By Tim Scrase. Adjunct Professor, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT.
Many Palms supporters are no doubt aware that the sphere of aid and development around the world has dramatically changed over the past 30 years. The neoliberal capitalist re-making of the economic and social order has seen public assets privatized under the guise of “efficiency dividends” that drive “growth and prosperity”. Coupled with the widespread corporatization of public life few areas of government which were once considered integral to the “public good” are immune – think: disability services; aged care; New Start and job searching; refugee policies and detention; prison services; public transport; public housing; public hospitals; and so forth. Indeed, over a generation, the complete social and cultural fabric of Australia has been upended. The state is now seen by many to be antagonistic to people’s needs, scepticism and distrust of politicians and the political system is high, and rates of anxiety, stress and fear are through the roof.
Australia’s aid and development agenda has not been immune to the shift towards privatization and corporatization. Foreign aid has, and continues to be, a political tool of governments around the world; it is rarely given for altruistic reasons. In these troubling times the Australian state is withdrawing its direct monetary (fiscal) support for impoverished communities and instead “encouraging” the complete shift to private sector roles in delivering aid programs. As the government has clearly stated:
Australia’s aid policy framework reflects an increasing focus on the private sector: as the source of economic growth, incomes and jobs; and as a partner with whom we can work to achieve faster and more sustainable development outcomes. Private sector development refers to DFAT’s work to support the growth of the private sector in developing countries.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs has approved the Strategy for Australia’s Aid Investments in Private Sector Development. The Strategy reflects the Government’s priority of growing the size and inclusiveness of the private sector in our partner countries in order to drive economic growth and reduce poverty. (https://dfat.gov.au/aid/topics/development-issues/private-sector-development/Pages/private-sector-development.aspx)
And, what better way to ensure that various private firms get benefits from government contracts is to have a former Minister for Foreign Affairs (Julie Bishop), who led the effective shutdown of AUSAID and the creation of the new entity “Australian Aid”, become your board member!
Apart from the obvious “ethics and morality” of this recent appointment, feeding into general public suspicion and mistrust of politicians previous mentioned, it reinforces the direct links between government and private entities and raises serious questions concerning the independence of the state, and state-decision making, more generally. As a consequence, Australian aid and development is now seriously deficient, being ever more a tool for both geo-politics and the ideologically-laden belief that encouraging private enterprise is the avenue to prosperity. This is borne out in a review of Australia’s aid program reported in The Guardian.
In this newspaper report, which I encourage you all to read, we see clearly: 1. the decades long decline of Australian aid, particularly in respect to Australia’s Gross National Income; 2. the shift to focus aid from global to “in our region”; and 3. the concentration of aid in “building things”. Large private entities are favoured as they have the skills and manpower (including many former Ausaid employees), political connections, and corporate set-up to take advantage of the new realities; smaller aid and development consultancies and groups (like Palms) are consequently squeezed out of the “main game”. It is a situation that will only continue, I fear, as modern Labor, should they win office at the Federal level in Australia, are more or less in step with the new “realities” of privatization and corporatization.
Tim Scrase became a supporter of Palms in 2006, when he supervised a doctoral thesis on the impact of Palms volunteers which was published in 2012. Since then he has supported Palms in the recruitment of volunteers for international placements and our Sydney office.