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Foreign aid: moral imperative and national interest

By James Dryburgh - posted Monday, 28 May 2012

The federal budget announcement brought to boil a long-simmering epiphany: if we rely on governments to redistribute wealth internationally, it will never happen. It also raised questions of whether foreign aid is actually what most Australians think it is. Perhaps, if we wish for a culture that gives 0.5 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) to alleviate poverty, we must create it ourselves.

The Federal government had committed to increase foreign aid from 0.35 per cent to 0.5 by 2015-16. The recent budget included the postponement of this commitment for a further year.

Though I was bitterly disappointed the Gillard government broke another promise by dumping the commitment to increase foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of our GNI, I was not surprised. Amongst the daily talk of the ´mining boom´ few words are spared for the miners of places like Bolivia, who earn a couple dollars a day and die in their thirties from a profession that dissolves their lungs and breaks their bodies. Though no one would deny we are all now connected by a global economy, no country is ready to make national economic decisions within the global context, that is to say, for the global good.


There are sound arguments that it is both a moral imperative and in our national interest to contribute to poverty alleviation, even on the most distant shores. At its most basic, the moral argument can be condensed into the question: Why should wealth or poverty be a lottery of birth place? History is also on the side of the moral argument, showing that one place is generally wealthy at the expense of another. Most of the world's wealthy countries have grown off the back of usurpation of today's poorer nations via colonial claims of resources, slavery and manipulation of governments. It was the mountains of silver and the slave-fed plantations of the 'New World' that gave birth to European capitalism whilst impoverishing the inhabitants of those rich lands.

It is often argued that poverty alleviation is not simply charity, but is in our national interest. Poverty drives conflict. Whether it is the Taliban of Afghanistan or the FARC of Colombia, it is poverty and inequality that makes recruitment easy. Though most Australians view foreign aid as charity, it is fundamentally the difference between the moral imperative and national interest that differentiates charity from foreign aid.

A recent report from the House of Lords recommended the government abandon the target of 0.7 per cent of GNI committed to at the Gleneagles G8 Summit in 2005, the year the Make Poverty History campaign gained short-lived mass media attention on the world´s poor. David Cameron has been defending the commitment, arguing it is in the national interest, because aid is often conditional investment. It was reported last year that the UK would continue giving aid to India, a country that now has its own overseas aid program, partly as a means to try to secure a Typhoon fighter jet contract for BAE Systems. There are other cases where ´aid for trade´ has been found to be illegal.

Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement suggests that aid no longer forms part of our moral commitment to global equity, but rather is justified by the ´business case´ to do it. Most commonly, aid is used to facilitate trade, stability and security. It is never offered without strings attached. At its worst it can be a sophisticated form of colonialism, ensuring ongoing debt and dependency.

Those who believe our aid contribution should be increased may also deeply disapprove of how the money is distributed and the conditions placed on recipients. Yet, most of us could easily divert 0.5 per cent of our own annual income and chose exactly where it goes. Some criticise charity, but it has always been essential, every major religion has recognises this. Charity comes from the Latin, caritas meaning 'generous love' - sometimes it is the only way to limit suffering.

We are all now linked by a global economy. Our economic activity can affect people and place all over the globe. With influence comes responsibility. Fortunately globalization has also created opportunities for individuals to have a positive influence from a far.


Whether it be micro-finance, medical aid, specific campaigns, disaster relief or NGOs we trust, there are numerous ways to help alleviate poverty, many of which can be done with no more than an internet connection and a credit card. If we are travelers or volunteers we may be able to contribute more directly to needy areas, with our knowledge, labour and money. Sure, some systems are imperfect, but this is no justification to walk away or defer responsibility solely to foreign aid programs.

Though there are some Australians who have nothing to spare, some of us would find that we can comfortably go beyond 0.5 per cent as we discover and engage in the processes we believe in. Regardless, even 0.5 per cent of the average Australian income is enough to transform the lives of a large family in most parts of the world.

I would never argue that we should not continue to expect our governments to ensure fighting international poverty is higher on their list of priorities. We must. But we cannot rely on governments to act without also acting as individuals. Nor can we rely on governments to act from a moral imperative, institutions don't have morals, only individuals do.

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About the Author

James Dryburgh is a Scottish-born Tasmanian writer. He has lived in Scotland, Spain and Latin America and is Co-editor of Tasmanian Times.

His writing has been published by New Internationalist, Island Magazine, Smith Journal, The Famous Reporter, Green Left Weekly, On Line Opinion, Axis of Logic (USA), Correo del Orinoco (Venezuela) and others. James will be speaking at the World Congress on Rural Sociology in Lisbon this year on the role of media and story-telling in communicating the realities of poor rural communities.

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