Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday unveiled his new government, with neither international development nor Pacific island affairs at minister or even parliamentary secretary level.
This didn’t come as a surprise for local NGOs, especially after Abbott’s Coalition Party announced just before the vote that it would slash part of the country’s foreign aid budget to pay for domestic infrastructure projects.
Local NGOs are definitely missing dedicated high-level officials in charge of both issues, but they also want to wait and see how this new structure will play out in the coming months.
The absence of a high-level government official to oversee foreign aid is a missed opportunity for Abbott to build on the previous administrations’ commitment to foreign aid, according to ActionAid Australia, which believes aid recipients should brace for tough times.
“We’re massively disappointed that Tony Abbott has not appointed a minister or even a parliamentary secretary for international development, particularly given that the aid budget has been cut so significantly by the Coalition,” ActionAid Australia’s executive director Archie Law told Devex.
The shift have also caught the attention of neighbor and fellow donor New Zealand, where aid groups feel their government will see itself under increased pressure to fill in the void, especially for Pacific island nations that are dependent on official development assistance to balance their national budgets.
Putting the utmost importance on these small insular states, most of which are just barely more developed than sub-Saharan Africa, is key to ensuring regional stability, said Amelia Poxon, a spokesperson for CARE Australia.
“We know that supporting development not only save lives, but strengthens our region’s economy and security,” Poxon told Devex.
Need for a dedicated minister
Despite administrative and operational efficiency arguments justifying Abbott’s decision to trim down his ministry lineup, local NGOs noted the need for dedicated high-level officials on development and Pacific island affairs is still vital.
Garth Luke, Word Vision Australia’s top official for ODA, commented that a cabinet-level development portfolio would substantially improve transparency in foreign aid projects.
“[We] believe that the position of minister for international development could further improve the oversight of the aid program and its accountability to the Parliament, the Australian public and to nations with which Australia partners,” he told Devex.
Archie Law from ActionAid added that despite the aid program staying within foreign affairs, “it will be distorted by the interests of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade”, arguing a possible conflict of interest between different government agendas.
A cabinet-level development portfolio would also relieve the foreign minister’s office of several key responsibilities regarding foreign aid and making sure development programs are carried out effectively and efficiently, according to Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development.
“An aid Minister would have assisted the foreign minister in dealing with this important constituency. This is especially true considering that Australia is surrounded by developing countries, with 18 or 20 [of its] closest neighbors experiencing deep levels of poverty,” explained Purcell.
All up in the air
While discussion regarding the new government’s commitment to foreign aid and development is heating up, how and where Australian aid will play out in the next couple of years still remains to be seen.
However, knowing the specific function of the foreign ministry parliamentary secretary may shed some light to the issue, pointed out Luke.
“At this stage, it is not clear what the responsibilities of the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs will be, but we expect this will include significant consultation with Pacific countries around all relevant issues between our countries,” said the World Vision Australia officer.
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