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Joyce loses the plot on international aid

Speaking to the National Press Club on Tuesday, Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce’s comments on Australia’s international aid program are startling. They not only reflect, as shadow finance spokesman, ignorance of the Opposition’s own policy and Australia’s international aid program, but imply a knuckle-dragging ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to international policy. Without any prompting, Senator Joyce appears to have wandered off into policy whacko-land.

Even among the developed world’s most conservative leaders, including those whose countries carry external debt, over the past 60 years none have suggested that aid to poor countries is an either/or proposition. Leaving aside the factual clangers in his remarks for which other politicians would be castigated, Senator Joyce’s comments on Australia’s international aid raise serious questions about his fitness for the front bench.

One might assume from his comments that Senator Joyce has never visited a developing country, much less seen absolute poverty. Had he done so, he might know that international aid such as that from Australia can mean the difference between minimal food and starvation, preventable disease and health, and basic education and illiteracy.

Australia’s international aid is also used for emergency relief, such as in Haiti, and before that in tsunami-affected Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Perhaps Senator Joyce would be more comfortable with saving money and letting people in critical situations die. For Haiti, the money saved would be less than 50 cents per Australian, although most Australians would probably give 50 cents for a lot less than saving a life.

Senator Joyce criticised Australia’s allocation of $150 million from its aid program to the World Bank, of which $50 million helps off-set global food price rises. Saying that the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, should focus on Australia’s food price rises, he appears not to be aware that in many countries Australia assists, the price of a sack of rice rising from US$15 to $35 or $40 means the difference between basic nutrition and malnutrition, or starvation – between eating something and not eating at all.

Many Australian families also do it hard, as Senator Joyce noted, and this should of course be a leading government concern. But for Australia, in that malnutrition exists, it is more through a discretionary emphasis on junk food rather than no food at all. Even Senator Joyce would probably know that starvation amongst Australians, among the world’s most obese people, is not actually a problem.

Had Senator Joyce cast more than a cursory glance over the details of Australia’s aid program, he might also know that, with the agreement of countries such as Australia, the United Nations mandated that develop countries should provide a conservative 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product to international aid. He would know that Australia provides a bit less than half this agreed figure, although the policy of both government and the Opposition is to raise this figure to a still low 0.5 per cent by 2015.

Australia’s international generosity is limited and Senator Joyce questions even that level of assistance. But perhaps Senator Joyce has tapped into a wider Australian sense of narrow self-interest. If so it is difficult, then, to understand why, between 2002 and 2006, donations by ordinary Australians to aid and development organisations increased by an average of almost 16 per cent.

Senator Joyce’s concern is that the government is sending money overseas at a time when it is in debt. Australia’s debt at the end of last year was about 15 per cent of its GDP, among the lowest in the world and especially by OECD country standards. Yet Australian families, most of whom carry proportionately higher debt, still give generously.

Similarly, Australia’s long-standing commitment to international aid existed in times when government debt was a conventional feature of the economic landscape, including under Coalition governments. But perhaps Senator Joyce is worried about just giving money away. Yet Australia has not provided untied aid for many years and the accountabilities for aid spending are now onerous. Moreover, much of Australia’s aid budget is spent within Australia, much to the chagrin of some of the ‘recipient’ countries.

In that some Australian aid reaches the world’s poor, providing such aid is an act of enlightened self-interest. If Australia can help address critical development problems it will be seen as a good global citizen, will win friends and have some of the influence its governments of both persuasions always seek.

Moreover, targeted aid – as all Australian aid is – can thwart the conditions that lead to political instability. One might guess here that senator Joyce is unaware of the fairly obvious, as well as statistical, links between absolute poverty and a propensity to political violence.

Australia enjoys one of the world’s highest incomes per head of population and, according to the UN Human Development Index, has the world’s second highest overall standard of living. This is one of the reasons why Australia has enjoyed relative domestic peace and stability.

It is also one of the reasons why, given our plenty, that Australia is right to continue and to look to expanding its international development assistance. It also explains why Senator Joyce’s comments are wrong.

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