Australia's aid budget in the spotlight

By Lisa Cornish 10 May 2017

Policy experts answer questions on Australia's aid program at the 2017 aid budget breakfast held at the Australian National University. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

Though Australia’s development budget has increased for the first time in four years, groups said Wednesday they are reeling from the new round of cuts announced in the 2017 federal budget. 303.3 million Australian dollars ($223.2 million) will be lost in future budget cycles, effectively amounting to one third of the aid budget vanishing since 2012-13.

At the 2017 aid budget breakfast, hosted by the Crawford School of Public Policy, the mood was one of frustration and resignation.

Click here to view the new Devex interactive visualization of the Australian aid budget for 2017-18.

“There is no pathway to convince this government,” Jacqui De Lacy, vice president of global strategy with Abt Associates, told the audience.

Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Centre, told the audience that the Australian government’s position on the aid program was in direct opposition to much of the global community’s, with data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development showing strong growth in official development assistance. “The gap between us and the average is growing,” he said.

The breakfast was an opportunity to delve into the thinking of the Australian government and discuss where it could progress from here, but few answers were forthcoming.

Despite strong policies for gender and disability, they are victims of cuts

A slight increase in aid budget, Howe explained, does little to address the impact on countries, programs and organizations that have seen massive cuts in funding since the 2012-13 budget.

There was an obvious target to many present at the breakfast.

“Australia doesn’t like the United Nations,” Howes said.

Organizations such as UNICEF were amongst the hardest hit. The World Health Organization and Commonwealth agencies have also seen large reductions in Australian funding which is unlikely to return to levels seen prior to the budget raid.

And this has an impact on the groups that Australia’s aid program aims to provide the greatest support to — including women, children, disabled and other vulnerable populations. Reducing funding to organizations established to meet the needs of vulnerable people simply means there is less ability to respond to the diverse needs of these groups.

Australia’s infrastructure spending is a threat to aid

The past four federal budgets have been sold to the Australian public as budgets that would put the economy back into a surplus. But Anthony Swan, a research fellow with the Development Policy Centre, told the audience at the aid budget breakfast that its assumptions could put at risk the aid budget.

The Australian government, he explained, were anticipating growth of wages to assist in increasing government revenue — this was despite the past three budgets showing declining wages as casual and part-time work was becoming normalized.

But it was also banking that their bet of 51 billion Australian dollars ($37.35 billion) on infrastructure spending would lead to sustainable jobs and economic growth. It was a bet that required not only funds to be borrowed, but relied on the infrastructure projects to be beneficial. Failure could lead to a delay in a return to surplus.

“This makes aid a target,” Swan said, pointing to the aid recent history as the budget scapegoat.

And so is the messaging of the aid program

De Lacy explained that an additional concern for future aid budget was the aid messaging from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, supported by the government. “The narrative is deliberate and isn’t without implications for aid effectiveness,” she said.

Tackling poverty and inequality were no longer discussed in the context of the aid program as reasons for supporting developing countries. Instead messaging linked aid to national security — aid as a means of countering violent extremism, protecting borders and protecting Australians from health epidemics was the new aid story.

It was a negative message, De lacy said, that created fear. And worse, it set the stage for easy justification for further diversion of ODA to national security measures in the future.

Click here to view the new Devex interactive visualization of the Australian aid budget for 2017-18.

It’s a budget without vision

Sarah Meredith, Australian country director for Global Citizen, told Devex that a key ingredient was missing from the budget — vision.

“The Australian Government has failed to deliver a long-term vision for how we end extreme poverty in our region and why investment in foreign aid is critical to this,” she said. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

With Australia’s focal region, the Indo-Pacific, diverse in its political, economic, social and environmental challenges, Meredith said it was important to have a “bold vision” for the aid program.

At the aid budget breakfast, De Lacy echoed similar sentiments saying there did not appear to be time for “deep thinking” within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade despite it being necessary in implementing and monitoring programs responding to humanitarian and development challenges. “There is no way you can contract out this work,” she said. “It needs to be core to the department and the aid program.”

Transparency and clarity are still needed

The 2017 aid budget was released with detailed information on regions, programs and priorities for spending. But at the aid breakfast, Marc Purcell, chief executive officer of the Australian Council for International Development, told the audience there was still need for more detail on not just the nature of the forthcoming cuts but how policies and global initiatives, including the Green Climate Fund and Sustainable Development Goals, will be converted into action with monitored goals.

DFAT have provided insight into priority areas and their contribution to the 17 SDGs, which contributes to the Australian aid budget interactive developed by Devex, which is a beginning in greater transparency.

But clarity is still required in understanding the justification for yet another aid budget cut.

How should the development sector respond?

Howes told the audience of the aid budget breakfast that Australia’s NGOs were the development partner deepest hit by cuts since 2012-13. But what should the response be?

Meredith told Devex that as this budget showed Australia to be progressively moving away from global responsibilities, including failing to commit to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, an international response may be required: Global condemnation and response, she said, may be the option to drive change.

“Global Citizen is fighting cuts to foreign aid globally and are calling on all citizens to call on their parliamentary representatives to reverse these decisions,” she said. “Australia should be a global leader on this and until we step up to the global table and push our values of a fair go and helping your neighbour, we will not see an end to extreme poverty in our lifetime."

Targeting the government opposition to go to the next election with a strong aid budget focus was another option, as well as incoming politicians, to drive support and change for the aid program. And despite there being frustration with the current operation and support for the aid program, Australia’s development sector will still be working with DFAT to drive change.

“We will continue to work with our advocacy partners and supporters to call for an end to these cuts, and an end to the volatility and uncertainty experienced by the world’s most vulnerable people,” Jane Edge, CEO of CBM Australia, told Devex.

Nigel Spence, CEO of ChildFund Australia, said they were still assessing how to respond. “It’s part of the core mission of NGOs to keep going, work with what you have and do as much as you can,” he told Devex. “That said, we will have to reassess how we engage with government over the remainder of their term. We will be working to change the mindset around Australian aid, but priorities may need to shift.”

For more information on the results of Australia’s 2017 federal budget on the aid program, engage with our new Tableau interactive.

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About the author

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Lisa Cornishlisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a Devex reporter based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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