Over the past few years, the Australian government has significantly increased its aid spending after Prime Minister John Howard pledged to work towards the millennium development goals. Normally, this would be welcome; however, there's a dark secret in Australia's aid program. According to a report by the NGO AidWatch [PDF], up to a third of Australia's "foreign aid", almost A$1 billion per year, either flows straight back to other government departments or is spent on promoting Australia's security and commercial interests rather than on poverty alleviation. And almost half of that - A$470 million - goes on debt relief, most of it on "forgiving" debts owed by Iraq which had already been written off and paid out by insurers.
Some of the spending the Australian government is calling "aid":
- $29.4 million on bribing the government of Nauru to host the "Pacific solution" prison for refugees;
- $21 million for "offshore management of unauthorised arrivals" - in other words, to run the prison;
- $112.8 million to support refugees in Australia, something that other countries do not count as aid;
- $112 million for the Australian Federal Police serving as part of the RAMSI mission in the Solomons, whose primary aim is ensuring Australian security;
- $61 million on governance in the Solomon Islands, most of which is paid to Australian consultants. By contrast, education in the Solomons receives only A$2 million (I guess they don't need to learn to read over there);
- $20 million in unspecified defence spending counted as aid;
- $150 million on scholarships for foreign students, money that would be arguably better spent as direct aid to foreign educational institutions rather than a hidden subsidy to Australian ones;
- Most egregiously, $27,758 for legal advice over the Cole inquiry into corrupt dealings by the Australian Wheat Board under the Un oil-for-food programme.
(Actually, there's something even more egregious: In 2001, they spent $2.08 million on the interception of the SIEV 4 by the HMAS Adelaide - an incident known as the "children overboard affair" - then called it refugee aid despite the fact that the none of the asylum seekers involved were granted refugee status or even allowed to set foot on Australian soil).
And naturally, what they do spend overseas is "tied", meaning that much of it must be spent through Australian companies. So they're also running it as a giant kickback and corporate welfare scheme for Australian businesses (perhaps Howard has been learning a few tricks from Dick Cheney here).
These are deeply dishonest practices, many of them actively harmful to the real goals of aid: poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Unfortunately, the Australian government doesn't seem to care. Instead, it's more important to make their stats look good.