The concerns of the Australian Government about the “arc of instability” of “failing states” are increasingly reflected in our actions in the region. A focus on policing and military operations mesh in well with our perceived role as “deputy sheriff” to the US, which has tended in recent years to favour military action over a focus on multilateralism and social development.
While Australia’s support for the political problems of our neighbours are commendable, where there is a request for help, we are failing in almost all other areas in our region.
The world has changed a lot since the 1950s. We now understand that “security” is about far more than simply having a powerful military. The social causes of political unrest - such as lack of opportunity, poverty, failure of national governments to provide for their people and so on- lead to internal conflict and to a degree, international conflict and terrorism.
Climate change threatens to undermine our attempts to achieve a sustainable development which would deliver an end to hunger. Growing populations, shared environmental problems and dwindling natural resources mean there is ever greater need to collaborate across national borders. Yet in this context the Howard Government remains firmly in an old world mindset, which in turn, influences where Australia applies funds and influence.
Despite an increase of almost 12 per cent in the 2005 budget, our foreign aid (or ODA - Overseas Development Assistance) remains at an embarrassingly low level: roughly 0.28 per cent of gross national income (GNA). After more than a decade of continuous economic expansion in Australia and strong federal budget surpluses, Australia could easily be doing much more: at least reaching the target of 0.7 per cent that OECD countries committed to in the 1970s. A number of countries now donate up to 1 per cent of their GNI.
Apart from greatly increasing our aid, there are many ways we should change the way it is delivered. The Australian NGO Aid/Watch suggests that up to 90 per cent of Australian aid money “boomerangs” back to Australia. Australia effectively subsidies the activities of Australian countries operating in recipient countries while very little aid is directed through local non-government organisations (NGOs), which historically have shown they can deliver a lot of good in a culturally appropriate way for far less than an Australian contractor.
Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell noted that “climate change is having far reaching impacts globally and in our region” yet this is barely noticeable in terms of how Australia’s aid program is currently delivered. A growing number of climate scientists, environmental NGOs and aid and development organisations are realising that the likely impacts of global warming will undermine many attempts to lift recipient nations out of poverty.
Accordingly, the idea of adaptation (or resilience) should now be a core element in delivery of all our ODA. This would mean ensuring that all aid helps communities build their capacity to respond to the changes that will come with global warming, as well as reducing our funding of new sources of greenhouse gases.
The UK-based group, Christian Aid, suggests one way this can be done: in nations like Kenya it will mean more funding for research on food crops, rather than export crops such as tea, coffee or cut flowers. In Pacific nations it may be as simple as providing roofing iron and water tanks to allow harvesting of rainwater for above ground agriculture - salt water intrusion as a result of increased cyclone activity has destroyed existing farming plots.
Certainly Australia has funded some good projects and programs that relate to climate change impacts, such as the South Pacific Sea level and Climate Monitoring Project and support for the Samoa-based South Pacific Regional Environment Program. Yet this is just a tiny fraction of what is needed and climate change is hardly at the core of our aid program at present.
In terms of directly funding global warming through our aid program, Australia is playing an especially poor game: we have greatly reduced our funding for renewable energy programs in our aid program in recent years, while EFIC - the Australia Export Credit Agency - has backed fossil fuels over renewables at a rate of 100:1 over the past decade. “Clean coal” exports continue to be a high profile element of our stated support for helping nations build their energy production capacity yet lock developing nations into high greenhouse emissions scenarios.
Australia also remains deeply committed to the ideology that believes development flows from economic growth, and this is reflected in our ODA program. This is challenged by a growing body of research and certainly does not have a great track record in terms of helping create equity in recipient nations.
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