A lack of public support for foreign aid makes it hard to increase the budget. Could renaming and reframing help?
Australia’s foreign aid budget is very low compared to many similar countries — as a percentage of national income, Australia spends about one-third as much as some European countries.
Notwithstanding the current government’s disinterest in aid — the budget has reached historic lows after being cut by one-third — a lack of public support for aid is commonly argued to be a key reason Australia spends so little helping out other countries.
Then-minister for international development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells made this argument in Britain last year after being repeatedly questioned over Australia’s low levels of funding.
“In Australia we had some research done where it showed that about 80% of Australians believe that we should not be spending more on foreign aid or that what we spend is about right,” she said.
“You do have to take your public with you.”
But could reframing the issue help? A parliamentary committee thinks so.
The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, chaired by Liberal MP Chris Crewther, has released a report from its inquiry into Australia’s aid program in the Indo-Pacific. The report’s first recommendation suggests a rebrand, to change perceptions of the aid program:
The committee strongly recommends that the Australian government change the name of the ‘aid’ program to ‘development partnerships’ (or a similar name such as ‘development co-operation’ or ‘Australian partnerships’), which emphasises the mutual two-way benefits to Australia and recipient nations of our aid program (in terms of social development, trade, defence, security, strategic influence, health, biosecurity, and more), reflects a view of co-operation and partnership instead of a perceived or implied one-way ‘paternalism’ or ‘charity’, and would likely encourage greater public support for the program.
The committee identified a need to strengthen Australians’ confidence in the aid program, said Crewther.
“Australia has the capacity to do more, but the support of the Australian people is critical. The committee hopes that the aid program can be better understood, not as a one-way street, but as a partnership that benefits Australia and our partner countries, in terms of defence, trade, the economy, security, health, human development, and more,” he explained.
“With stability and certainty in the aid budget, and a renewed focus on effectiveness, Australia’s aid program can continue to build on its record of achievements.”
The committee believes the government should advertise to raise awareness of how much is really spent on aid and the benefits it brings.
Lowy Institute research show most Australians vastly overestimate how much is spent on aid. In 2018, Australia’s aid budget was $3.9 billion — approximately 0.8% of the federal budget. However, on average, Australians think that 14% of the budget is actually spent on aid, and nominate 10% as how much should be spent on aid.
The committee, which includes plenty of conservatives, urges the government to spend much more on aid. It recommends the government commit to increasing the aid budget to at least 0.5% of gross national income in the next five years, rising further to at least 0.7% of GNI in the next decade. These targets should be backed up by a “legislated floor”.
The government should also work to increase the amount of local procurement in the aid program, and provide “funding to support recipient countries to improve their procurement systems and accountability safeguards.”
The report recommends the inquiry be continued in the next session of parliament.