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Leave out the rhetoric and get back to basics

By Tim O'Connor - posted Friday, 9 June 2006

“PM out, good governance now!” is the chant that greets the palms swaying in the gentle morning breeze and the waves lapping the shore of a tropical idyll not too far to our north. The year is 2008 and an angry mob has gathered with the aim of overthrowing the government that has consistently failed to deliver basic services to the majority of its citizens.

Led by a charismatic young man recently returned from Australia where he received his PhD in Economics, many of those involved have also recently completed a course funded by AusAID aimed at strengthening civil society and boosting good governance.

Such a scenario is likely a very tricky proposition for Australia. It is also a very likely scenario in the wake of the “new” approach Australia is pursuing through its aid program.


The recent White Paper on Australian aid is certainly a softening of the hard-nosed interventionist experiment Australia has pursued through its aid program since September 11, 2001. The White Paper rhetoric about economic growth and development is stronger than ever, although the hard evidence to substantiate this position is still lacking. The aid White Paper is also brimming with mentions of women and children, a re-found trend in Australian aid that had fallen off the agenda in the late 1990s. Intermingled with the expected rhetoric of economic growth and incentives (did someone say mutual obligation …) a renewed focus on health and education is a welcome return to the staples of aid delivery.

One of the few “new” approaches in the aid White Paper is a reinvention of the Colombo Plan. The aim of this new leadership training program is to skill up young leaders in our aid-recipient nations so that they can think, act and talk like us. A key problem with this approach, apart from the obvious cultural impact, is what role these new “leaders” will have.

Australia has, over the past two decades spent enormous sums on education scholarships in our aid program, with little apparent impact. In the leadership training program are the new leaders set to go back to their countries and overthrow their elected governments, as the above scenario suggests - thereby becoming the new elites?

If this is the plan, it is interesting the different approach our government has to so-called elites in this country and to the elites in our near neighbours’ countries. But will these newly educated leaders - like so many before them, become part of a brain drain, hopping on to the next flight back to Sydney where so many more opportunities exist? Australia’s plan to colonise the consciousness of the next generation of Pacific leaders, as suggested in the White Paper, lacks any specific detail - but does raise many questions.

The scant detail of the aid White Paper poses many questions and challenges that are set to confront Australia in its continuing expansionist foreign policy focus. The “raging mob of locals, trained in Australia, set on the downfall of their prime minister” scenario, is but one of the potential hazards.

East Timor in the past few weeks has posed a comparable dilemma. Reinado, a charismatic young soldier, is one of the key leaders of the group of military insurrectionists. He has spent a significant amount of time in Australia at the pleasure of the Australian Government, most recently being trained at the Australian Joint Command and Staff College.


How will his government and country view him and his connection with Australia when this present upheaval calms down? Such issues are likely to continue to dog our regional relations in this expanding foreign policy focus.

The Howard Government’s focus on expanding its influence throughout the region can be traced back to East Timor in 1999. Since that successful venture, there have been difficult situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, the troubled Solomons intervention, the failed attempt to intervene in PNG via the Enhanced Cooperation Program, rising tensions with Indonesia over Papua and now back to drama in East Timor.

The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which began as Operation Helpem Fren in July 2003, was a response to the growing civil unrest fuelled by ethnic conflict that had been growing in the Solomons for over a decade.

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About the Author

Tim O’Connor works at AID/WATCH an independent watchdog monitoring the community impacts of Australia’s aid and trade polices.

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