The bitter power struggle that has gripped Australia’s Labor Party in recent months has ended with a crushing victory for Kevin Rudd, who on Thursday was sworn into his former office as prime minister three years after deposed leader Julia Gillard took over his post in a similar battle.
While the surprise win comes months away from the yet-undated Australian federal elections, for which political pundits name opposition leader Tony Abbott as a shoo-in for the top post, the fact remains that the Australian aid program’s staunchest supporter is back in the game.
This could only mean a silver lining for the government’s commitment to grow foreign aid to 0.5 percent of gross national income — a target that has been pushed back two years by the Gillard government from its original 2015 deadline.
“There is a lot we do not know yet [but] what we do know is that there will be no shortage of challenges in seeing the aid program grow robustly and our aid agency, AusAID, continue to strengthen,” Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager for Baptist World Aid Australia, told Devex.
Foreign aid advocate
Rudd first caught the international aid community’s eye in 2007 when he announced that Australia will scale up its foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of GNI by 2015. The restored prime minister, now a member of the U.N. High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, made sweeping reforms at AusAID during his first term, doubling the foreign aid budget and mainstreaming the Millennium Development Goals into Australia’s global development assistance policy.
His resignation in 2010 left uncertainty in the future of Australia’s aid program in the midst of the global financial crisis, a fear made worse by the repeated deferment of the 0.5 percent GNI target and what many called the “diversion” of as much as AU$375 million ($349 million) of ODA to domestic asylum seeker costs by the Gillard government.
The Australian aid budget for 2013-2014 now stands at about AU$5.7 billion, with 86 percent set aside for Asia-Pacific. With Rudd’s return, is the promised expansion of foreign aid more likely to happen sooner?
“This is a game changer for us,” Viv Benjamin, CEO of the Oaktree Foundation and founder of the Movement to End Poverty, told Devex on the change in leadership.
Benjamin said Rudd’s return could supply the political will that will give Australia the “greatest opportunity” to hasten the achievement of its pledge to up foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of GNI.
Nimbalker, at Baptist World Aid Australia, also stressed the need for “strong leadership and a willingness to prioritize commitments to the poor over and against the calls for stronger fiscal restraint” in the Australian government.
“While we’ve seen this leadership in countries like the United Kingdom, it has been sadly absent in Australia,” he said.
Scant potential for change
Thulsi Narayanasamy, director of AID/WATCH Australia, however believes “potentially very little will change” in Australia’s aid program under Rudd’s helm in the months leading up to the elections.
“In Kevid Rudd’s speech last night, comments were made about strengthening ties with the business community, and this was strongly emphasized. This trend is already reflected in the aid policy through an emphasis on public-private partnership and Australia’s national interest playing center-stage in many parts of our aid budget,” Narayanasamy told Devex.
The aid whistleblower cautioned against calling for an an increase in the aid target, but rather for “effective aid which has poverty-alleviation at its heart rather than Australia’s economic and security interests”: “Calling for more money to be spent on the budget is not a solution to an enormous lack of transparency and misspending under the aid budget.”
Narayanasamy added that the scope of what the government is prepared to spend on under the aid budget is vast, “and we need to push them to narrow this scope to more adequately represent what tax-payers expect of our aid budget, which is poverty alleviation programs for the world’s disadvantaged.”
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