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Rescuing altruism from the Barnaby rubble


Millennium Development GoalsLast week Federal Opposition finance spokesperson Senator Barnaby Joyce caused a stir when he argued for cuts to Australia's foreign aid.

It was a case of populist politics at its worst. He was appealing to base self-interest.

Addressing the National Press Club on Wednesday, Joyce said we should not be sending money to feed the hungry in developing countries because we have the highest food inflation in the Western world.

That his arguments made little sense does not stop them from winning popular support. Many voters decide on the basis of emotion rather than rationality. And tapping voter greed is likely to be a more successful strategy than appealing to voter altruism.

But it's a poor reflection on the moral character of Australians and of Senator Joyce's estimation of it, that he should not even try to make us better world citizens.

Already Australia gives less than 40 cents for every $100 earned across the economy to foreign aid, compared to 60 cents in the UK and almost 80 cents in Denmark and Belgium.

Moreover, enlightened self-interest is the basis for much of Australia's existing aid effort. AusAID specifies that the program aims to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development 'in line with Australia's national interest'. So we provide assistance to East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in order to avoid having failed nations on our doorstep.

Australia remains a signatory to the 2000 Millennium Declaration that aimed to halve world poverty by 2015, whether or not it is consistent with our national interest. From this declaration came the eight Millennium Development Goals, which specify targets in areas such as poverty and hunger, education, the empowerment of women, and reduction of child mortality.

Labor backbencher Julie Owens is co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of the Millennium Development Goals. She reported to Paliament in October of the significant progress that has been made towards achieving the goals, but made it clear that continued progress requires Australia to maintain its level of foreign aid, especially in the context of the Global Financial Crisis.

But it would be out of character for most politicians to promote an altruistic cause such as the Millennium Development Goals. This is significant because ordinary people are inspired by the rhetoric and actions of their leaders. Gandhi and Mandela were two politicians of the 20th century who were also leaders of humanity. They were successful in their appeal to the voters' sense of altruism and they showed it could be done.

President Obama is attempting to do the same. He may be struggling, but he's not ready to give up the fight. Some of our would-be leaders are not even prepared to begin the fight.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: barnaby joyce, foreign aid, national press club



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Existing comments

Thanks for this timely article. Political bully-style comments attract the most minmalist "opiners" and validate their selfishness. These have abounded since the "election" debacle of the Liberals.

M.Confoy | 08 February 2010  

Excellent commentary, Michael. Joyce's views are disgraceful. "Anything for attention" is not the way to behave as a public figure aspiring to goals not mired in personal or Australia's best (read selfish!) interests.

Richard Flynn | 08 February 2010  

Although he may not have been aware of it, Barnaby Joyce was playing the race card again, or if not the race card, at least the xenophobia card.

It's a pity he didn't put his farming and accounting qualifications and experience to work at uncovering the real reason for the increases in food prices in Australia.

Ginger Meggs | 08 February 2010  

The most sensitive part of the body politic is the hip pocket nerve (HPN). It is a brave politician who says: "This operation is going to hurt your HPN but it is necessary for the continuation and development of our way of life."
A Machiavellian politician says:"We are going to sedate your HPN and after the operation you will wake up to a much improved life-style.
A fear-mongering politician who exploits human nature's vulnerabilities will say:"Don't have the operation. There is an easier softer way. And it is something we are going to keep to ourselves. Trust me. You won't feel a thing."
These three approaches are not limited to Australia. Nor even to politics. It happens in many areas of life.
The best that we can hope for is that over time more fortunate people will think less of themselves and more about the less fortunate.

Uncle Pat | 08 February 2010  

Not with the intention of defending Barnaby Joyce, but this article demonstrates a common error which needs to be recognised.

While yes, Australia is a small international aid donor in comparison with other Developed nations, we undertake something much more altruistic and effective. Australia imports citizens from the Developing world, provides housing, education, training, health services, and often longterm social security benefits.
Our migration programme is economically necessary to achieve development of some industry sectors, and thus more than pays its way. But there is a less "profitable" component of unskilled and socially/civically immature migrants, who require (as they deserve) years of public expenditure. This in effect, costs Australia (yes, the taxpayer) much more than raising our direct overseas aid to top international levels.

Also, this direct intervention is not subject to the machinations of the UN bloated bureaucracy. Money going to the UN is used to grease the pockets of UN corrupt Developing nation officials and politicians, it is used to employ incompetent academics, to subsidise unnecessary exports from donor countries including Australia...and to feed, educate and care for starving humans.

Evaluating and discussing the merit of Australian overseas aid is responsible.

Sandra Blackmore | 08 February 2010  

"We focus foreign aid on countries beneficial to our own self-interest."
Is this such a bad idea? Why give money to countries that hate us?

Venise Alstergren | 08 February 2010  

Michael please desist from beginning so - called sentences with "and."

Terry Oberg | 08 February 2010  

Sandra Blackmore speaks for the silent majority.

Ron Cini | 08 February 2010  

To Venise:

I suppose the pat answer to your question would be Luke 6: 27-31...

But it might be more constructive to ask why there are 'some countries that hate us'?

Ginger Meggs | 08 February 2010  

I make no comment on Barnaby Joyce or his motives in raising the aid issue, but like Sandra Blackmore, welcome the opportunity provided to have a sensible discussion about the value of our national foreign aid program. Eureka Street readers could do worse than read the recently published critique of government to government aid, "Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa" by Dr Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian born economist. Her central proposition is that aid of this sort (as opposed to community-based aid) encourages corruption and dependence and crowds out the private initiative that drives economic growth and development. The different fates of south-east Asia and sub-saharan Africa are advanced as evidence for her thesis. It's not absolutely incontrovertible, but it serves as a timely balance to the soft-headed good intentions of so many in the West. While Joyce may have been playing populist politics in his call to cut foreign aid, the same could not be said about the Kenyan James Shiwati, who, in an interview with Der Speigel in 2005, pleaded, "For God's sake, stop the aid."

David de Carvalho | 08 February 2010  

In 2006 a small group of us, interested in the MDG's undertook a university developed research project. We surveyed people from around Brisbane on their attitude toward international aid, and where that aid should be directed.
What did the survey find?

• Not one single person said Australia shouldn’t give aid to poor countries.
• Almost 90% (89.7%) said it was ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to give aid.
• Two thirds (66.9%) of the people were actually in favour of increasing our aid.
• And almost 80% of these (76.9%) were in favour of increasing the amount of aid to meet the goal proposed by UN of 0.5% or more of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
• A majority of people (54%) would prefer aid to be distributed through Australian NGOs.
• Where nongovernmental agencies are not an option, then people would prefer that aid be distributed through governments rather than businesses. A majority say governments needn’t be democratic but should be stable (52.8%) and transparent (59.2%).
• While people recognise giving aid improves Australia’s international image (86.7%) and international relations (82.9%), the majority do not think aid should used as P.R.
• An overwhelming majority of people said aid should be directed towards countries that are poor (87.6%), have poor social services (91.5%) and poor health standards (89.8%) or suffering from natural disaster (94.7%) and post-conflict trauma (85.1%).

Heather den Houting | 12 February 2010  

David de Carvalho, you really cannot begin to mention Dr. Bambisa Moyo or James Shiwati in the same breath as Barnaby Joyce. The latter belongs to the European political landscape of the 30s when the promulgation of extreme nationalism combined with the preservation of certain ethinicities were prevalent.

Joyce and his compatriot Abbot, would have us all return to those glorious days of nationalistic/ social conservatism where the very mention of human right was anathema to the survival of their political existence. Joyce & Co are masterful when it comes to contaminating the nation's psyche, a word here and there will soon seduce the largely ignorant electorate into believing that their so-called value systems are threatened.

I am still hopeful that after 11 years of moral darkness, the rest of us will see the Joyces of this world for what they really are.

Alex Njoo | 22 February 2010  

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