Australian plans to merge aid agency with foreign affairs 'a retrograde step'Source: The Guardian
Critics say merger will have dire consequences for the world's poor and shows Australia is not committed to ending poverty
Tony Abbott, the new Australian prime minister, is recommending that AusAid, the government's aid agency, be merged into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat), after similar moves in Canada and New Zealand.
Abbott said the move to integrate AusAid, which administers Australia'sA$5.4bn (£3.2m) official development assistance (ODA) programme, with Dfat would ensure the aid and diplomatic arms of the country's foreign policy were more closely aligned.
But aid experts expressed concerns about the proposed changes to the respected development agency. "AusAid has become one of the cutting-edge aid agencies in recent years, funding great research and innovative work on fragile states in the Pacific," said Duncan Green, senior strategic adviser to Oxfam. "It will be a loss to all of us is that is threatened by these cuts."
Annemaree O'Keefe, the former AusAid deputy director-general, told ABC Radio Australia's Pacific Beat: "This is going to have big ramifications for Australia's aid programme. How it is going to be managed really remains to be seen. There is tension from time to time between AusAid and Dfat in terms of how development can support foreign policy objectives, and I think that's where, from time to time, people get a bit enthusiastic about how much development assistance can actually support broader foreign policy objectives."
Canada's recent decision to fold itsinternational development agency into the ministry of foreign affairs and international trade was criticised by aid experts.
O'Keefe said the Abbott government seemed to be taking the lead from Canada and New Zealand. "Both [are] countries with conservative governments and perhaps Australia's government has decided to take a leaf out of the Canadian and New Zealand books," she said.
ActionAid Australia said it was concerned by the possible impact of the merger on the country's aid programme. "We are dismayed by this news, which comes on the back of A$4bn cuts to the aid budget and failing to nominate a dedicated minister for international development," said the executive director, Archie Law.
He said integrating AusAid into Dfat would have dire consequences for the world's poorest people, and described the decision as short-sighted. "The message Tony Abbott is sending to the world's poor is that Australia is no longer committed to ending poverty," he added.
The chief executive of World Vision Australia, Tim Costello, said potentially subordinating poverty alleviation aims to diplomatic and trade priorities was a "retrograde step".
The ABC broadcasting network reported that AusAid's director general, Peter Baxter, had resigned, and his deputy, Ewan McDonald, had stepped in as acting director general. The government, however, said Baxter had taken extended leave and looked forward to his continued service in another senior official role.
AusAid split from Dfat and became an executive agency under the previous Labor government in July 2010.
In 2012, Australia was the eighth-largest aid donor in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development group of rich countries, just ahead of Sweden. As a percentage of gross national income (GNI), Australia seems far less generous, and was closer to reaching the international target to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid in the 1960s and 70s than it is today.
Charities point out that foreign aid accounts for just 1.4% of the federal budget and has suffered disproportionately from cuts and deferrals. Most of Australian aid is focused on Asia and the Pacific, with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea the top recipients.
Last year the government announced it would spend A$375m of aid money on asylum seekers instead of on overseas development projects. Critics pointed out that the decision would make Australia the third-largest recipient of its own foreign aid.
One senior AusAid official said the agency's Canberra-based staff were bracing for job cuts. "It doesn't bode well," the official told the Australian Associated Press. In June last year, AusAid employed 2,124 people – 1,300 in Australia and 823 overseas.
|Asia & Pacific | Multilateral Aid | Development | Official Development Assistance (ODA)|
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