Government strengthens focus on human rights in Australia’s aid program but rejects a human rights-based approach to development

On 6 July 2011, the Foreign Minister announced a comprehensive new strategy for Australia’s aid and development program. The strategy was developed in response to the report of a major independent review of the effectiveness and efficiency of Australia’s program. Launching the strategy, Minister Rudd outlined that “the fundamental purpose of Australian aid is to help people overcome poverty. This also serves Australia's national interests by promoting stability and prosperity both in our region and beyond. We focus our effort in areas where Australia can make a difference and where our resources can most effectively and efficiently be deployed.”

Responding to this mission statement, the Australian Council for International Development said that “The new purpose of the program, focused squarely on helping people overcome poverty, brings clarity and focus. It stresses that it is in Australia’s national interest to assist people in the developing countries that surround Australia - and beyond.”

Under the strategy, the Government has developed “five strategic goals for the overall aid program” and defined “ten specific development objectives that seek to give effect to these strategic goals”.

Regrettably, and contrary to the recommendations of many NGOs (including in the HRLC submission), the Independent Review Report did not recommend, and the new strategy does not adopt, a human rights-based approach to aid and development. This is despite strong evidence that a human rights-based approach is empowering and can substantially enhance aid effectiveness and efficiency.

According to the Human Rights Law Centre’s Rachel Ball, “A charity-based approach to aid and development issues will only take us so far. In devising, delivering and assessing aid programs, the Australian Government must acknowledge systemic inequalities and unjust power relations. It is no coincidence that time and time again, the hardest hit by poverty and natural disasters are the marginalised and disadvantaged.”

This disappointment notwithstanding, it is very pleasing that the ten “development objectives” include a focus on empowering women, girls and people with disability. According to ACFID CEO, Marc Purcell, “Women make up more than 50% of the world’s population. Human development can only occur if discrimination and inequality between men and women is addressed front and centre. We welcome the prioritisation of gender equality.”

The ten development objectives also include a commitment to strengthen civil society and to “improve security, enhance justice and human rights for poor people”. According to Minister Rudd, “human rights, for the first time therefore, has been formally included within the core development objectives of the Australian aid portfolio”. Mr Purcell said that ACFID is “very pleased that the Government has recognised the importance of civil society in building human development and expanding freedoms in communities.”