THE apathetic response when foreign assistance budgets were slashed suggests the sector needs to change the way it explains its work.
The future looks bleak for Australian aid. In last year’s federal budget, foreign aid was slashed by $1.1 billion. Last month there were hints that Australia’s aid expenditure would be cut again in the coming budget.
Aid agencies have announced they were forced to make cuts to vital overseas development assistance programs as a result of the budget reductions in December’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
Australia is one of the wealthiest nations in the Asia-Pacific region, but it’s a region that is home to two-thirds of those living in extreme poverty across the globe. “Fairness” is commonly touted as a national value. Yet the attitude towards Australian aid in the public discourse is one of ambivalence; the public reaction to last year’s cuts was negligible.
The waning interest of Australian public and policy makers alike towards global inequality makes one thing clear: we need to re-examine how we talk about aid and development.
The public discourse surrounding Australian aid is polarised: there’s the pro-aid narrative and sceptical messages, with no ground in between.
The sceptical narratives are familiar, ideas such as “charity starts at home”, a concept that justifies a lack of, and indefinitely postpones, effective action. Another is the argument based on the supposed ineffectiveness of aid, usually drawing on some statistic from the 1980s about corruption in Africa (why do they only talk about Africa?). Agency for change is placed on the “other”, (read: “poor people” in low-income nations). Also featuring heavily in the sceptical camp is the “aid through trade” defence, which puts the agency for change on the market, that mythical beast, and deflects responsibility from actual humans. These ideas are premised on an idea of aid as charity, refusing the idea that we might be somewhat responsible in the global fight for equality and justice.
Alternatively, the pro-aid narrative focuses on “saving lives”, demonstrating such successes through personal stories. It talks about ending poverty and a deep sense of moral responsibility to help the poor. The word “empowerment” gets used a lot. Here, the agency for change is on Australians, particularly donors.
We find these messages emerging primarily from the aid and development sector, through public-awareness campaigns, fundraising, and supporter engagement. The pro-aid narrative is primarily a reaction to the sceptical narrative. It intends to counter everything from the antagonistic side: actually, yes, aid does work. Of course we can achieve change – look at all our documented successes and photos of smiling children.
As someone working in this sector, I do honestly believe and support all of the pro-aid sentiments and their reasoning. Aid changes lives. But we’ve used this narrative for years and years and, in doing so, we’ve limited ourselves and our contributions to the aid discourse.
These respective narratives are answers to an argument, and the resulting discussion achieves little. In order to have a productive conversation, the narrative surrounding aid needs to change. For a nuanced understanding, we need to discuss challenges as well as successes. And we need to discuss them publicly, not just within the development sector.
Extending the conversation isn’t easy. It’s much harder to communicate the holistic impact of a project than it is to say a donation has funded 16 school books for Cambodian students, or immunised 20 children, or installed a well in a village without water. Public donors want to see the return on their money, and they want it to be spent effectively – this is the way we are accustomed to seeing success presented. As a result, many organisations seem reluctant to stray outside the win-sharing parameters, fearing supporters will lose trust and withdraw financial support.
These expectations have resulted in a public culture of suspicion and dismissal: where is my $20 a month donation going? Is the government wasting public funds by spending them outside Australia? What do you mean charities pay their employees?
In response, both Liberal and Labor governments alike have fuelled public doubts through questioning the effectiveness of the aid program, prompting talk of more cuts and more efficiency. Additionally, Australian aid is increasingly used as a political pawn (for example, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s January pledge to increase aid to Iraq to fight Islamic State).
Recently, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters, “we have a significant challenge in front of us, to make sure that our aid budget is delivered effectively and efficiently”. I disagree. We should absolutely aim for a high return on investment – across all portfolios, not just through foreign aid – but our significant challenge is in achieving a realistic and comprehensible public discourse around aid. That’s what will shape the future of Australia’s contribution to poverty-alleviation efforts in our region.
Not every single overseas project will achieve all of its goals. Poverty and inequality are complicated. There’s no one manifestation, just as there’s no easy solution. When we’re dealing with so many nuances, it’s only right that we should communicate those in something other than the cookie-cutter formulas the public has grown to expect, and which governments now demand.
Katie Morris is a freelance journalist and Timor-Leste partnership manager at Oaktree.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald