Undermined-Values and Foreign Aid NGOs

Article excerpt

'Let us imagine an Australian voluntary aid organisation that has won a lucrative contract from the Australian government's overseas aid agency, AusAID. They are contracted to provide water to the people in a remote district of a country nearby. A large Australian mining company is also operating in the district with its own lucrative contract, and is supported by the military of that country. For local people,the predations of the mining company are a more immediate concern than an improved water supply, so they ask the Australian aid organisation to intercede on their behalf.

This request puts the organisation in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, they have a contract with AusAID that specifies the timing and outcomes of the water project, and requires them not to get involved in `politics'. On the other hand,the organisation's values of social justice and its commitment to the community make it very difficult for it to ignore the plight of people being exploited by the operations of a mining company. So what does it do?

The hypothetical dilemma is an everyday occurrence for Australia's voluntary aid agencies. Their work involves balancing their obligations to their donor (often the Australian government), to the people with whom they are working, and to their own organisational values.'

Patrick Kilby, Eureka Street (November 2002)1

THIS quotation from Patrick Kilby, a policy adviser to Oxfam Community Aid Abroad (CAA),2 exposes a fundamental flaw in Australia's foreign aid policy. While working on government contracts, aid NGOs are undertaking activities which are inappropriate for an official and supposedly neutral foreign aid agency-activities which are not in the interests of the Australian Government, or the host Government, or the local community.

The problem stems from flawed processes of screening and enforcement associated with contracting-- out and a failure to recognize that the values and motivations of many NGOs are incompatible with those of the Government-and indeed, of most Australians.

As Patrick Kilby accurately notes: `voluntary agencies exist not to represent a particular group in society ... but solely (emphasis added) to represent and promote certain values and, through those values, to represent those who are marginalized and voiceless'.3

NGOs are independent, values-- based organizations often run by a small group of activists dedicated to the pursuit of their institution's values. They are also increasingly political in nature, focusing on advocacy, campaigning, direct action and the mobilization of other committed believers. It is also clear from their actions and literature that many hold views and values at odds with those of mainstream Australia, developing countries and Australian governments of either persuasion. It is important to note that this is not solely an issue for Australia. It is one that most countries grapple with; some more successfully than others.

At the very least, therefore, governments should not contract out foreign aid activity to NGOs that hold different values and objectives to their own and they should closely monitor all the activities of the NGOs contracted to deliver aid. This is currently not being done and it is seriously undermining the effectiveness of our foreign policy as well as our relationships with neighbouring countries.

The Australian Government's values in respect to foreign aid are relatively clear.4

As Foreign Minister Downer noted in a recent speech, the core of Australian aid policy is the promotion of trade and investment in our neighbouring countries. Global foreign aid flows to developing countries world-wide currently amount to $90 billion per annum. This is dwarfed by the $200 billion in private foreign investment and the $3.6 trillion trade generated in these same countries.5 As such, foreign aid is a junior partner in the development equation; trade and investment are far more important. …