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The deadbeat of international aid

By Bill Bowtell - posted Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The greatest and most immediate threats to Australia's security and prosperity arise from three sources: the degradation of the global environment, the plunging back into poverty of hundreds of millions of our neighbours due to the financial crisis, and new and mutating infectious diseases, including swine influenza, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis.

At the height of the last economic boom most rich countries declined to redistribute wealth at even the minimum levels needed to improve, or just stabilise, the basic health structures of the developing world. Shamefully, they refused the trade deals necessary to let the poorer countries kick-start their own economies, and thereby strengthen their social infrastructure.

They doled out the crumbs from their table, like aristocrats before the French Revolution, never countenancing the peasants becoming traders, merchants (and competitors) in their own right.


Some countries - Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, France and Britain - did better, recognising the imperative to support lifting millions out of destitution and despair. But Australia was not one. Rather, it is a deadbeat of international aid.

We allocate about $3 billion a year on overseas development assistance, or just over 0.3 per cent of gross national product, well below the 0.46 per cent average spent by all OECD countries, itself far short of the United Nations target, 0.7 per cent. The Rudd Government has modestly increased it from the derisory levels of the late Howard years, although it is still below the 0.47 per cent spent in first year of the Hawke government.

But even though some countries do better, the OECD estimated the total global amount of development assistance was about $US120 billion ($168 billion) last year. Compare that to world military spending in 2007 of about $US1.47 trillion.

The consequences of these selfish and counterproductive policies are becoming apparent.

In a globalising world, people are free to travel around the world almost as freely as capital. But when people move in large numbers, so do viruses and pathogens of all kinds.

In the past few decades there have been ominous warning signs that the rich world's failure to invest in the poor world's health systems might have serious global consequences. SARS, avian flu, swine flu and HIV-AIDS emerged, initially undetected and unreported, from the poorer countries where primary health-care systems were weak or non-existent. By the time the problem was understood, the damage was done. The pathogens spread around the world as fast as planes could fly.


The present outbreak of swine flu in Mexico is another tolling bell.

If the situation worsens, restrictions will be placed on travel to and from the United States, as happened in Asia at the time of SARS. Apart from the human toll of death and suffering, the airline industry could not survive a prolonged collapse in passenger numbers. This would have dire economic consequences, particularly for sectors dependent on mass travel and commerce.

The enemies that now pose an existential threat to our global civilisation are not "terrorists", "jihadists", teenage pirates or the few pathetic refugees fleeing the carnage visited upon their countries by the industrialised West. Rather they are slivers of virus, and molecules of carbon dioxide.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on April 28, 2009.

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About the Author

Bill Bowtell is director of the HIV-AIDS Project at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. As senior adviser to the Australian Health Minister 1983-87, he was an architect of Australia’s response to HIV-AIDS and was National President of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. He recently completed a Lowy Institute Policy Brief HIV/AIDS: The Looming Asia Pacific Pandemic.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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