The politics of aid

Daniel Oakman told Radio National recently that he thought the assumptions behind the Colombo Plan may sound fanciful today. These included the idea that aid would stimulate economic development and that such growth would in turn promote stability and moderate political conflict. Also that exposure to the Western capitalist system and values would act as a deterrent to communist influence.

I’m not so sure things have changed. We still expect miracles from tiny commitments of aid. That those miracles don’t occur fuels the arguments from skeptics about waste and corruption and the ineffectiveness of aid, yet the money keeps flowing, particularly in times of threat: communism then, terrorism now.

Government-sponsored aid then and now is about politics. It is never purely humanitarian but must accord with broader foreign-policy objectives and with the so-called national interest. Yet the taxpayer’s dollar can do good: not always by achieving the outcomes desired of a particular project; indeed more often by building trust and understanding in donor and recipient countries. Certainly, Oakman shows that it was the effect on individuals that reaped the largest returns on Australia’s investment in the Colombo Plan.

Facing Asia is a meticulous study of the Colombo Plan, the first comprehensive aid package for Asia. The plan involved convening a regional consultative committee, made up of donors and recipients, to discuss the overall direction of the plan, while programs of assistance were decided upon and delivered bilaterally. This unique form created an institution that has lasted 50 years and is seen by its Asian members as their own, rather than something imposed by the West.

Australia had an important role in the plan’s conception mainly, as Oakman portrays it, because of Percy Spender, the then Foreign Minister, who pushed hard for the scheme in a manner that got results. But his heavy-handed approach also alienated people and saw what was first termed the Spender Resolution evolve into the Colombo Plan, adopted in London in October 1950.

Spender’s successor, Lord Casey, latched onto the plan’s propaganda value. He insisted that projects be clearly identified as Australian and serve to build Asian goodwill. Badging its aid was again a priority for the government in the late 1990s. This was insisted upon even in face of the fact that some projects will turn out to be white elephants, given the risky nature of the development game.

Oakman spends considerable time discussing the effectiveness of aid. He describes a few white elephants but more importantly shows how Australian diplomats were reluctant and ill-equipped to monitor and evaluate the aid programs. Even in the 1950s, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Arthur Tange, wanted only to retain policy control of the aid program and to ‘offload the administration’. Oakman also points out how the lack of coherence between aid and trade policies has undermined aid’s impact on economic growth. Today, the debate continues about which agencies should determine aid policy and how best to administer the program. Similarly, the issue of policy coherence remains high on the agenda of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.

The Vietnam War was the clearest manifestation of the flaws in the theory that the Colombo Plan would avert the communist threat, its prime function in the Cold War period. It also highlighted the minor role aid plays in foreign policy. When the crunch came, military responses were seized upon.

Chapter Six is an interesting discussion about the effect of the presence of Asian students in Australia. I was surprised to learn that only a fifth of these were Colombo Plan students, with the rest paying their own way. As Oakman points out, that is a measure of the effectiveness of the publicity campaign that permeated Australia’s management of the plan.

While the number of scholars was small—by 1966 some 12,000 had been in Australia—Oakman concludes that ‘they marked a watershed in Australia’s cultural development and their appearance on university campuses and in private homes across the country provided a sustained challenge to the Australian insularity’ embodied, of course, in the White Australia Policy.

The other contributing factor to the demise of restrictive immigration policies was the effect of Asia on visiting Colombo Plan technical experts. They encountered ‘intelligent, courteous, English-speaking counterparts with plenty of ideas and welcoming hearts’—as well, at times, as criticism of Australia’s racist policies and of the tokenistic size of its aid program (albeit in the 1960s about three times the proportion of GDP than it was in 2004).

While the arrangement of the chapters in Facing Asia is somewhat higgledy-piggledy, overall this is an easily read history of an important feature of Australia’s engagement with Asia. It brings to life the processes surrounding foreign and aid policy by quoting many of the players within government who, in the days before the Freedom of Information Act, were less reluctant to put their views on paper. For those writing the history of the next 50 years of Australian aid, the archives may not be so revealing. 

Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan, Daniel Oakman. Pandanus Books, 2004. isbn 1 740 76086 7, rrp $34.95

Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat who also worked in the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) in the 1990s.



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