Pause aid budget and audit for political activity
It's time to hit the pause button on Australia's rapidly growing aid budget and audit expenditure against an appropriate assessment of political activity.
Despite a delay in the recent budget, Australia's total aid spending has grown significantly.
In the Rudd government's first budget, aid funding was already $3.8 billion and has grown to $5.2bn this year.
Based on projections in this year's budget, total spending on aid is intended to continue growing to about $7.5bn, or 0.5 per cent of gross national income, by 2016-17. That commitment is bipartisan.
In the same timeframe NGOs have seen their share of dedicated aid funding more than double from at least $40 million to $112m, and are now responsible for delivering more than 10 per cent of Australia's aid program.
According to NGO annual reports, some have received nearly $40m in one year alone across multiple aid programs.
But once taxpayers' money is given to such organisations they cease being non-government and become semi-government organisations.
For transparency reasons there should be close tabs kept on how taxpayers' money is spent through them.
For example, in 2008 and 2009 the Australian Conservation Foundation received a total of $200,000 from Australia's program.
In the 2010 and 2011 financial years the World Wildlife Fund Australia collected $400,000 from AusAID.
To its credit, the environmentally militant Greenpeace does not take funding from government, recognising it taints its agenda.
But for those who do there are increasing grounds for concern that public money is being inappropriately spent.
As Greg Sheridan recently wrote in The Australian, as a recipient of aid funding, World Vision was working with a group that has "deep links" with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine group, a proscribed terrorist agency.
Not that the World Vision's example is in isolation. Recently the World Wildlife Fund was suspended as a Norwegian aid provider after staff were caught embezzling money from a funded program in Tanzania.
But scrutinisable activities need not be illegal. They are increasingly political.
A large number of NGOs that are recipients of aid funding have been actively lobbying against the federal government's decision to prioritise a budget surplus ahead of increasing aid funding.
NGOs are within their rights to lobby for the government to increase government aid spending. But that right is diminished when they are also recipients.
Similarly, the Australian Conservation Foundation receives taxpayer aid funding to run programs to promote grassroots engagement on climate change-based policy.
As a recipient of aid funding the ACF was also involved in the Say Yes! Coalition with Greenpeace and GetUp! to provide political support for the Gillard government's introduction of the carbon tax.
Worse, in some cases aid-funded NGOs are engaged in political activity that undermines the objectives of Australia's aid program to promote sustainable economic development.
At earlier stages of economic development, countries are required to exploit their natural resources as they make the leap from a subsistence economy to manufacturing and eventually a service-based economy.
There are constant efforts by aid-funded NGOs against the development of export-focused primary industries in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
Targets have included their forestry and mining and agriculture sectors.
These efforts have been coupled with campaigns by the same groups targeting consumers and businesses to stop using developing world exports, as well as the erection of trade barriers.
A recent example includes efforts to target KFC to stop using Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil in their frying and forestry products in their packaging.
Again, 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 they can be engaged in political campaigns so long as they don't involve directly endorsing parties in Australia or abroad.
Before either side of politics increases the aid budget further, a proper audit needs to be completed so the public can be confident aid funding isn't being used for political activity.
And the definition of political activity should be broadened to recognise that political activity that undermines the sustainable development objectives of Australia's aid program is not acceptable.