2014 Castan Human Rights Report: Human rights in need of aid

By Adam McBeth

Foreign aid and human rights are inextricably linked, as aid is often the only way to fulfil peoples’ rights in developing countries. This is especially true for economic, social and cultural rights such as the rights to water, housing, health, education and a sustainable livelihood. However, it is also true for many civil and political rights. For instance, a well-funded justice system is necessary to avoid corruption and moonlighting by judges, police and court officers, and to provide sufficient resources to protect the right to a fair trial and associated rights, such as freedom from arbitrary detention. Any country that does not have sufficient resources to achieve these ends – including the vast majority of countries in our own region – will need to rely on aid to improve the human rights situation, or in some cases, just to prevent it from deteriorating.

Millennium Development Goals

HR and Aid
The Manus Island detention centre is paid for out of Australia’s aid budget. Photo: DIBP images

Foreign aid is a primary vehicle for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In 2000, the governments of the world agreed on a set of measurable targets to fight extreme poverty and its consequences as efficiently as possible. Those targets were divided into eight MDGs including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; reducing child mortality; and improving maternal health. Each goal had a series of targets, most ending in 2015. For example, the first target of the goal, ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’, was to halve the proportion of people living on incomes of less than US$1.25 per day, between 1990 and 2015.

The approach of the MDGs differs from human rights theory, which assumes that no person should ever be deprived of any of his or her rights. The MDGs take the more utilitarian approach of improving the lot of as many people as possible. From a human rights perspective, halving world poverty still equates to a breach of the rights of the half left behind. Nevertheless, the MDGs are an important mechanism for combating entrenched suffering around the world and the federal government must continue to support the international community’s efforts to develop the Sustainable Development Goals, which will supersede the MDGs after 2015.

Australian aid spending

Given the inextricable link between human rights and foreign aid spending, there are two very worrying trends in Australia, which started under the Labor Government and are accelerating under the Liberal Government. They are the levels of aid spending and the ‘creative’ way that governments include certain spending as aid.

Australian aid spending has for decades languished at around 0.3 per cent of Australia’s Gross National Income – less than half the OECD benchmark of 0.7 per cent for developed countries. During the Howard Government, the Rudd-led opposition pledged to increase Australian aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015. Once in government, Rudd and co put off that commitment, to 2017 and then 2018, before losing office. The Abbott Government has surpassed Labor’s procrastination and taken the axe to the aid budget, with the current year’s spending going backwards in dollar terms for the first time in living memory. The government has announced that future aid spending will be linked to the consumer price index – in other words, guaranteeing zero growth in real terms, rather than incrementally increasing towards the global benchmark as Labor had promised (but not delivered).

All of this focus on the bottom line also obscures the second, far more alarming trend: shoehorning all sorts of activity that has nothing to do with fighting world poverty or securing human rights into the aid budget. Governments of both stripes have long had a habit of gilding the aid lily by labelling such things as programs to boost Australian companies’ exports as aid programs. Often, the bulk of spending in such programs ended up in the pockets of Australian companies and consultants. Even infrastructure spending such as roads, ports and rail was often designed to help Australian mining companies get minerals out of a developing country’s soil and out of the country for their own commercial gain.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments stretched credulity to new levels by including spending on border protection and offshore processing of asylum seekers under the aid budget. Given that the rationale of offshore processing is deliberate cruelty – that is, to devise treatment so abhorrent that even a person fleeing for his or her life will think twice before getting on a boat – it is now untenable to claim that the aid budget is designed to foster human rights and development abroad. The current Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has continued these practices apace. The most recent example is Australian mining companies’ proposal that they be reimbursed from Australia’s aid budget for any ‘good works’ they undertake in the countries where they operate, in the name of corporate social responsibility. Put another way, Australia’s aid budget is being asked to fund the social quid pro quo that developing countries require from Australian mining companies that are profiting from their natural resources.


While the abolition of AusAID itself, which was absorbed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is not necessarily a bad thing, it may be an indicator of the broader intention to subordinate aid to Australia’s commercial and diplomatic interests. At this juncture, it is crucial to remember that the protection and promotion of human rights worldwide is, in itself, a responsibility of Australia and its wealthy country counterparts.

This piece is featured in the 2014 Castan Human Rights Report. You can read the full report and download a pdf here.

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