Green groups taking political actions that run contrary to the objectives of the Australian aid program must be held accountable for their anti-development activities.
Each year Australia’s foreign aid expenditure increases. It’s grown by more than $1.2 billion in the past five years and is expected to grow by another $2.3 billion in the next three years.
The intended beneficiaries are countries in South East Asia who rely on sustainable economic development to improve living standards.
But increasingly money is being directed towards green groups that have a very different agenda.
For example, in 2008 and 2009 the Australian Conservation Foundation received a total of $200,000 from Australia’s program.
The ACF is an Australian NGO that actively campaigns for countries to stop using their comparative advantages in natural resource industries to export themselves out of poverty.
Similarly, in the 2010 and 2011 financial years the World Wildlife Fund Australia collected $400,000 from Australia’s international aid and development agency, AusAID.
As an international green group WWF has been active in campaigns that specifically target forestry and agriculture imports from Malaysia and Indonesia.
These campaigns have ranged from programs to stop consumers and business buying imported products like paper and palm oil in Australia and New Zealand, the introduction of trade bans and supply china restrictions on imports.
These campaigns either diminish the market for exports from Malaysia and Indonesia, or increase their costs so they are less competitive against Australian made alternatives.
A recent example includes efforts to target a popular fast food chain – KFC – to stop using Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil in their frying and forestry products in their packaging.
Similar campaigns have been run against food manufacturers, supermarkets and stationary suppliers. Many have been successful. KFC recently announced they would switch to canola oil. To date they haven’t buckled under pressure over their sourced paper products.
But these political campaigns are completely inconsistent with the objectives of Australia’s aid program.
Australian government must act
Previously governments have concluded that the objective of the Australian government’s aid program is ‘to assist developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development, in line with Australia’s national interest’.
But by undermining developing countries’ exploitation of their natural resources from a subsistence economy to manufacturing and eventually a service-based economy, these green groups are undermining this objective.
NGOs have every right to engage in political activity if they feel it advances their organisational objectives. But that capacity is compromised when they start taking public money.
Currently NGOs are restricted from being accredited organisations to access NGO-specific AusAID funding programs if they are engaged in political activity that is primarily isolated to partisan activities.
But that relatively narrow definition of political activity means green groups can be engaged in political campaigns so long as they don’t involve directly endorsing parties in Australia or abroad.
It’s not enough.
For the sake of Australian taxpayers who want to ensure their aid funding is helping the region’s poor, restrictions need to be placed on if and how green groups can spend aid money.
For the sake of those who rely on the sustainable development of export-orientated industries in South-East Asia to improve their standard of living, they should hope the Australian government acts.
Tim Wilson is director of the Sustainable Development Project and the IP and Free Trade Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs and author of ‘Accountability for our aid dollar: Time to hit the pause button?’ available at www.ipa.org.au.