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John Howard's foreign aid package not enough

By Nick Coatsworth - posted Tuesday, 20 September 2005

When I returned from the Congo earlier this year I did so with some sense of hope. Tony Blair’s end-to-world-poverty juggernaut was gathering momentum. The Gleneagles summit had marginalized George Bush and gained multilateral support for a plan to increase foreign aid and wipe third world debt. The frightening health and social status of the people I had treated had some prospect of improvement.

But my sense of hope has been met with an equal sense of shame at my own government’s failure to help the world’s needy. It was even more acute when John Howard delivered his foreign aid package at the UN World Summit in New York last week.

Howard announced a one billion dollar increase in our aid budget over five years, raising the bar from its current level of 0.28 percent of Gross Domestic Product. He did this on the global stage basking in the reflected glory of leaders like Blair who have demonstrated a far greater commitment to helping the world’s poor.


As in all things Howard, wiping back the thin gloss of deceit, reveals an aid policy big on self-interest and short on effective means to combat poverty.

Howard said last week his government “has a good record on overseas aid”. Comparing our record with other nations unveils the truth. This year’s Cumulative Development Index, which analyses the aid packages of rich nations, ranks Australia 16th out of 21 nations in the relative size and effectiveness of our aid program.

Last year Australia contributed only 24 million dollars over three years to the United Nation’s Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS. By contrast, the Netherlands, with a similar sized economy to our own, pledged nearly 200 million dollars.  

Howard went on to say that strict regulations would be put in place to ensure that money was not spent on corrupt governments. Regulation of the way the aid dollar is spent has little to do with corruption fears and a lot to do with promoting our own (and the United States’) political agenda.  

Ausaid, the Australian Government’s aid organ, unashamedly holds “advancing the national interest” ahead of “helping developing countries reduce poverty.” How has a developed nation advancing its national interest ever helped the third world? The concept is so contradictory as to be absurd.

Regulating the aid dollar for political ends is a phenomenon that directs funds away from the genuinely needy. Following in the footsteps of USAID, Ausaid has moved funding away from multilateral, UN based aid programs and toward unilateral agreements with individual governments. Howard will promote an aid package that gives 1.25 billion dollars to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. By contrast, a paltry $38 million over three years goes toward reducing the debt of the world’s poorest nations. 


Couched as “regional responsibility” by Howard, the aid dollar is being used to bribe unstable Pacific governments which may otherwise accept aid from China. This is simply a reflection of US regional foreign policy and does little to help the poorest of the world. 

Australia’s unilateralism extends to its position on the Millenium Development Goals. The MDGs set out specific targets for the reduction of extreme poverty and hunger, empowerment of women and universal education among others. Howard announced his aid package in New York at the same time as the world argues the validity of the MDGs.

The Coalition Government sees the Millenium Development Goals as an aspiration rather than concrete goals.  This is classic Howard linguistic gymnastics. With a single turn of phrase he withdraws all sense of true commitment to battling world poverty. As a result he will increase our contribution to foreign aid to just under 0.3 per cent of gross domestic product, less than half of the 0.7 per cent recommended as a development goal, and still act like a latter day Robin Hood.

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About the Author

Dr Nick Coatsworth is completing a Masters degree in International Public Health with a focus on humanitarianism at the University of Sydney. He is currently working with Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Congo.

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