Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


'Part of a Pacific family': Australia to re-focus aid budget

  • 07 June 2022
Rarely has the issue of Australia’s commitment to aid and development been so critical to a government’s first term agenda. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong has visited the Pacific region twice since being sworn in, demonstrating the intentions of the newly elected Albanese Labor government to strengthen Australia’s relationship with its nearest neighbours. While senior level engagement between the Australian government and its neighbours is essential, so too will be the action the Albanese government takes to help its neighbours address the many well publicised concerns of climate change, regional security, social and economic development.

As a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI), Australia’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) in 2021 was around 0.22 per cent, well short of the UN target of 0.7 per cent. The falloff in Australia’s ODA over the past decade from a high of 0.36 per cent of GNI in 2012, together with an absence of leadership on issues of importance to its neighbours has impacted Australia’s influence in the region.

The previous government’s ‘Pacific Step Up’ initiative was unfortunately too little and too late. More critically it had the appearance of desperation, a government realising that its position in the region was under threat. Former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison told journalists in 2019 that the ‘Pacific Step Up’ was part of ‘refocussing our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard and making sure we can make the biggest possible difference’.

The problem with that narrative was that it reinforced a perception with our neighbours that our engagement with them occurs when it is in our interest to do so. And clearly this wasn’t missed by Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama who tweeted that ‘Fiji is not anyone’s backyard — we are a part of a Pacific family’, during Penny Wong’s recent visit to the country.

Prime Minister Bainimarama’s tweet about his nation being part of the Pacific family is instructive as to how we must see and use Australia’s $4.5b aid budget. ODA, often viewed as soft diplomacy, is an important feature of international relations. However, to think of ODA as merely a financially-based relational transaction is to misunderstand its true value and purpose.

'There are many NGOs actively supporting communities in areas of health, education, skills development and nutrition who with better funding could do more to improve the wellbeing of people across the Asia/Pacific region.'

ODA signals our values and priorities. And for governments that