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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2422


Senator MASON —by leave-This report on the administration of bilateral overseas aid is of some importance because it indicates the response of the Australian Development Assistance Bureau and other areas of government to an efficiency audit on the administration of bilateral overseas aid from the Joint Committee of Public Accounts. This has brought to our attention an area that has been widely criticised in the past. I for one, and the Australian Democrats, applaud the re-organisation of the Australian Development Assistance Bureau and its evolution within the Government as a separate organisation which will administer bilateral aid projects which we believe to be the best way of allocating aid in any case.

I note in a response to recommendation 5 that ADAB has not agreed that there should be a formal career stream specialising in aid assistance. I tend to agree with that. It is most necessary that Australian foreign aid should be as flexible as possible, as compassionate as possible, and address itself as much as possible to the real needs of the world rather than necessarily to our own interests, particularly our own diplomatic or political interests. That is an extremely cynical way of addressing aid projects.

The response to recommendation 6 is interesting. The Government formalises the existing arrangement whereby the Director of ADAB advises the Minister for Foreign Affairs directly on matters affecting overseas aid. ADAB has advised that, in response to the report of the Jackson Committee of Review on the Australian Overseas Aid Program, the Government endorsed ADAB's responsibility for the management of the aid program. As a consequence of this decision, the Director-General of ADAB reports directly to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on all matters relating to the overseas aid program. That is a considerable step forward and it gives a green light for very important changes in Australian aid projects, changes of emphasis which would look towards the imaginative, the creative and the humane administration of aid rather than those concerning purely diplomatic functions.

All is ready now for a strong policy redirection. I rose to speak to this point mainly because it is essential for our Government, which I believe to be basically a compassionate government, and for our Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden), who is certainly that, to give ADAB a green light to allow it to look carefully at what is needed in the aid program to assess the level of assistance that is required, which I would say-I think many others would agree-is very much at the village level. Whatever happens in our communities the bulk of the members of the human race still live in villages and their preoccupation is still whether they can get more to eat, whether they can have a roof on their hut that is capable of conserving water which is not contaminated, whether they can somehow get a fence to keep their animals in. These are some of the things which in spite of our preoccupations are the major concerns of the majority of the human race. There are more such people with every minute that passes. These are the people who are the worst off in the world and who need assistance more than anything else. If we talk to them they will say that they require assistance at that kind of level. I hope that the Minister and the Government will give some consideration to that. I suggest to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) who is at the table that this is a matter to which Cabinet could give just a few minutes at some time to see what our Minister feels. Australia should become one of the leaders in the foreign aid field instead of one of the errant draggers. We should be concerned not so much with throwing money at projects as with the idea of using our own expertise, our own people-heaven knows, in these days of high youth unemployment there ought to be room for more young people to work in foreign aid projects overseas-intelligently and humanely rather than throwing money at those projects. This becomes all the more important because we are in a very bad situation with foreign aid.

This year, we are allocating to foreign aid the most parsimonious figure in 25 years, 0.39 per cent of gross national product-by far the lowest since statistics began over 20 years ago. That is an indictment. I noted in a newspaper cutting on the subject which I was reading before I came into the chamber that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has said that he is embarrassed by that. He is embarrassed rightly and so should the Australian people be embarrassed. This year's aid is a drop in real terms of nearly 13 per cent on the previous year. We may think we have problems but they are nothing compared with the majority of the world's people.

I am concerned too in this context about the geographical distribution of bilateral aid. This ought to be a cause of great concern. Nearly 44 per cent of that money is going to Papua New Guinea and nearly 31 per cent of it is going to east and South East Asia. These are parts of the world which although they have their problems and pockets of poverty, are by no means parts of the world where the real problems exist. The real areas of need and tremendous privation are in Africa and in South Asia. When we look at these figures of geographical distribution, we find that less than 8 per cent of our bilateral aid is going to Africa where real need exists and only 5 per cent to South Asia. If after looking at the television program a day or two ago about the appalling situation in Mozambique we believe that it is at all fair or right that we should allocate only 8 per cent of our beggarly aid to Africa, we need our heads read.

I urge the Australian Government, as I have done before, to take a completely different approach to foreign aid and to turn its back on areas of multilateral aid in which it is virtually impossible for us to assess in detail how effectively money is being spent. I ask this because there is a growing volume of evidence that multilateral aid dollars are not well spent. After all, this is the money of the Australian taxpayers. It is important from their point of view that spending should be fully effective. It is probably even more important, since it is a matter of survival, that the needs of the recipients should be considered. The world is probably in a worse mess now with more poverty, more disease, more chronic undevelopment at effective levels than it has been since World War II. We are spending something like $108m of our overseas aid in the form of multilateral aid through such organisations as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Finance Corporation and other organisations which comprise the World Bank. These organisations do not have a good record for spending money partly, I think, because they are tied up with the same human problem that if money is to be spent helping somebody it is much easier just to throw it into some large projects such as a cement works or a dam without thinking carefully what should be done with it. It is much harder than that. That point is made very well in this paper. It is quite difficult to actually formulate these projects. I quote the report:

. . . the delivery of overseas aid is a complex and difficult task and that because of the Australian Government's direct responsibility for the bilateral aid program, this program is probably the most significant and sensitive element.

I would agree that that is so, but surely that would emphasise the need for careful thought. I would like to feel in that case, too, where we are going in for relatively large projects, especially things that look like development-such as dams and cement works, which can have the most disastrous effect on indigenous populations-that there should be specialist people in ADAB. Recommendation 11 of the report states:

ADAB acknowledges the importance of having professionally qualified staff.

I would ask that those professionally qualified staff include people with some knowledge of history and some knowledge of the social sciences, and that major projects be assessed for their impact on local communities before they are agreed to. Of course, all this is hard work for bureaucrats, and it is hard work for governments. As I said, it is much easier just to throw money at things. In the cause of common humanity and the spending effectively of our aid dollars I ask that this bridge be crossed and that the work be done.