Rejig in order for Rudderless aid

During Kevin Rudd's time as PM and foreign minister he dominated Australia's foreign aid policy, melding it to a desire for a Security Council seat. With Rudd gone, the time is right to reassess one of our largest government expenditures.

Lowy Interpreter

Kevin Rudd's resignation as Australia's foreign minister gives the Gillard government a timely opportunity to look anew at Australia's foreign aid program.

Ever since Rudd, as opposition leader, made the election promise in 2007 that Australia's aid program would reach 0.5 per cent of Australia's gross national income by 2015, he has been clearly in charge of Labor's aid policy. As prime minister, Rudd's hand was firmly on the aid tiller, leaving then-foreign minister Stephen Smith little room to do more than follow instructions. The very able parliamentary secretary at the time, Bob McMullan, had even less authority.

In the four-plus years Rudd has controlled the program, the budget has grown by more than 50 per cent, from $3.1 billion to $4.8 billion. If the government sticks by the Rudd-initiated 0.5 per cent commitment, it will continue to grow over the next four years to reach $8-9 billion by FY2015.

With Rudd gone, fresh eyes can look at how and where Australia should be spending its aid investment. The new minister would do well to listen to the aid review Rudd commissioned last year. It would also be beneficial for both Australian taxpayers and aid recipients to take a more considered approach to the spending to make sure it's going to where it will really meet the program's purpose: overcoming poverty and serving Australia's national interest.

Although the government responded positively to the review's recommendations, there are several notable areas where the follow-up has been very much in keeping with the 'agree in principle' line; in other words, more in the rhetoric than the action.

So the pace in expanding the program to countries well beyond Australia's aid or even strategic priorities (for example, the Caribbean, Francophone Africa and Latin America) has continued despite the review panel's urging for more focused allocations. Being the third-largest donor to the Libyan crisis is an achievement, but how appropriate is it for Australia?

There has been conjecture for some time that this expansion has to do with Australia's Rudd-led aspirations for a seat at the Security Council. By extension, it was thought Australia's aid program would continue to be the bearer of glad tidings to a wide array of the world's developing countries until at least the Security Council vote was decided. It will be interesting to see whether the same degree of ministerial energy and financial investment goes into this campaign in the months left before the vote in October.

The new minister may be less enthusiastic about applying aid funds to support what some see as a questionable and expensive campaign and one that is certainly not a core element of the aid program.

Even more importantly for the aid program, a new minister might just give AusAID some urgently needed breathing space to put in place and strengthen the mechanisms it absolutely must have if it is going to be an effective manager of what will soon be one of the top five spending agencies in the Commonwealth Government. Without genuinely transparent and publicly accessible monitoring, evaluation and reporting mechanisms, the media sniping the program suffered over the past couple of years will continue. This will only erode public support.

At the moment, the public receives information about the program largely through negative media reports. It is AusAID's (or, more correctly, the government's) responsibility to provide openly and freely its findings and assessments of the programs implemented to overcome poverty and serve Australia's interests. Development is hard and requires tough decisions and at times an uncomfortable degree of risk taking. That reality doesn't need to be hidden; it needs to be shared with the people providing the money. But if the public isn't well informed and doesn't have access to the correct information, it will be the negative news that sways opinion.

Annmaree O’Keeffe is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and worked with AusAID from 1986 to 2009.

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.