Aid to Africa doubled but is it a vote winner?

AUSTRALIA'S aid to African countries has more than doubled since 2008, as the federal government has been lobbying for their support for Australia to win a seat on the UN Security Council.

Is it coincidence, or connivance? Is Australia just focusing its aid program where it is most needed?

Or are we using it to win our battle against Finland and Luxembourg for a UN boardroom seat?

The Howard government focused our official aid on south-east Asia and the south Pacific, ignoring Africa, saying we could contribute most in our own region. Yet aid groups focused our voluntary aid on Africa, since that is home to the world's poorest people.

Almost half of all Africans live in absolute poverty. One in six children die before the age of five, and 40 per cent have no safe drinking water. It's hard to argue that they don't have a claim on our aid.

Labor decided to double the budget by 2016, spend much of the growth in Africa - and run for the boardroom of the United Nations, where African countries have 54 of the 193 votes.

In five years, Labor has lifted bilateral aid to African countries from $101 million to $242 million. Africa has won 30 per cent of the growth in bilateral aid - but still gets just 8.8 per cent of the total.

Another $112 million this year will be spent on emergency food aid, and $250 million more spent through the voluntary agencies and lenders, such as the African Development Bank.

Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University and a member of the government's aid effectiveness review, has no doubt that the Security Council bid played a role in increasing aid to Africa, but says it was just one reason among many.

''Asian countries will graduate from needing our aid, so if Australia is going to stay in the aid business, then more of its focus will have to be on Africa,'' he says. ''Our commercial interests in Africa are growing, and we're an Indian Ocean country.

''But the Security Council bid has distorted the aid program: we give bilateral assistance to 46 countries, and it's very thinly spread.'' The aid review urged that total aid to Africa be doubled again by 2016, to $900 million

Certainly there's no quid pro quo in trade: Australian exports to Africa have actually fallen since 2007, whereas imports have almost trebled, as Nigerian oil has started flowing here. Investment in Africa has risen, but solely for mining.

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