The Influence of National Interest in Aid Policy Making: A South Pacific Illustration

By Schwebel, Amy | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Influence of National Interest in Aid Policy Making: A South Pacific Illustration


Schwebel, Amy, Melbourne Journal of Politics


   Aid is expected to advance the donor's political and commercial    interests, assist the recipient's economic growth, and reallocate    resources to poor people. These separate objectives are loaded on    to individual projects like baubles onto a Christmas tree, without    any concern for the conflicts which may exist between individual    objectives. (1) 

Although aid alone will not end poverty, the need for more effective aid in reducing poverty and supporting sustainable development was outlined at the 2000 Millennium Summit. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established globally agreed priorities for international development. (1) The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness followed, outlining the need for far-reaching reforms to improve the ways donors deliver and recipients manage their aid. (2)

The influence of donor national interest on aid policymaking is one aspect of donor practices that has long been critiqued in the aid effectiveness debate. When defined broadly, national interest objectives--of a stable and secure region-are consistent with development goals. However, greater importance is often attached to donor national interest more narrowly defined, and the policies adopted to advance them. This is a well-established political reality. Australian bilateral aid was first allocated under an umbrella scheme titled the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development. Its focus was on economic advancement mainly in the form of infrastructure projects and technical assistance. However, Australian support provided through the Plan was not solely based on humanitarian considerations. Australian support for the Plan was 'part of a comprehensive foreign policy' strategy that was motivated by 'international security priorities and the need to allay domestic cultural concerns'. (3) The economic, political and strategic context within which the Plan emerged was the onset of the Cold War.

The impact of foreign policy considerations resulted in the intentional decision by the Australian government to allocate aid projects over a wide geographic area despite the ineffectiveness and lack of demonstrated development outcomes such an approach could achieve. This was founded on a preference for 'political and strategic advantage and regional status' which required 'maximum exposure over substance'. (4) The benefits of aid as a foreign policy tool were confirmed by an Interdepartmental Committee of Review in 1965. The review verified the dominance of foreign policy considerations--political, strategic and economic--over projects that would support development and alleviate poverty. (5)

With the end of the Cold War, Clarke C. Gibson et al. argued that there would be greater opportunities to improve the allocation of aid because the political considerations shaping programs no longer held as much weight as during the Cold War. (6) Despite the end of the Cold War, the prioritisation of national interest considerations remains the case today. With increasing attention on aid effectiveness, the negative affects of donor national interest on how the development 'problem' is framed, resulting in the formulation of inappropriate policies, is being increasingly examined.

The interplay between national interest and approaches to development adopted by the Australian aid program is the focus of this analysis. Using the South Pacific as an illustration, this article will demonstrate the negative impact the prioritisation of foreign policy objectives has on sustainable development and poverty reduction outcomes: the role of development. After discussing the concept of national interest, the article will examine the ongoing influence of national interest in shaping Australian aid to the South Pacific. It will examine two of the main objectives underlying the aid program--security and economic growth--and how these are shaped by Australian national interest and not necessarily by the priorities of recipient countries.

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