This chapter considers evidence on the level of support among the Australian public for Australia’s aid program. The chapter also outlines stakeholder’s suggestions for strengthening public support for the aid program, concluding with a discussion of the terminology used to refer to the aid program.
Levels of public support
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) submitted that recent surveys showed ‘mixed levels of public support’ for the Australian aid program.
In a submission to the inquiry, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that levels of public support for aid among the Australian public 'do not compare favourably’ with some other OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members.
Ms Bridi Rice, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) explained to the Committee that ACFID was concerned about declining support for Australian aid in ‘some pockets of Australian society’, which it had observed ‘over the last couple of years’.
Polling undertaken by the Lowy Institute in 2017 indicated that 73 per cent of respondents said that the aid budget (then approximately $3.8 billion) was either ‘too much’ or ‘about the right amount’; whereas 22 per cent said that the budget was ‘not enough’. A nearly identical response was observed in 2015, despite the aid budget being higher at that time.
However, Dr Terence Wood of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University has argued that there are limitations to polls that provide aggregate information, such as those conducted by the Lowy Institute. Dr Wood has also noted the lack of academic literature on aid and public opinion focused on Australia.
In research on the Australian public's views on aid, published in April 2018, Dr Wood found broad support for giving aid. However, Dr Wood also noted:
Although most Australians approve of Australia giving aid in a broad sense, for a sizable subset, this approval did not mean that they were averse to seeing the aid budget reduced.
... When faced with a choice between aid cuts and domestic alternatives to aid cuts, most Australians indicated that they preferred the course of action in which aid was cut and costs were borne overseas.
DFAT suggested several reasons for the current level of public support for Australia’s aid program:
Many Australians are unsure what the aid program does, how it operates or how much the Government spends on it. Some Australians clearly believe that the Government should focus first and foremost on addressing problems within Australia. Others are unsure whether our aid budget is being spent effectively or whether our assistance is reaching those who need it.
The OECD DAC noted in its most recent peer review of Australia’s aid program, published in 2018, that, while the Australian public is open to engagement on global issues and challenges, it is ‘less supportive of, and has misconceptions about, aid’.
Shifting views on Australia’s aid program
The Committee received a range of evidence on factors affecting public support for Australia’s aid program, as well as evidence outlining some of the challenges involved in communicating effectively with the Australian public about the nature of the aid program.
Misconceptions and lack of awareness
Some stakeholders referred to evidence indicating significant misconceptions among the Australian public in relation to Australia’s aid budget.
Polling undertaken by the Lowy Institute indicates that the Australian public has, over time, continued to overestimate the percentage of the Australian budget that is allocated to foreign aid:
In a question first presented in 2011, we asked Australians this year what percentage of the Australian federal budget they think is ‘actually spent on foreign aid’, and what percentage they think ‘should be spent on foreign aid’.
In its 2011 poll, the Institute found that Australians estimated on average that 16 per cent of the federal budget was spent on aid, when actual expenditure on aid was $4.3 billion, or around 1.2 per cent.
In its most recent 2018 poll, the Institute found that Australians maintained a ‘very inflated’ perception of the size of Australia’s aid budget:
In 2018, Australia’s aid budget is $3.9 billion, which is approximately 0.8% of the federal budget. However, this year’s Poll finds that on average, Australians think that 14% of the budget is actually spent on aid, while they think 10% of the budget should be spent on aid. More than one in five (21%) say that 20% or more of the budget is directed to aid. Very few Australians estimate the amount of the aid budget correctly, with only 6% saying that less than 1% of the Australian federal budget is actually spent on aid.
These findings are supported by research carried out by Ms Camilla Burkot and Dr Wood, who found that only a small proportion of Australians (13 per cent) understand how much foreign aid Australia gives.
In subsequent research, Dr Wood found that the provision of accurate information about how much aid Australia gives, as well as information about the aid budget over time, made little or no change to Australians’ views about Australian aid giving.
However, Dr Wood also found that contrasting falling aid budgets in Australia to rising aid budgets in the United Kingdom had a significant impact on Australians’ views. In that case:
... the percentage of respondents who think Australia gives too much aid is over 10 percentage points lower ... The percentage of respondents who think Australia does not give enough aid is almost 10 percentage points higher.
This effect—Australians’ views about aid giving being shifted by a comparison to another country, in this case the United Kingdom—was described as the ‘Ashes effect’.
Beyond misconceptions about the size of the aid budget, some stakeholders noted that lack of awareness among the Australian public about what the aid program involves. For example, Mr Mark Rice, Policy and Advocacy Manager for RESULTS International Australia, explained:
When we look at the gap between perception and reality, it has got two parts. One is how much we give but also ... what is it achieving. Often what people think aid is doing and what it should be doing and what is actually is funded through the aid program can be different.
Stakeholders highlighted the importance of communication and community engagement to strengthening public support for the aid program.
Ms Rebecca Hamilton, Policy and Advocacy Adviser for the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), explained:
... just as how we do development matters, so too does how we communicate Australia’s efforts in development to Australian and international publics. Fostering more-informed public debate about and more community engagement with Australia’s aid program is both necessary and appropriate, and will improve the confidence of the public in Australia’s strategic objectives with regard to development.
We assess that the key to building public confidence in the aid program is to tell stories about the successes it has delivered and the many lives it has changed.
Ms Eleanor Dean, General Manager, Outreach and Capacity Building at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), made a similar point:
... we’ve had market research that’s actually told us that when people understand what’s happening in the aid program and can see what’s happening from a really practical sense they will support it.
Ms Dean went on to describe some of ACIAR’s efforts to inform the Australian public about its work:
We’ve had two major partnerships with the mass media this year. We’ve been working with the ABC, and we have a formal partnership with them to deliver content on ACIAR stories. ... We’ve also developed an entertainment program for the SBS Food Network. We’ve produced that, and they’re broadcasting it. They’re repeating each episode six times, so it’s really good value for money. That’s telling the story through entertainment.
... We’ve certainly taken this issue very seriously and invested in it quite a lot to try and really speak to Australian audiences about what we're doing.
However, the Committee also heard evidence about the challenges of communicating about the aid program, particular in relation to activities with long-term outcomes.
DFAT put forward reasons why communicating about the outcomes of Australia’s aid program was challenging:
The aid program is delivered overseas, out of sight of the vast majority of Australians. While in some cases, the impact of the program is highly tangible and relatively easy to demonstrate (for example, humanitarian relief operations, some of our health and education programs) in other cases, the impact is less immediate and tangible (for example our work on governance or taxation reform).
At a public hearing, Mr James Gilling, First Assistant Secretary of the Contracting and Aid Management Division of DFAT, expanded on this point, suggesting that development is ‘a challenging policy issue to communicate’:
... development is an incredibly complicated process and it’s changing all the time. It is a difficult subject to frame intellectually. Maybe 50 years ago, the aid program was characterised by simple transfer of resources. We could build a road or build a school and put a sign post on it and that was the simple story, but nowadays we know that it’s much more complicated.
It’s not often clear that, within aid, there are different objectives according to different kinds of aid. The humanitarian aid may have more short-term goal. The sort of work that we’ve been talking about around economic development has a longer term goal. Sometimes people are expecting the sort of immediate impact that might be achieved through a humanitarian intervention with the sorts of longer term goals that you get from institutional change.
In its peer review of Australia’s aid program, the OECD DAC noted:
Australia now is committed to revive its efforts to communicate effectively on sustainable development, following a period of adjustment after the integration of AusAID into DFAT. Engaging with the public on issues of global citizenship would build on long-standing, people-to-people and educational exchanges between Australia and its neighbours.
The OECD DAC recommended that DFAT ‘better tailor, brand and resource its communications and development education efforts’ to ‘build awareness of development issues and the 2030 Agenda’.
In evidence to the inquiry, DFAT submitted it was working to improve its capacity to ‘tell positive stories about the impact of the aid program’. Mr Andrew Byrne, First Assistant Secretary, Soft Power, Communications and Scholarships Division at DFAT, explained that the Department had developed internal guidelines and was working to support its ministers in their communication about the aid program.
However, Mr Byrne also cautioned that changing public opinion would take time:
... I think it is going to take time for us to better explain to the public what benefits derive from the Australian aid program, not only for Australia but for people from countries in the Indo-Pacific. ... if we had the answer to this, we would have done it already. It is going to be a slow process, I think.
Reframing the aid program
The Committee heard a range of views about how public support for the program could be strengthened by changing the terms in which the Australian Government describes the aid program, particularly the purpose of the program.
Note that evidence specifically addressing the use of the term ‘aid’ is outlined in the following section.
The Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University suggested ‘a reframing of the arguments for domestic support for aid’:
... the Australian government frequently describes the aid program either in instrumentalist terms as a tool for extending Australian interests in the region, or in simplistic, outdated terms of Australia generously providing charity, or implementing projects. The former relies on an ungenerous narrative that ignores the moral obligations we hold towards other countries in an increasingly interconnected world. The latter sells aid as a simple story of inputs of Australian resources producing development in a linear, causal way.
... However we know that development is complex, led by local actors, long-term, often requiring significant learning and adaptation to get things right. Selling a more simplistic story of aid to the Australian public creates unhelpful pressure to continue feeding the fallacy with tangible, uncomplicated results. The Australian public are capable of, and deserve, a more honest framing of the value of aid, and indeed require a more expansive vision of what international cooperation, as opposed to aid, can achieve.
In its submission, the Institute referred to research in Australia and the United Kingdom indicating that:
... moral and ethical arguments for giving aid, or arguments which suggest mutual interest (i.e. aid to fight global diseases, or reduce conflict) are much more convincing than arguments that are more squarely about the national interest (i.e. aid to create jobs domestically, protect national security or secure trade deals).
The Institute suggested that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an opportunity to reconceive and reframe the aid program:
The SDGs represent a conceptual pivot away from a ‘rich helping the poor’ narrative to one in which citizens, organisations and states see themselves as part of an inter-dependent eco-system. This requires a narrative about the shared identity, challenges and responsibility we have, and which incentivises international collaboration to build the international social, economic and political relationships and institutions that can address the complex challenges we face.
Ms Molly Harriss Olson, Chief Executive Officer, Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, also linked the ‘changed narrative’ in the SDGs to Australians’ understanding of the aid program:
The language in the Millennium Development Goals was: ‘we’ are going to help ‘you’ poor people to fix what you’re doing wrong. It was very patronising. Now we all recognise that we all have things we need to change in different countries, in different ways, and there’s a partnership approach to it rather than a condescending: ‘Let us help you.’ Having said that, we know that in the Pacific they’re going to be dependent on aid for the foreseeable future, so there are realities of that. But I think that to the extent we see them as partnerships and ultimately about long-term development and access to things like fair markets we have a greater possibility of enabling the Australian public to understand it.
Professor Matthew Clarke, speaking in a private capacity, suggested that, while aid is ‘generally presented as funds going overseas to address the humanitarian needs that are clear and obvious’, there ‘seems to be some hesitancy about saying that that aid program actually does serve the national interest’.
Professor Clarke went on:
... I think it’s easy to understand how Australia's national interests are best served if we're in a secure, politically stable Pacific region. I think that that’s a story that most people would be able to follow. It obviously gets more difficult the further away we move from Australia ... But certainly I think we could draw on historical narrative to talk about political stability in the region—and not only that but also that these countries, our neighbours, are Western democracies based on liberal policies, by and large, and that we share those same principles around how we set ourselves up as functioning sovereign states.
While not canvassed extensively in this report, the Committee received a range of evidence on how the aid program contributes to Australia’s defence and security interests and strengthens Australia’s geo-political influence, particularly in the Pacific region.
In a submission, DFAT explained:
Australia’s foreign policy, economic, health and security interests intersect in the Pacific: a secure and stable neighbourhood supports a secure Australia. Equally, regional security is fundamental to sustainable development.
Similarly, Mr Rob Christie, Assistant Secretary of the Pacific Regional Economic Branch at DFAT, told the Committee that ‘development and security go hand in hand’.
DFAT also submitted that ‘Australia’s development assistance magnifies the influence that Australia brings to bear on regional and global problems’.
Save the Children suggested:
[Overseas development assistance] is a powerful foreign policy tool to address the greatest threats to security and stability in the world today: rising inequality, protracted humanitarian crises, mass displacement, erosion of human rights and climate change. It is also an important way to extend geopolitical influence at a time of global and regional power shifts.
Professor Clarke noted that, in the context of increasing Chinese aid in the region, Australia’s aid program is one way in which Australia can continue to influence its national interests in the Pacific region.
Similarly, Ms Rice, representing ACFID, noted the Australian Government’s recognition in recent years of development co-operation as a ‘critical tool’ of Australian soft power.
Coffey International expanded on this point:
The Australian Aid program is delivered in the Indo-Pacific region in countries where global powers are competing for influence and promoting their geo-political agenda and strategic interests. ... The Australian Aid program is a platform for supporting Australia’s national interests in the region by creating space and opportunities for policy dialogue and strategic discussions on trade, security, humanitarian response and preparedness, climate change and regional integration. The aid program provides an opportunity to conduct bi-lateral relationships in a way that is positive and builds on mutual interests and understanding, as well as public and economic diplomacy.
The Committee heard evidence about a perceived lack of political leadership in relation to Australia’s aid program. For example, Ms Rice, representing ACFID, told the Committee:
There is a lack of political will by government to make the case for aid not simply as generous or charitable but more as an investment in development cooperation driven by Australian values as well as interests. Unfortunately, what we find is that the generosity case for aid alone is extremely important but easily counteracted by statements like 'charity begins at home'. Those statements are often made by domestic interest groups competing for Australian government tax revenue.
Ms Rice called for ‘leadership at all levels of government’ so that aid expenditure is ‘normalised alongside expenditure on health and education at home’.
Other stakeholders linked the level of the aid budget to perceptions of the aid program. For example, Mr Dane Moores, Senior Economic Development Policy Adviser, for World Vision Australia, explained:
Through recent successive cuts to the aid program, the government is sending a message and a signal to the public that aid is not a valued or effective part of Australia's international engagement.
Similarly, Mr Rice, representing RESULTS International Australia, told the Committee:
... if the government are saying aid does a lot of good, but people don’t see the government backing that statement up with at least some increase in resources, then they’re thinking, ‘Do they really believe it?’
Appropriateness of the term ‘aid’
At public hearings during the inquiry, the Committee sought evidence from stakeholders on the extent to which the term ‘aid’ accurately reflected the nature of Australia’s aid program, and how the terms used to describe Australia’s aid program might influence public support for the program.
The Committee notes the different terminology used to describe aspects of aid programming in other jurisdictions, including ‘development co-operation’ in China and ‘technical co-operation’ in Singapore.
Several stakeholders suggested that the term ‘aid’ may not reflect the breadth of activities involved in Australia’s aid program, which extends beyond the provision of humanitarian assistance.
For example, the International Development Contractors Community (IDCC) submitted that the term ‘aid’ is ‘misleading shorthand for a more complex and nuanced set of activities’:
In our experience, the aid program is built around ideas of development cooperation, such as skills transfer; technical assistance; building the capabilities of people and institutions; collaboration; providing access to opportunities for networks and leadership; and giving exposure to better systems, policies and practices.
At a public hearing, Dr Cameron Hill, Member Representative of the IDCC, expanded on this point:
There is the charity view of aid, which is very much the kind of stereotype of aid as mostly being humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance is a big part of Australia’s aid program, but the bulk of our program is really about building expertise, building capability and building institutions. That requires a two-way dialogue between us and the partners that we work with both at the very high, national level and at local levels with local institutions, local NGOs and local civil society. I don’t think we’re ever going to abolish aid as a term because it’s deep in the lexicon, and I think it is always going to be a shorthand, but something around ‘development partnerships’ or ‘development cooperation’ gets to a more nuanced understanding of what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve and the fact that this is not a one-way relationship. It’s very much a dialogue between us and a group of partners. That dialogue involves often deep technical knowledge and deep technical skills rather than just the gift.
Similarly, Ms Christine Deng, Head of International Engagement at Oaktree, argued that the term ‘aid’ implies ‘one-sidedness to the way that we work’ and instead suggested that Australia’s aid program was more accurately viewed as ‘a series of partnerships and working in collaboration with our neighbours’.
Mr Rice, representing RESULTS International Australia, also noted that aid was only one part of Australia’s relationship with the countries to which it provides assistance:
[Countries to which Australia provides development assistance] are trading partners, and they're often countries that we have common interests with in international negotiations on a range of issues. We have cultural links, because, in many cases, there are a significant number of people who are originally from those countries who have migrated to Australia or have their families in this country. Our relationship is multidimensional.
Mr Rice suggested that terms such as ‘economic partnership’ could more appropriately reflect the fact Australia’s relationship with other countries ‘is not dominated, or shouldn't necessarily be dominated’ by the giving of aid:
If there's a problem it's if we use the fact that we provide aid as being the dominant or defining part of that relationship. That doesn't mean we shouldn't provide aid, but it's just a matter of how that fits into the overall relationship we have with that country.
Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller from the University of Queensland cautioned that the term ‘aid’ has negative connotations in some countries:
I’ll use the example of Indonesia. It is a very large economy and is a significant Indo-Pacific state and state in world terms. ‘Aid’ is a bit of a dirty word in proudly sovereign countries. ... Regional states, including small Pacific island countries, do not want to be seen as supplicants, as beggars, of aid programs.
Dr Nabbs-Keller noted a shift in emphasis in Australia’s aid program from ‘a donor-recipient model to more of a partnerships model’ and agreed that a change in terminology ‘away from aid to more around partnerships and international development’ was needed.
Associate Professor Jacinta O’Hagan, also from the University of Queensland, explained that there is a ‘noticeable change in the lexicon’ within the development and humanitarian sector, particularly with emerging donors such as China:
You would generally see this [change in the lexicon] in the growing area of south-south cooperation where the language is a language of solidarity, reciprocity and partnership. The other thing in discussing partnerships is that it reflects the relationship with our neighbours, which is one of mutual respect rather than simply an aid-driven relationship ... a sovereign to sovereign relationship. I think this is very important, particularly in the light of emerging donors and their approach to assistance.
Mr Peter Versegi, First Assistant Secretary of the Development Policy Division of DFAT, explained how the nomenclature used by the Department to describe its relationships with other countries through the aid program had evolved, reflecting the changing nature of those relationships:
For instance, in our engagement now with East Asia and their fast-growing economies we call them economic partnerships rather than aid relationships. I think that’s the kind of language we’re now starting to use also with our Pacific partners et cetera.
Responding to questioning from the Committee, some stakeholders suggested that using different terminology to describe the aid program could lead to a change in public perception of the program. For example, Ms Kiev Gavin, Policy Officer at Oaktree, explained:
I think the word [‘aid’] does misrepresent what the aid program, or development program, actually does within the public arena. I’m in full support of perhaps changing the title so that, when we have these public discussions, it’s not shelved off as, ‘No, we’re just giving money and it’s a one‑sided relationship,’ but it actually introduces the public into a relationship that is much more complex and a lot more mutually beneficial.
Similarly, Associate Professor O’Hagan told the Committee:
Even though Australia has a reputation as being a generous nation ... among sectors of the public there is an impression that aid is a larger proportion of our budget than it necessarily is and it is the giving of something for nothing in return. I think that, in raising the profile of those relationships and the public perception of those relationships, a change in the lexicon could be very important.
Ms Maree Nutt, Chief Executive Officer of RESULTS International Australia, explained that the organisation had altered is use of language:
... as a coalition of agencies working to build community awareness and support, we tried to remove the words ‘overseas’ and ‘foreign’ from prefacing the word ‘aid’ and have the word be ‘Australian’ so that we could feel proud of what we do. I think part of the importance of the dialogue is to have the community feel proud of what we do.
The Committee is concerned about an apparent lack of support among some sections of the Australian public for Australia’s aid program. The Committee considers that strengthening public support for the aid program is critical to its sustainability.
To this end, Australians should have a fuller understanding of why and how Australia gives aid, including an appreciation of the challenges involved in improving development outcomes in the long term.
In particular, the Committee is concerned to see greater awareness of the benefits of Australia’s aid program, beyond its contribution to Australia’s national interests. The aid program should be understood in a broader context of Australia as a good global citizen and as a good neighbour in our region, with a shared interest in achieving sustainable development outcomes.
The Committee acknowledges the challenge involved in raising awareness and addressing misconceptions about aid and development.
However, the Committee considers that there is a need for the Australian Government to renew its efforts in order to build support for Australia’s aid program. The Australian Government is responsible for setting Australia’s aid policy and should therefore have an active role in making the case for aid to the Australian public.
First, the Committee considers it necessary for the Australian Government to update its use of terminology in relation to Australia’s aid program in order to more accurately reflect the changing nature of the program.
The Committee is of the view that terms such as ‘aid’, ‘assistance’, and ‘giving’ imply that Australia’s aid program is a one-way street, which can undermine support for the aid program and lead to calls for aid funding to be reduced. While acknowledging the intrinsic humanitarian value of aid, the Committee also sees aid as part of a broader, mutually beneficial relationship between Australia and its partner countries.
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.
Second, the Committee recommends additional funding for activities to raise awareness about the benefits of Australia’s aid program. These activities could include advertising campaigns and development of educational resources, and could also involve collaboration with aid delivery partners where this is appropriate.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government provide additional funding to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for activities to raise awareness of the benefits of Australian Development Partnerships (aid), in particular via a national and ongoing advertising campaign on television, in newspapers/magazines, online and on social media that sets out:
the amount of funding for Development Partnerships in real terms and as a percentage of gross national income;
the reasons for and mutual benefits of undertaking Development Partnerships in terms of social development, trade, defence, security, strategic influence, health, biosecurity, and more, noting the change from the use of the word ‘aid’ to the new ‘development partnerships’ nomenclature; and
the benefits in increasing our support for Development Partnerships.
Finally, it is the view of the Committee that there is a need for political representatives to affirm the importance of Australia’s aid program. The Committee encourages political representatives to work to build and maintain broad community support for Australia’s aid program.