As the crisis in Myanmar escalates and civic space shrinks across Southeast Asia, dormant debates about Australia’s aid program must be revived. If Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s recent tour of the region was to provide any new impetus, it did the opposite, with one of the more comical moments being the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, calling out Australia’s hollow vaccine promises. Reductionist debates that give primacy to the scale of the aid budget, Australia’s self-interest or the need for greater “efficiency,” must be called out for the counterproductive simplicity they proffer. The reality is that Australian aid requires a much deeper reckoning, especially in how it engages with civil society in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere).
Australian (and most other) government aid programs are routinely framed as advancing the national self-interest. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) defines as its third “priority function” the delivery of an “innovative aid program” that “promotes Australia’s national interests by contributing to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.” The subsequent description laid out in its corporate plan overwhelming focuses on risk mitigation. There is noticeably no mention of human rights issues or civil society, although the empowerment of women and girls makes a brief appearance. That Australia’s aid program could be whittled down to such simplicity is remarkable and self-defeating. The scale and efficiency of the aid budget pale in significance to the problems arising from an oversimplified aid program, as the cases of Cambodia and Myanmar illustrate.
Serving Whose Interest in Cambodia?
At a time of heightened political and economic confrontation between Australia and China, the severe shortcomings of Australia’s aid program are particularly striking in Cambodia. During the author’s visit to a number of villages in the country’s Kampong Thom province earlier this year, a road was under construction off the main highway, complete with one of the ubiquitous signs across Cambodia reminding local communities of the foreign donor who paid for it. However, this sign was remarkable in that Australia was listed as the donor and a Chinese company as the contractor that was building the road.
Forget the never-ending debates about aid efficiency; this was far more illustrative of aid mismanagement. Australia is funding Chinese companies to expand their foothold and influence in Cambodia, all while presumably making a profit. This goes well beyond Dambisa Moyo’s idea of “dead aid” to simply be stupid aid. An economic rationalist at DFAT may justify it on some flimsy logic, but is this really what Australia wants to be doing with its aid money? Smart aid would, at a bare minimum, be supporting Cambodian companies to deliver road construction, not propping up companies from your number one competitor for geopolitical influence.
Australia’s fumbling vaccine diplomacy has soured the reality further. Australia promised Cambodia 2 million Pfizer vaccine doses, but is still yet to deliver, a point that Prime Minister Hun Sen raised with Payne during her recent visit. Meanwhile, China has reliably delivered millions upon millions of doses to Cambodia, shoring up its political influence and saving many Cambodian lives. One can argue that China has significant vaccine manufacturing capabilities, but let’s not forget that Australia has vast stockpiles of domestically produced AstraZeneca vaccines, a shot that was deemed inadequate for Australians, yet is highly sought after in Cambodia and the region.
Surely a smart aid program would involve the rapid deployment of Australia’s AstraZeneca shots and ensure continued manufacturing to address the vast unmet vaccine needs in the region (and world). Yet Australian COVID-19 vaccine production is set to cease. It seems Australia’s simplified aid program is better positioned to fund Chinese road constructors than deliver life-saving Australian-made vaccines. Cambodia has China to thank for being able to reopen its borders and economy, while Australia failed in even basic vaccine diplomacy. A commitment through the Quad Vaccine Partnership to provide 60 million vaccines to the Indo-Pacific by the end of 2022 amounts to too little too late, whether it’s about saving lives, supporting nations’ economic reopening, or advancing diplomacy.
The sting in the tail is that as Australia’s aid has been reduced to an economic imperative, it has come at the expense of support to civil society activism, addressing human rights and a broader social justice agenda in Cambodia. This shift occurred as Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ramped up attacks on civil society and outlawed the opposition. Australia stood by as civil society was ameliorated and rights trampled upon, instead clinking champagne glasses with the CPP following a $55 million deal that moved a grand total of seven refugees from Nauru to Cambodia.
Not even the most dogmatic economic rationalist could justify such an agreement, while recognizing that Australia’s deplorable treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has tarnished the country’s image throughout the region (and the world). While the United States increases sanctions on Cambodian officials, Australia boasts of its military cooperation. The aid program’s economic rationalism loses sight of how a vibrant civil society serves Australia’s interest not just in promoting “social justice” – an end in itself – but also in holding authorities to account, a key factor in equitable development. The crippling of civil society and entrenching of authoritarian rule hasn’t served Australia’s economic, social, or political interests. Post-coup Myanmar has further shown how a dynamic civil society is critical to any meaningful aid or development agenda.
Myanmar’s Coup and Civil Society
The military coup in Myanmar has multiple implications for Australian aid. First, the economic collapse flies in the face of aid efforts to promote mutual economic benefits. The United Nations’ and other donors’ tropes that economic development would bring peace and prosperity were clearly wrong. Second, this situation is directly impacting Australian companies, such as the withdrawal of oil and gas giant, Woodside, no doubt costing a fortune. Even on a narrow definition of self-interest, the situation is not good for Australia.
Third and most importantly, the coup demonstrates the importance of a vibrant and strong civil society to rein in the abuses and excesses of authoritarian rule. This is not to say that civil society could have prevented the coup, but rather that civil society is an integral part of any pursuit of economic and social justice. Investing in civil society is smart aid and absolutely essential for Myanmar. As the crisis intensifies, civil society actors are on the frontlines, providing life-saving humanitarian assistance across the country, along with articulate analysis and advocacy. International aid staff have largely departed and in-country international organizations remain conspicuously silent as atrocities mount. Their ability to deliver aid is nearly non-existent. The continued operations of vibrant and resourceful Myanmar civil society actors, particularly in ethnic areas, reinforces the necessity of prioritizing and investing in them, not ineffectual international aid actors, whether U.N. agencies or INGOs.
International support for civil society has attracted significant analysis and criticism, particularly in terms of the “NGOization” that undermines broader social movements. It is no panacea, but for Australia, it offers much more than the current failing economic-centered aid program, which has yielded to authoritarianism while failing to reap the supposed economic rewards.
Smart aid can be different. The current situation in Myanmar demonstrates the need to move past focusing nearly entirely on NGOs to instead expand support for informal and grassroots civil society actors. These groups bring dynamism and agility in demanding justice and providing lifesaving assistance, a role they have played for decades in Myanmar. Whereas international aid has “NGOized” large segments of civil society in Cambodia, this has not occurred in Myanmar and the aid world must take note. Cambodia may be stable, but Myanmar is hopeful.