Papers: Volunteering in a neo-liberal development paradigm

A Timor-Leste case study

Nichole Georgeou & Brendan Joyce from Palms Australia question the role volunteers play in AusAID policy in Timor Leste, pointing to a risky conflict between the aims of volunteering and those of the aid programmes in which volunteers work.

Since 1997, the neo-liberal ideology underpinning Australia’s development aid policy has led to a focus on private contracting, as well as private business and institution building. While this has involved a move away from aid based on respect for independent communities, there has been a shift of attention to Australian volunteer sending programmes and the accompanying portrayal of cross-cultural volunteers as the human face and goodwill behind Australian development aid. Likewise, Australian cross-national volunteer sending programmes have also experienced a change in focus, moving away from traditional models which recognised the centrality of cross-cultural relationships in achieving development aims, to models which prioritise ‘doing development’. In the latter model, cross-cultural relationship building is seen as an inevitable yet nonessential by-product of ‘doing development’.

In identifying the shift in emphasis of volunteer sending models it is particularly important to acknowledge that the humanitarian based assumptions of ‘development’ work held by volunteers differ radically from those of the Australian government. During recent fieldwork in Timor-Leste, comments from both volunteers and NGO workers stressed that solidarity between people was central to development that made a real difference. The idea that living and working alongside the community is intrinsic to understanding their development needs and processes is also central to the discourse at the heart of participatory development models, currently in vogue with multi-lateral organisations such as the World Bank. However, while Australian volunteers’ notions of effective development are based on empowerment models, in which local people organise themselves to identify and achieve their own means of alleviating poverty, the Australian government’s ideals of development as reflected in AusAID policy are markedly different.

In contrast to the volunteers’ humanitarian focus, AusAID policy reflects the neo-liberal view of development as economic.1 Within this paradigm, there is an assumed relationship between development aid and economic growth whereby aid stimulates economic growth and reduces poverty. Failures to do so are attributed to failures in governance locally. The good governance focus has led to the conditionality of Australian aid that has created tensions between Australia and its aid recipients in the Asia Pacific, in particular the growing sense that Australia is increasingly meddling in domestic politics.

In both the 2003 foreign policy White Paper and the 2006 overseas aid White Paper, the repeated emphasis on ‘Australia’s national interest’ demonstrates a willingness to use overseas aid to advance Australia’s own regional and economic ambitions. In Timor-Leste, Australia’s ‘national interest’ features prominently in AusAID funded programmes where there is a strong and explicit link between humanitarian aid and commercial advantage. Under the guise of ‘good governance’, the Australian government’s campaign against FRETILIN and Alkatiri in particular can be viewed as connected to the Australian government’s desire (since 1975) to control the Timor Gap oil and gas resources. Accusations that oil and gas, rather than humanitarian interests, are at the heart of Australia’s intervention in Timor-Leste’s politics were made more credible by the withdrawal of AusAID funding from Forum Tau Matan and other Timorese NGOs which protested the Timor Sea maritime ‘agreements’.

More Australians than ever before are volunteering abroad, with the majority of Australian cross-national volunteers in placements in those Asia Pacific countries targeted by Australia’s development aid programmes. It is important to consider how the Australian government’s use of development assistance as a political tool has both security implications for volunteers and compromises their ability to build the relationships necessary for development. While Australia has contributed to immediate regional stability, the long-term effectiveness of current policy is tenuous. We urge the new Australian government to implement a shift back towards the relationship-centred models, favoured both by volunteers and overseas partners, which have a track record of achieving the mutually dependent outcomes of peace and development. This shift should involve honouring a core principle of the 2006 White Paper-the ‘untying’ of Australian aid.

Nichole Georgeou is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong. Brendan Joyce is the Assistant Director of Palms Australia, an independent Australian volunteering agency. This paper was written for publication in Just Change’s issue on The Ethics of Volunteering produced by Dev-Zone.

1. The neo-liberalism of Australia’s current aid program is expressed as 90% contracting out of the now over $2 billion AusAID annual budget to private Australian corporations and the frequent selection of private bodies and export oriented enterprises as the beneficiaries of these projects. (Anderson, T. (2006) The Howard Government, Australian Aid and the Consequences. Australian Review)

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There is much more to doing good work than "making a difference." There is the principle of first do no harm.
There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them. - Teju Cole