Aid is about listening as well as giving

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases, News, Opinion article written on the 23 May 2011

In the city of Pune in western India more than 6000 families survive on rubbish. They live on the money earned by workers – most of whom are women – who collect, sort and sell waste to scrap traders. Exclusively from low-caste groups, often known as ”untouchables”, these waste pickers are vulnerable to extreme poverty, including disease and hunger.

But over recent years, with the help of the local women’s university and aid funding, these waste pickers have achieved some remarkable things. This includes working with the local council to fund a health insurance scheme for waste pickers, and establishing a self-sustaining credit co-operative with interest going towards a welfare fund for workers.

Such moves have been vital in helping these women improve their lives, giving them access to greater and more consistent incomes. This not only helps their children and families, but gives the women a greater say in the decisions that are made in their own households. They have also achieved a stronger voice in their community – lobbying on social issues such as child labour and domestic violence.

This inspiring story of the women waste pickers of Pune ticks off some of the major criteria on the effective aid checklist – helping poor people to find their own way out of poverty and injustice, thinking about initiatives, such as the credit co-op, that have an impact in the long term, and tackling gender equality, one of the key drivers of poverty and injustice.

As Australia’s aid program grows – towards meeting the bipartisan target of 0.5 per cent of our national wealth by 2015 – we have the potential to make an enormous difference to the lives of men, women and children living in poverty. At the same time, scrutiny of the aid budget will rightly grow.

But let’s put the increased aid budget in context. Australia ranks 15 out of 23 OECD nations in terms of its level of aid spending, and this year just 33 cents out of every $100 of our national income was spent on overseas aid. By comparison Norway, which is ranked as the number one donor, gives $1.10 out of every $100 of its national income to aid. As a proportion of Australia’s total federal budget, the amount allocated to aid is tiny – only 1 per cent. In the meantime, every day one in seven people in the world go hungry.

Increasing the effectiveness of our aid program is about making sure that every aid dollar makes the most impact possible in the fight against poverty. The recently completed independent review of aid effectiveness will play an important part in making sure the public has confidence in how that money is spent. The government is now considering its response to the review and we are likely to see both these documents in the coming months.

But we can’t put poverty eradication, or our aid program, on hold while we await the review’s outcomes, as suggested by Daniel Flitton. AusAID already has its own ongoing processes for assessing the effectiveness of Australia’s aid work. What this review is about is a chance to apply a bigger, strategic check on our aid program.

There are a range of things that can be done to ensure the effectiveness of Australia’s aid program, and a significant body of experience to guide this work – from international aid effectiveness agreements to academic research to real-life stories, like that of the waste pickers in Pune. But perhaps the single most important thing the government can do to improve its aid work is to further enhance transparency and accountability.

In particular, this means making sure that the people who are meant to benefit from aid have a say in the decisions that make a difference to their lives – that they are involved in the design, implementation and review of aid programs. This can help aid agencies and governments better respond to the needs of people living in poverty, and make sure that aid dollars are being spent in the right places. There is also good evidence that it can reduce corruption.

The government’s response to the aid effectiveness review provides an important opportunity to make transparency and accountability central to Australia’s efforts to combat poverty. This will help the Australian public feel confident that increases in aid spending will produce corresponding increases in the positive impact of aid. The last independent public review of Australia’s aid program was back in 1996. We can’t afford to wait another 15 years until the next review to get it right.

Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published in the National Times on 20 May 2011