The strange invisibility of Australian aid

An interview with Jack Corbett

Elizabeth Underwood

International relations, Development, Economics | Pacific, Australia

25 August 2017

Australian aid is a heavily debated topic. How much should we give? Who decides? How do we decide?

In his most recent book, The Foreign Dilemma of Aid, Jack Corbett explores the history of foreign aid given by Australia, and looks at reasons why it’s changed.

“When Australians are asked, “Should we give aid?” the answer is almost always a resounding “Yes”. But, when asked, “How much do we give?” the answer is often “too much.” There is no question that Australians are supportive of foreign aid. However, this support is shallow”, Corbett states.

How much aid Australia gives fluctuates depending on government. We had cuts under Fraser and under Hawke-Keating with a huge rise in aid under Howard, and no real change under Rudd. Now again, we see more cuts.

It is important to acknowledge, as Corbett says, that “aid does not exist in a vacuum”.

Factors contributing to fluctuations of aid decided by expert policy makers include the absence of the Australian population holding the government accountable, and the personality and interests of the ministers in government, which Corbett refers to as “court politics”. To say that one party favors foreign aid more than the other would be incorrect. Both parties have increased and decreased the aid budget. Aid is often vulnerable to huge gestures. In cases of natural disasters, public interest is high and while major cuts are made often for internal political agendas.

“Australians care, when they see images of natural disaster on the news they add appeals for support. But they don’t care enough for aid to be something that decides elections.”

Corbett spoke of three forms of legitimacy that ministers have aimed for in the past. The first was policy legitimacy. Aid can be used for multiple policy purposes, which means it can be used for political agendas. Corbett observed a pattern for new governments to cut aid when elected, and then later expand its budget the more time they spend in office.

Second is technical legitimacy, which emerged because of the belief that aid policy needs expert knowledge to be done well. Professionals crafting policy increases this legitimacy, but it also means that only a limited few have control of aid distribution. Because the budget is only controlled by a few and usually grows with more time the government spends in office, the budget is often considered too large and trust in the expert policy makers decreases over time.

The third form of legitimacy explained by Corbett was administrative legitimacy. This involves both policy development and program delivery. Both of these are pulled in opposite directions, as policy development is criticized from the outside, and program delivery challenges come from inside the government. When the two are balanced, the minister and government’s reputations are protected, and administrative legitimacy is achieved.

While identifying these three forms of legitimacy, Corbett also states that “I’m not saying you can look at policy in different points in time and say “at this time there was technical legitimacy, and this one shows policy legitimacy”and so on. At each point in time, aid will reflect a mixture of all. Legitimacy is a trajectory, which can explain the past, and influence how we think about aid in future.”

Corbett’s study of the history of Australian aid has shown that legitimate aid policy is almost impossible to achieve without participation from the Australian public. Balancing all three forms of legitimacy, each with their own aims and interests, has proved close to impossible. Australian aid is therefore passive to its fate of constant instability.

Shallow engagement of the Australian public is a key reason why aid is able to fluctuate with differing governments. A key question we can ask is “Would increased Australian public engagement stabilise aid?”. In question time, Corbett noted that this would be unlikely, and that instead, a holistic understanding how ‘court politics’, individual governments and domestic political contexts contribute to aid policy is more beneficial.  

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