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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 1673


Senator BIRMINGHAM (7:01 PM) —I rise to speak on a matter of great importance for Australia—that is, foreign aid. Foreign aid is truly a tale of hopes and despairs. Hopes spring within people who can see a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel of suffering, while despair crushes those enduring unimaginable poverty with no end in sight. Hope comes also from those who give hoping that their funds will make lives better, while despair emerges when people see funds wasted, corrupted or misappropriated.

Investment in foreign aid is of utmost importance, but aid as we know it and run it is far from perfect. Revelations of expenses in the aid program have raised serious questions in some quarters. Extraordinary payments for technical assistance highlighted by the ANAO showed that Australia was spending double the proportion on consultants compared to the OECD average. Many Australians were shocked at examples such as a junior consultant in PNG earning $240,000 per annum or some senior consultants earning $360,000 within our aid programs. While there is clearly a place for quality technical assistance and it is important for aid programs to bring in specialists where needed, the ANAO has clearly highlighted some genuine questions about whether we are getting value for money.

Sadly, these stories only fuel the ‘charity begins at home’ crowd, who bemoan aid expenditure no matter how desperate a situation is or how much benefit it can bring to the lives of some of the world’s least fortunate. This argument overlooks both our duty as a country of such fortune to help those with so little and the strategic advantages that are inherent in Australia providing such assistance. The aid debate should be about doing what is right, not what may be politically expedient. We have such terrible poverty around the world and so close to our shores. Aid offers something many Australians take for granted—opportunity; opportunity to learn, to work and to start a business; and opportunity for a better future. It is not just our close neighbours in need but also countries where our military presence has liberated people but not yet brought the economic freedoms we had hoped for.

The opportunity aid presents can be an important tool in battling fanaticism, which so often preys on the desperation of the vulnerable, while also avoiding the risk of failed states, especially right on our doorstep. Aid programs in these instances not only benefit the recipients but of course provide benefit to Australians, especially through reducing the threat of terrorism. Giving foreign aid is in our interest as a nation. There should be win-win outcomes for everyone involved, giver and recipient alike.

Transparency and accountability are vital in this process, not only to ensure value for taxpayers but also so people can see the value in and results from our aid spending. Taxpayers deserve to get value for money for their aid dollars while recipients of course deserve maximum bang from our buck. The government should shine a spotlight on its aid programs, not only to look for where they can be doing better but also to highlight progress and the very real benefits of aid. I hope the review being undertaken at present delivers that.

This is why AusAID’s unwillingness to allow a documentary maker to film work being undertaken by the agency is so perplexing. Many of our aid programs rightly demand transparency from recipient governments. Our aid program should equally be open and transparent. We need our aid to be as effective as possible because aid can literally save and change lives. Every day thousands of children die of hunger and disease, yet we rarely see this human tragedy on the news or in the newspaper compared to some of the domestic challenges we face.

For the last decade we have, as a world, been committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. These goals have been grouped into eight key areas, including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the achievement of universal primary education, the reduction of the child mortality rate and the improvement of maternal health. While not all goals will be reached by the 2015 target, I am pleased to say that significant progress has been and is being made. I am pleased that the proportion of people in developing regions living on less than $1.25 per day has fallen from 46 percent to 27 percent, that the enrolment rate in sub-Saharan schools has increased from 58 percent to 76 per cent of all children, that the enrolment rate of girls in schools is approaching parity with that of boys in this region and that the mortality rate for children under five in developing countries has fallen 28 percent since 1990. But clearly there is still much, much more to be done.

It is not just government funded organisations that deliver aid to the world’s poor; in fact, much of the heavy lifting is done by non-government organisations. Wherever there are children dying of disease or in need of education, organisations like UNICEF are there. Where mothers face terrible birthing conditions, organisations like World Vision are there. These organisations do great work, often with small amounts of money.

Approximately 200 million children in the developing world under the age of five suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic maternal and childhood malnutrition. In Ethiopia, UNICEF partnered with a government led health extension program to train health workers in the case management of severe acute malnutrition. To date this program has trained and deployed 33,000 health workers to deliver basic healthcare services and therapeutic food services to over 3,200 local health posts. We can see real benefits. More than 270,000 Ethiopian children living in highly food insecure districts now benefit from life-saving therapeutic feeding treatment. This is just one of UNICEF’s $87.4 million child survival program in Ethiopia—a program that is delivering great results.

NGO’s achieve results because they literally have to. If they do not, people would not donate, governments would not give and the organisations would not exist. They have expertise, networks and experience, and efficiency to get the job done. We should do more to harness their skills with our aid spending, with appropriate transparency and accountability mechanisms, to allow them to do even more. We must also look at our technical and economic programs. I believe our aid program must be more than a handout if it is to be truly effective in the long run—it must also be a hand up. Our aid should be building capacity in recipient communities to allow countries to stand on their own two feet.

The Institute for International Trade based at Adelaide University has been working with Pacific Island trade officials from 14 different countries offering training, research and technical assistance on how Islanders can develop, negotiate and implement sound trade and economic policies that build the fundamentals of sustained growth and poverty reduction. Australian aid is being used to share the tools of good critical economic analysis that allows Islanders to make informed decisions leading to more equitable economic development and, hopefully, greater political stability. Pacific Islanders learn from and work with Australian customs officials, meet with successful exporters and importers and work on how trade in agriculture in such services as tourism can assist in building their self-reliance so that in the future they can become less dependent on aid.

Innovation in aid is equally important. I congratulate AusAID for its work on the Enterprise Challenge Fund. This fund provides an open tender to Pacific businesses to bid for funding of up to 50 per cent of capital to set up new businesses. This is delivering new jobs, new investment and new opportunities in Pacific economies. The Enterprise Challenge Fund has provided capital to businesses like Solutech in Timor-Leste, who are bringing affordable solar lighting solutions to families in partnership with a microfinance organisation, and Reddy Farms in Fiji, which is helping sugarcane farmers move from an uncompetitive industry into the duck meat industry.

Clearly delivering an effective aid program is not without its challenges but I am greatly encouraged by world leaders such as the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has seized on the importance of aid and, despite that country’s fiscal challenges, committed to meet the international target of 0.7 per cent of GNI spent on aid by 2013. Both the Labor and Liberal parties in Australia, I am pleased, are committed to an equally significant expansion of our aid program to shift to 0.5 percent of GNI by 2015-16.

Mr Cameron’s approach to aid is one focused on outcomes for recipients, capacity-building in recipient communities, transparency and accountability. Prime Minister Cameron says of Britain’s new, dynamic and transparent approach to aid:

... despite the economic pressures we face, this new government has been determined to hold firm. ... Our aid programme, like the activities of the myriad of charitable aid organisations, literally saves lives. It helps prevent conflict, which is why we have doubled the amount of our aid budget that is spent on security programmes in countries like Pakistan and Somalia. And for millions of people our aid programme is the most visible example of Britain’s global reach. It is a powerful instrument of our foreign policy and profoundly in our national interest.

One of the most interesting features of this new approach is that it will see delivery agencies paid for performance not promises. This is remarkable and an approach I hope Australia can shift towards. It is an approach that I hope ensures that foreign aid in future is a story in a tale more of hope than of despair.