Geldof on Australian aid

Rocker turned poverty advocate Bob Geldof is one of the star speakers at AIDS 2014 in Melbourne this week.

And when asked, he certainly didn’t hold back on his thoughts about Australia’s cuts to aid over the past few years.

“You are one of the richest countries in the world, despite your own problems… The Australian government gave its word – the Australian people gave their word to the poorest people on this planet.”

“You can’t mess with your sovereign promise to the poor, they’re too vulnerable, they’re too weak. It’s like beating an infant.”

“You can’t f*ck around with your political promise.”

And so on.

Passion is a good thing and there will certainly be many in the aid community applauding Geldof’s smackdown of the weak political will in Australia for increasing aid as a percentage of GNI. But other parts of Geldof’s remarks really didn’t sit right.

For starters, is it in any way politically correct to compare the developing world to an infant (something that cries all the time, needs to be fed, have its diaper changed, then throws up on you)? A being that is completely reliant on external assistance in order to survive? Or to label the poor “too weak… too vulnerable”. The poor are vulnerable to all kinds of shocks. But they show more resilience than many of us could imagine.

These kinds of comments hardly fit with an empowerment narrative or an anti-aid dependence narrative.

Geldof’s criticism of Australia’s Asia-Pacific focus is also strange, given that there is still so much need in the region. Africa does not have a monopoly on poverty and Australia is best placed to help in the region closest to home.

Geldof’s comments are more spray than substance, and a rock and roll shakedown is unlikely to move the current government to backpedal on its belt-tightening blitz. But do comments like this, widely reported in the media, have the power to wake up a dozing public that has protested very little about government cuts to aid? That might be where the real value lies in an impassioned rant from a celebrity, whether it is politically correct or not.

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Ashlee Betteridge

Ashlee Betteridge was the Manager of the Development Policy Centre until April 2021. She was previously a Research Officer at the centre from 2013-2017. A former journalist, she holds a Master of Public Policy (Development Policy) from ANU and has development experience in Indonesia and Timor-Leste. She now has her own consultancy, Better Things Consulting, and works across several large projects with managing contractors.


  • Irrespective of whether parts of Geldof’s talk could be called a rant, the fact is that for decades we have been claiming to in principle support the Pearson-led aid target (0.7% of GNP to aid). When Rudd came to power there seemed brief recognition in Australia that a fairer world was not only a nicer world but more secure, and I half-hoped he and then Gillard would keep their promises. (Only half as I also half-expected their promises would be broken). I was in Kolkata when Abbott announced in his election campaign that he would cut foreign aid in part to build freeways in Melbourne. I am ashamed of many of our policies, including miserly foreign aid, and miserly promises we can’t keep. That doesn’t solve aid quality issues, but the first element of that is to sincerely want to to reduce poverty. It is my belief that while many ordinary people and a few of influence want to do that, most people with power (whether here or in many places like India) don’t. They like the status quo. Spending 0.7% of our wealth on aid would still leave us 99.3%. And, actually, that investment would save us funds in the long run, especially by reducing the “push” factors that drive migration. It was great to see the coverage of Geldof’s colourful speech, though I doubt it will make any difference in the short run. Perhaps the next generation, better connected via the internet, will be less selfish than mine (the baby boomers).

  • Ashlee it is true that Africa does not have a monopoly on poverty. However, if you believe that saving lives is a very important goal of aid, then ensuring Africa has sufficient aid to provide basic health services for all people is a sensible priority.

    For example, almost half of all the world’s child deaths occur in Africa, only 4.5% in South East Asia and just 0.2% in the Pacific (Source: UNICEF Childinfo).

  • Thanks Ashlee for this honest account.

    Might such a rant (your term) stimulate public protest at the government cuts to aid? This is an interesting proposition an it is also troubling, I believe.

    Such posturing by Geldof has the potential to limit the debate to the need for ‘more’ aid monies. While this might be important, we know ‘more’ is not a solution in and of itself if investments are not wisely targeted and well delivered.

    The focus on ‘more’ also ignores the real possibility (I would argue reality) that within the existing investment envelope there is still waste – addressing such inefficiencies immediately creates the ‘more’ so passionately sought.

    The debate would be a whole lot more credible if there was some consideration for how we can ensure what is available is invested well, and importantly, where can such investment be leveraged to create transformational gains.

    I am all for passion but as your post yesterday highlights, ill-informed passion is unhelpful.

    • The difference between good advocacy/publicity for a cause, and ill informed passion probably depends on your point of view. I don’t necessarily defend Geldof and what he says, but no-one can deny he is an effective operator.

      Make Poverty History and Geldof’s own organising of Live8 and other events around the G8 Meeting in Scotland in 2005 probably did more than any other campaign in recent memory to focus developed countries’ attention on Africa. It could also be argued that this same activism resulted in the large increases in ODA promised by the G8 participating countries (especially Britain). It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that this had a flow on to the Howard Government’s own subsequent promises to increase the Australian aid program.

      Maybe Sir Bob is taking this broken promise personally.

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