The Australian government has recently come under fire for the inefficiency of its overseas aid programs, particularly in the Asia Pacific. The June 4 Sydney Morning Herald reported that more and more aid destined for the region was being lost in administrative costs or dished out to private corporations in the name of "development".
In May, watchdog group Aid/Watch released a report — Fighting Poverty or Fantasy Figures? The Reality of Australian Aid — that revealed that "upwards of a billion dollars" out of Australia's total overseas aid of some $3 billion "fails to contribute to meaningful poverty reduction in aid recipient countries". The report argued that instead of using overseas aid to reduce poverty and promote development, "Australia pursues an alternative program of promoting regional security and liberalised economic cooperation, without adequately targeting the source of poverty and the real needs of communities".
Among the problems with Australia's overseas aid programs, the report notes:
•"Boomerang aid" — "the large proportion of the aid program still managed by Australian companies".
•Aid being spent on programs within Australia (such as "full-fee-paying scholarships for foreign students and debt cancellation").
•Detention of refugees has been funded under the guise of "assistance to refugees".
•"New moves tie aid to performance measures, which allows Australia to withdraw funding if
poor-countries don't fulfil Australia's demands."
•Despite some of the world's first climate-change refugees being in the Pacific region, Australia has made little contribution to the fight against global warming.
At a 2006 symposium on "A Decade of the Howard Government", Sydney University academic Tim Anderson described Australia's aid programs as being dedicated to supporting Australian investment and "security" in the Asia Pacific, rather than supporting the needs of local populations.
Australia sent police to the Solomons during an outbreak of violence in the country in 2004, but none of them spoke the local language. Anderson said: "Two-hundred foreign police, who travelled in groups of three or four and did not speak local languages, were hardly likely to have a significant impact on 'law and order' in a country of more than 5 million. Most likely the police would have been deployed around some major roads, airports, Australian missions and support facilities for Australian companies."
A unflattering comparison to the self-serving "aid" programs of the Australian government is the internationalist support for countries in the region provided by socialist Cuba, despite it being a poor, Third World nation.
Cuba has stepped up its aid programs in Asia and the Pacific. The country's general approach to aid projects couldn't be more different to Australia's. While Australia sends police to protect corporate interests (or, indeed, troops to invade), Cuba sends doctors for the public good. Cuba currently has more than 27,000 doctors working overseas in more than 68 countries, all dedicated to providing free health care to the poor.
In Venezuela, as part of a bilateral agreement that grants Cuba cheaper access to oil, thousands of Cuban doctors work in the poorer sections of the cities where the middle-class well-paid doctors feared to tread. For a long time, Cuban doctors have provided services to countries in Africa.
The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated some of the poorest countries in Asia. Many of the countries affected had underdeveloped and underfunded health systems. Cuba immediately sent doctors to Aceh, East Timor, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where they were welcomed by the local populations for their skills and commitment.
After earthquakes in Indonesia and Sri Lanka in August 2006, a Cuban medical team was sent to each country to provide aid. The doctors' wages are paid by the Cuban government. The host countries need only provide accommodation and access to hospitals. Patients see the doctors at no charge, which allows the poorest sectors of society access to professional health care that in many cases they have never had before.
When the Indonesian military left in 1999 there were only 26 doctors in East Timor. Hundreds of Cuban doctors now work there, providing everything from emergency assistance to gynaecology. Sixty in every thousand children in East Timor die before they are a year old, largely because whole districts were without doctors under Indonesian rule.
Cuba also provides extensive medical scholarship programs to citizens of poor countries. By July 2006, there were more than 300 Timorese students studying medicine in Havana, according to a report by ABC Radio's The World Today. They have to learn Spanish as well, but this is provided as part of their overall course. The plan is to use this program to provide one doctor for every thousand people in East Timor by 2015. From Asia and the Pacific, there are also students from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and, most recently, the Solomons. Anderson noted in his 2006 talk that "Cuba's scholarship program for East Timor is now five times that of AusAID".