Australia to hike foreign aid, but defer spending target

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo by: Troy Constable Photography™ / CC BY-NC-SA

Concerns among Australian aid and development organizations that the government is set to further defer its 0.5 percent official development assistance spending commitment are set to be proved correct.

In a press conference on Monday, foreign minister Bob Carr said Australia’s aid budget will increase by 500 million Australian dollars for the period 2013-2014 — raising the total to AU$5.7 billion.

However, he revealed that the country will defer its ODA aid commitment to 2017-2018 — a delay that is expected to invite further scrutiny from aid groups already disappointed with last year’s postponement of the aid target.

Indeed, ahead of Tuesday’s budget release, Australia’s aid community has been worrying about the government’s commitment to grow foreign aid spending.

These worries have been voiced despite the government’s previous assertion that it would grow the aid program to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2016-2017.

Part of the worry stemmed from last year’s decision by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to delay the goal of setting aside 0.5 percent of GNI for foreign aid by 2015 and eventually join the ranks of g07 countries like Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark and, most recently, the United Kingdom, which have already reached the 0.7 percent spending target world leaders agreed on in 1970.

To explain its delay in reaching the foreign aid spending target, Canberra cited its aim to deliver a federal budget surplus in today’s tough fiscal climate.

There are other reasons aid advocates have cited for their concern. In December, for instance, foreign minister Carr announced that AU$375 million ($378 million) would be channeled from the foreign aid budget toward domestic asylum seekers. Australia struggles with swelling human trafficking issues near its borders. The move made Australia the third-largest recipient of its own foreign aid in 2012, according to some analysts.

The diversion of funds amounted to a foreign aid cut, since annual spending rose only $300 million in 2012, some NGO leaders argued in conversations with Devex. To reach the 0.5 percent target by 2016, funding would have to rise to at least 0.37 percent of GNI next year, they said.

Fear of ‘accounting tricks, distorting or diverting of aid’

The chief of the Australian Catholic Church’s development aid arm urged government leaders to stick to their “well-established” commitment and timeline.

“We don’t want any more accounting tricks, distorting or diverting of aid,” Caritas Australia CEO Jack de Groot told Devex. “We want to make sure the government [officials] stick to their commitments to foreign aid, so that we can continue to support and empower the world’s poorest to be the architects of their own development. Our aid money is money well spent.”

Viv Benjamin, CEO of the Oaktree Foundation, a privately funded youth organization, said it was “sorely disappointing to see our nation’s leaders balancing the books on the back of the world’s poor.”

“We can’t forget that Australian aid saves real lives,” said Benjamin, who spearheads the Movement to End Poverty, which has so far got more than 55,000 Australian to demand that the government honor its foreign aid pledge. “Last year alone, over 200,000 lives were saved, over half a million children put in school, and more than 10 million people provided with disaster relief.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd first pledged to grow the country’s overseas development assistance to 0.5 percent of GNI by 2015 at an Oaktree event in 2007.

Helen Szoke, Oxfam Australia’s chief executive, told Devex that more delays or cuts to overseas aid programs would mean less food, education and reproductive health for the world’s poor.

“The upcoming federal budget is the real test of whether the Australian government will keep its promise to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” she said. “This year is crunch time for the Gillard government to deliver its promise to increase support to the fight against global poverty.”

Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, appealed to the Gillard administration to focus more on alleviating poverty overseas.

“On May 14, we expect that the government meet its current commitment to lift Australian aid to 0.37 percent of GNI, on the way to 0.5 percent by 2016.” Purcell said. “Furthermore, we are calling for the government to ensure it does not continue to divert the small funding for overseas programs in our federal budget back into domestic programs.”

But many AusAID partners and aid advocates are concerned about the possibility that this promise will be broken again.

“No, we’re not confident based on past actions,” said de Groot, the Caritas Australia CEO. “In December 2012, the Australian government tried to keep the aid diversions concealed until the Christmas shutdown.”

Benjamin, the Oaktree Foundation CEO, was similarly skeptical.

“Given the events of the past twelve months, we are worried that the government may not keep their aid promises,” he said.

Stay tuned for more coverage of the May 14 release of the Australian government’s foreign aid budget.

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About the author

  • Johanna Morden

    Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.