Two of Australia's most prominent national intelligence experts have criticised the nation's international aid spending, calling for increases to the aid budget with poverty alleviation and soft power prioritised.
Richard Maude and Allan Gyngell, former director-general and senior diplomat at the Office of National Assessments, respectively, said the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper — a framework for Australia's international engagement — should be modernised to reflect the impact of COVID-19, the US election and China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Speaking on the Good Will Hunters podcast, Maude said Australia's overseas development budget, which is at its least generous level in history, lacks the funds to support its commitment to promoting prosperity and enhancing stability.
He added aid infrastructure and economic projects must not come at the expense of poverty alleviation work.
"Poverty alleviation should still be a core goal of our international development efforts, even as we seek to apply more foreign aid to strategic goals," he said, according to the Brisbane Times. "Secondly, as a wealthy nation, we should be spending more than $4 billion a year, including in Southeast Asia, notwithstanding its recent development."
Gyngell echoed Maude's comments.
"We accept the need to spend money on the instruments of defence and deterrence, but we think that spending money on instruments of persuasion — whether that is aid, diplomacy or soft power — that's somehow less real in terms of the effect that it has," he said.
In October, as part of the 2020-2021 Federal Budget announcement, Australia effectively increased its international aid spending by unveiling a one-off COVID-19 package for the Pacific and Timor-Leste. The package, which “looks and feels just like aid”, will sit alongside the official aid budget.
Hundreds of millions were also committed in 2020 to the global COVID-19 response, including to the COVAX Facility — the main global scheme to vaccinate people in low- and middle-income countries against COVID-19.
Technically, however, Australia’s official aid budget will be cut by $44 million this year, with significant cuts to disability-inclusive funding and aid to South and West Asia, Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.