australia.