Waylaid Dialectic

July 12, 2011

The News Man’s Burden

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:28 am
Tags: , ,

In between the whiff of saviour syndrome and the “OMG, OMG, RCT!” I can see why Nicholas Kristoff arouses the ire of quite a few aid bloggers. Yet by the standards of newspaper aid commentary he is actually very good. Or, to put it another way, he’s at least alright and almost everyone else is awful.

Take for example this effusion by Paul Murray in the West Australian. A classic of the genre. An exemplar of all the ugly things that follow when well-off white males with a sense of grievance and entitlement write about efforts to help people living in poverty.

1. Start with a claim that is bold, pumped up with populist angst and not actually backed up with any evidence.

“There is probably no better example of the disconnected political dialogue between Canberra and the nation than in our approach to foreign aid. Our spending on less privileged nations is one of those areas where the political elite – politicians, bureaucrats and most of the Canberra press gallery – have traditionally thought it is better not to involve the public.”

Ah yes, that must explain why the aid programme doesn’t have a website, never, ever, ever, ever, gets reported in the media, and hasn’t just undertaken a major review that was open to submissions from the public.

2. Then blame the UN

“Inside the Beltway there is bipartisanship and an implicit agreement to increase the aid from $4.3 billion to $8 billion or more within five years under urging from the United Nations.”

While ignoring the fact that most of the lobbying to increase the aid budget has actually come from Australian NGOs.

3. Then lose all sense of proportion

Though it represents only 0.5 per cent of gross national income, $8 billion-$9 billion is big money and demands majority public support.

Big money as in printed on bigger bills? The Australian Aid budget currently eats up all of 1.2 cents out of every dollar the Australian government spends. By the time the aid budget has grown to $8 billion dollars it will represent just 2 percent of government spending. In proportion to the actual amount of money available to the government the aid budget is tiny. I look forwards to Mr Murray’s subsequent columns demanding ‘major public support’ for each of the other 50, 2 percent chunks of Australian government spending.

In the meantime Mr Murray might want to dwell on the fact that, when they were surveyed in 2005, Australians were: strongly in favour of having a government aid programme, largely of the belief that it worked, and generally in favour of increasing it. And that more recent surveys by the Lowy Institute in 2010 and 2011 continue to find Australians in favour of an aid programme that is larger as a proportion of government spending than the current programme is. (See page 19 of this report for example.)

4. Then chuck in some random ad hominems that don’t actually add to your substantive argument but which may serve to stun your readers.

This has to be dealt with by our political leaders, not disregarded. Questioning of aid spending is too easily dismissed as redneck by those on the cocktail circuit.

These issues were addressed in a major review headed by former Sydney Olympics boss Sandy Hollway – a Labor insider.

5. Then invoke the flailing journalist’s favourite source “The Many”.

But that means, implicitly, more spending on the two areas of deepest concern – Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, already the two biggest recipients of our aid dollars. This implication was confirmed to me by the head of AusAid, the Federal agency that manages most of the aid programs. The prickly relationship with Indonesia, our biggest neighbour, has many people questioning what value we receive for the billions we give.

And PNG is regarded by many as a corrupt black hole into which we have similarly poured billions of dollars over decades for little or no perceived benefit either to us or the local population. [emphasis mine]

Far be it for me to argue with as authoritative source as The Many, but – brave soul that I am – I do wonder whether I couldn’t meekly point out that the length of the prickles in one’s relationship with Indonesia isn’t the only metric by which the efficacy of aid might be measured? And whether I might be able to suggest poverty reduction as an alternative yardstick of success? (Which, by the way, is an area where Indonesia is actually doing very well.) Also, I can’t help but wonder why The Many hasn’t considered the obvious counter-factual: that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia might be pricklier still were it not for aid?

And, though I’m loathe to mention it, I’m not entirely sure whether The Many has actually read the review in question, because here’s what it actually – explicitly – has to say with regards to aid to PNG (from page 11):

In PNG, Solomon Islands and East Timor, aid effectiveness is constrained by poor governance. The Review Panel recommends a low expansion. If efforts currently underway in these countries to improve effectiveness succeed, this judgement could be revisited. [emphasis mine]

6. Then suggest conspiracy…

“The Government does not have an effective communications strategy for the aid program,” the report said. “Fostering more informed public debate about and more community engagement is healthy and appropriate.”

What the report was too polite to say, but what I believe, is that the lack of transparency and failure to communicate have been the explicit policy settings of successive governments to keep this issue away from the public.

…while ignoring the obvious alternative explanation, that — for lesser mortals than Mr Murray — communicating nuanced messages about the complicated world of aid to a public with a limited attention span for the subject is actually quite hard to do.

7. Then make a hyperbolic claim…

As a result of this lack of scrutiny, the foreign aid program has become dysfunctional.

“The aid program lacks a clear and comprehensive overall strategy,” the report said. “This risks a scattered effort and makes an assessment of effectiveness difficult. The aid program is fragmented. In 88 countries, Australia has aid programs of more than $200,000 a year, compared to 69 countries five years ago. The number of projects has doubled. These trends are unsustainable.”

…while ignoring the fact that the review in question actually emphasised that overall Australia’s aid programme is pretty good.

8. Then finally stumble upon the truth.

Our political debate needs to grow up.

Yes Mr Murry it does. Starting with you.



  1. You are on the mark with this. Kristof rightly gets criticism for some of his articles, but he is far better than just about everyone else. That is pretty sad, but he should get credit for that much.

    Comment by Tom Murphy (@viewfromthecave) — July 12, 2011 @ 9:30 am

  2. Thanks Tom

    Comment by terence — July 12, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  3. […] the standards of some of the commentary that has appeared in the wake of the review of Australian aid, Hugh White’s op-ed in the Age is […]

    Pingback by Increasing aid, wasting money? | Development Policy blog — July 20, 2011 @ 7:51 am

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