Aid to Africa in an Indo-Pacific aid program

In describing the region of the world in which Australia is focused in terms of aid, the Foreign Minister has assiduously adhered to the clunky “Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific”.  In her speech to the National Press Club however, she seems to have settled on “Indo-Pacific.” This term appears throughout the documentation released by the aid program in conjunction with the new strategy. So just what is the “Indo-Pacific”?

Our friend Wikipedia defines the Indo-Pacific as “a biogeographic region of the Earth’s seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia” and helpfully includes a map.

imageThe term Indo-Pacific was endorsed in the previous government’s 2013 Defence White Paper [pdf] and has been actively used [pdf] by the Indonesian Foreign Minister.

But how does the aid program define the Indo-Pacific? This is clearly an important definition given one of the performance benchmarks for the new aid program is that 90% of bilateral aid will go to this Indo-Pacific region.

The DFAT documentation released, strangely, does not provide a map – long a favourite visual for aid programs. Without a map, it is hard to know how this region is defined. Does the aid program use the Wiki definition?

A clue to the definition of the region is provided by the assertion in a recently released performance benchmarks document that this 90% goal is already being reached in 2014-15. We can agree that the Pacific, most of East Asia (excluding Mongolia which is touched by neither the Indian or Pacific Ocean), and parts of South Asia are certainly in the Indo-Pacific. We can also agree that Latin America, the Caribbean, Iraq, Afghanistan and a few other countries are not in the Indo-Pacific. So in order to get to the 90% figure in the 2014-15 budget, we see that sub-Saharan Africa must be included in the aid program’s definition of the Indo-Pacific.

imageOf course, not all of sub-Saharan Africa is touched by the waves of the Indian Ocean. South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya certainly are. Current recipients of Australian aid such as Zimbabwe and Ethiopia are not lapped by Indian Ocean surf and neither is West Africa of course. So to meet the 90% benchmark, the Africa program will need to be refocused on Indian Ocean countries.

The current government has been rightly critical of the previous government’s aid push across the African continent which saw aid being delivered to 40-plus African countries. The African expansion occurred not because anyone at AusAID thought that was effective but rather due to the DFAT-driven push for a Security Council seat. It also provided diplomatic cover for our miners who were piling into West and Central Africa.

But a focused African aid program targeted to our traditional partners in East and Southern Africa would be very appropriate. The Indo-Pacific strategy acknowledges that Australia is not only a Pacific nation but part of the Indian Ocean community as well. The Foreign Minister – representing Western Australia – seems to genuinely see the Indian Ocean perspective as an important part of Australia’s future as evidenced by a May speech in Perth.

The idea that Africa is too far away would not resonate with many Australians. Western Australians – the fastest growing part of the country economically and demographically – would be rightly confused by the notion of Samoa (7562km away from Perth) and Japan (7932km away) being in “our neighbourhood”, while South Africa (7860km away) is not. In terms of trade, most Australians are happy to state that Beijing (8961km away from Sydney) and Delhi (10439km from Sydney) are part of our region even though the distances are huge.

Importantly, Australia has a very positive reputation in Africa. Many Africans with whom I have worked view Europe cautiously both due to their colonial heritage and their political hypocrisy over the years. Australia does not carry such baggage (which incidentally they do in the Pacific). It is rather seen as a vibrant young country unencumbered by the past.

In the paper [pdf] that I wrote with my colleague Glenn Denning for the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness back in 2011, we recommended that the Australian aid program adopt an African aid program focused on 4-6 countries with sufficient depth to build lasting, impactful, aid-effective partnerships around one or two key sectors (rather than the wide but shallow engagement that was adopted in the end). Returning to this proposed model in the new Indo-Pacific paradigm would acknowledge the vast development needs of East Africa, as well as the massive potential for trade and growth (noting GDP growth rates of 8.4% in Mozambique and 7.0% in Tanzania in 2013) and the current NGO engagement in the region.

If the government is serious about being a major player in aid and growth in the Indo-Pacific region, then an African aid program needs to be welcomed in from the cold and given the support it needs to contribute to Australia’s interests and reduce poverty in the region.

Joel Negin is Senior Lecturer in International Public Health at the University of Sydney.

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Joel Negin

Joel Negin is Head of School and Professor of Global Health at the University of Sydney School of Public Health. He focuses on health and development in sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific.


  • I welcome the debate about aid to Africa and look forward to joining it on my return to Australia.
    I acknowledge Joel’s commitment and knowledge on this issue. However, I want to take issue with one point. The aid budget was not “political cover for our miners”. The companies were there before our aid involvement and did not seek our assistance. The engagement arose at the request of African governments who acknowledged our expertise and from a sense of obligation to help with the governance, taxation, environmental and social issues arising from the proliferation of our companies in the region.

  • Thanks Joel for raising the important issue of which countries should receive our aid.

    Surveys of the Australian public (eg the sequence of AusAID Newspoll surveys and the latest Lowy Poll) indicate that Australians overwhelmingly believe need should be the primary criterion for directing assistance.

    There is a huge range in total global aid per extremely poor person across the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region – going from just $4 per poor person in India to over $2,000 per poor person in several Pacific countries. At the low end of the scale one could ask what could possibly be achieved and at the high end, what harm is being done with so much aid (if it actually gets there)?

    Comparing total global aid per poor person across the sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific is also quite interesting:

    US$ per poor person in 2012
    Pacific 370
    South-East Asia 79
    South Asia 27
    East Africa 117

    Source: Povcalnet (headcount of those on <$1.25 a day) and OECD DAC, aid recipient countries only included.

    Perhaps as well as a greater focus on East Africa, Australia should increase its support for South Asia. The average aid per poor person for South Asia increases to US$95 when India is excluded from the calculation, however I’m not sure why one would do that as Indian per capita income is only around half that of Indonesia or Timor-Leste and is home to a quarter of all the children that die each year around the world.

    Also Robin may know better, but I think the contribution to the anti-slavery statue at the UN came from DFAT and was not part of our ODA.

    • Re that statue, both things are true. The money came from DFAT and was part of our ODA — the part not managed by the former AusAID. Hence the incongruity of Greg Sheridan’s criticism, last year, of the latter organisation for allocating funds for this project as well as for onshore asylum-seeker costs, etc.

      Update: Garth Luke has pointed out to me that a DFAT Senate Estimates brief released under the FOI Act states that the $150,000 contribution ‘was not ODA eligible’. That’s certainly true. The brief does not deny that the contribution was drawn from DFAT’s Direct Aid Program allocation, which seems highly likely since the grant was well beyond what DFAT can normally afford from its meagre non-ODA resources. And it is silent on how the contribution was actually handled in Australia’s statistical reporting to the OECD Development Cooperation Directorate.

  • Joel,

    The question is a very good one: the vagueness about the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is puzzling and unnecessary. However, I’m less sure of the logic underlying your effort to determine its extension in terms of aid recipient countries and, in particular, your conclusion that it must include some part of Africa.

    One point is that I can see no reason to assume that the term is ocean-centric or, in Wikipedia’s parlance, ‘biogeographic’. At most one might exclude Afghanistan, as you do, even though it is often considered part of the South Asia grouping, but all the core countries of South Asia would, I am sure, be in. That includes Pakistan, which you have as a ‘maybe’. And the South and West Asia Regional allocation, which you also have as a ‘maybe’, should almost certainly be included, alongside the regional allocations for the Pacific and East Asia.

    A second point is that, based on the government’s 2014-15 budget estimates, you can get to 94 per cent of bilateral (and regional) aid merely by adding together allocations to the Pacific, East Asia, and South and West Asia regions. The conclusion that some part of Africa must be included therefore doesn’t hold. Taking Afghanistan out would move the total down to 89 per cent but that suggests to me that Afghanistan is in, not that some part of Africa is in.

    In short, I imagine that the approach is not at all fine-grained and that there are simply three regions which don’t count toward the 90 per cent target: sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. I would think the second of these regions is out under any scenario and should not be in a ‘maybe’ list.

    Why substitute ‘Indo’ for ‘Asia’ then? If the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ does not in fact include some of the countries of eastern Africa, I really don’t know. It is a recently-coined piece of geostrategic jargon, and is used in the Natalegawa speech linked above, and in the 2013 Defence White Paper, to refer to a triangle whose corners are India, Japan and Australia. In the aid context, if it doesn’t add eastern Africa, it adds nothing.

    One other, unrelated point: to be fair to DFAT, I think it would be more correct to describe the UN Security Council campaign as Rudd-driven. DFAT could be accused of getting carried away in carrying out the wishes of the government of the day, for example by using aid funds for the now-infamous Ark of Return statue in New York City, but we cannot know that DFAT urged the Rudd government to enter a race that, for Australia’s two competitors, had begun some years earlier.

    • Hi Robin,

      Thanks. I agree that you can get to the 90% benchmark through a few permutations – including Pakistan and Afghanistan and regional Asia for example. But then, as you note, there is no reason to change the definition of “our region” and it becomes a purely semantic exercise. With that definition, the increase to a 90% benchmark is up from about 87% – hardly a big change. The suggestion that the definition is not fine-grained is probably true but a bit strange considering that there is a benchmark. If the definition is “whatever group of countries allows us to meet the 90%”, then it is not a very helpful indicator.

      Irrespective of the definition, I still believe that there is merit in an African aid program especially aligned with Australia’s trade efforts and national interest. The lack of specificity and lack of an ocean-centric definition then opens up engagement in Zimbabwe and South Sudan – two countries where Australia has special links and could engage more deeply (as Bob Cumming suggests).

    • Hi Robin,

      Just reading DFAT’s “Performance of Australian Aid 2013-14” and it notes that for the purpose of measuring progress against the “Focusing on the Indo-Pacific region” target, “the Indo-Pacific refers to developing countries in the Asia Pacific (including South and West Asia), in the Indian Ocean and those bordering the Indian Ocean in East and Southern Africa”.

      So Africa is part of the Indo-Pacific – or at least parts of it such as Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, Somalia.

      Nice to finally have a definition (of sorts).

      • Yes, it’s good that we finally know what “Indo-Pacific” means. It will be even less of a stretch for the government to stay above 90 per cent than we thought. However, even as precisified, this geographic term is unhelpful. Touching shared oceans is hardly a sensible criterion for aid rationing. What’s more, this property is absent in the case of a few recipients — Afghanistan, Bhutan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal — and present in the case of quite a few poor non-recipients — Comoros, Djibouti, Madagascar and Yemen to the west, and various struggling countries in Central America to the north-east. (Presumably the Red Sea nations of Sudan and Eritrea will be at a disadvantage because they face a mere inlet of the Indian Ocean.) Assuming that none of the currently excluded Indo-Pacific countries will partake of Australia’s aid budget anytime soon, it would have been better to stick with the line that we are primarily an Asia-Pacific donor, and explain bilateral support outside our region on a case by case basis, without reference to ocean views.

  • Nice piece Joel. South Sudan, although not “lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean”, is one African country with which our aid program really needs to continue to be engaged. The fact that there are 30,000 South Sudanese Australians, by far the largest group of black Africans in the country, is a compelling reason for us to be involved there. It’s the only country in Africa that I have been to where people know anything at all about Australia!

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