It’s a strange headline, isn’t it?
Australia, whose economy generated US$67,500 per person in 2013, being the recipient of charity from Indonesia, whose economy generated $3,500 per person in the same year. But that’s what’s happening this week.
The nationwide coin collection campaign has been receiving a lot of attention on social media, under the hashtag #KoinUntukAustralia, or “Coins For Australia”. Everyday Indonesians are posting photos of their money online, declaring that they want Australians to have it. There’s even a photo of a women walking through stopped traffic with a coin collection box emblazoned with the Australian flag.
It’s not yet clear how much money has been raised, who is holding the money, or where it is being held, but Indonesians have made it clear that they want Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to benefit from their generosity.
Ok, I’m willing to concede that this isn’t the classic model of international aid. Normally, international aid flows from wealthy countries to developing countries, and is designed as an effective, moral response to human need. Targeting Tony Abbott, as an Oxford-educated politician earning AU$500,000 (US$395,000) per year, is a strange international aid manoeuvre.
But strange aid manoeuvres with a dubious moral basis are what #KoinUntukAustralia is all about.
What the story actually revolves around, is two Australian citizens who have been convicted of heroin smuggling in Indonesia. This crime carries with it a death sentence in Indonesia, and Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are currently on death row. Indonesia was one of just 22 countries to execute someone in 2013, and the Australian Government is understandably not very comfortable with the idea of two of its citizens meeting that fate.
While the pair have been in an Indonesian jail since 2005, the rejection of their final judicial appeals in early February 2015 has kicked Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (and the Australian Government in general) into overdrive in an attempt to have their lives spared.
But back to the coins
I can accept if it’s still not clear why the Indonesian people are trying to send Tony Abbott money.
Well, in addition to Bishop’s attempts to negotiate, Abbott also stepped in. He told reporters that Australia would be “grievously let down” if the executions went ahead, considering that Australia had sent AU$1 billion (US$788 million) in aid to Indonesia in the wake of the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami, which left around 200,000 Indonesians dead or missing.
On the surface, that may seem to be a call to the goodwill that exists between the two countries, but the Indonesian people have (quite rightly, in my opinion) detected a sinister undercurrent to the comments.
Because if a rich country’s international aid program is expected to buy the country exemptions from foreign laws, is it still aid, or can it almost be seen as a bribe? So the #KoinUntukAustralia campaign is a symbolic rejection by the Indonesian people of the concept that receiving aid undermines their country’s independence, and its ability to enforce its laws.
Abbott has since backed away from his comments, but quite a bit of damage has been done. While it’s definitely true that donor nations can benefit from giving international aid in the long run (by lifting up and stabilising developing countries so that they can become trading partners), it’s very important that the core reason remains the urge to eliminate poverty, and create a world where all people can live in dignity. Australia's international aid program has improved millions of lives over the years, and though its budget has recently been cut back, there remains much to be proud of.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, with body language oddly reflective of this whole story
But by attempting to use international aid funding as a bargaining tool in a legal case, governments risk undermining the spirit of trust and partnership that effective, sustainable development depends on. Of course, as an Australian (and global) citizen, it brings me no joy to see the grim situation that Chan and Sukumaran find themselves in, but to tow Australia’s aid program into the debate is to compromise what the program is, and what it aims to achieve.