The cost of volunteering

Aidan Craney, PhD student at La Trobe, discusses the recent cuts to the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, and the potential impact of these cuts both within Australia and overseas.

Recently the Australian Red Cross announced it was ceasing its global volunteer operations under the auspice of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID*) program.

Whilst this decision is not entirely surprising given recent cuts to the Australian Aid budget, it is one that shines a light on the current focus of Australia’s aid program. The decision suggests a lack of awareness of the niche area of the development sector that the AVID program filled: providing government-sponsored, skilled volunteers who not only assisted NGOs, government ministries and civil society organisations, but engaged in soft diplomacy by building relationships free of overt government influence.

No one within the industry claims that development aid is, or ever has been, purely philanthropic. It has clear geopolitical, trade and security benefits. However, the manner in which these benefits are achieved appears to be escaping the current federal government. For projects to be mutually beneficial, each party must have a clear understanding of what is in it for them.

The Abbott Government made it clear that the new focus for Australian Aid is on ’promoting Australia’s national interests by contributing to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction’. This was institutionalised with the decision in 2013 to dissolve AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This decision sent a clear message that the Government sees the developmental aspects of the Australian aid program as a subset of foreign affairs and trade.

Of the impacts to the AVID program, Australia is losing a cost- effective way to place young, and not so young, professionals in developing countries to not only engage in skills transference, but to act as citizen ambassadors and create positive images of Australian professional and personal behaviour at local, state and regional levels.

At the same time as the AVID program loses over 30% of its funding, the federal government has instituted the New Colombo Plan. This signifies a rethinking of the original Colombo Plan which, starting in 1951, identified students in developing states and provided them scholarships to study in developing countries, such as Australia. Similar to the AVID program, this allowed these students to not only engage in skills transference with domestic students, but to build personal and professional relationships.

Australia still operates a version of the Colombo Plan, now known as the Australia Awards, with a new intake recently arriving in-country. The benefits of this program to all participant nations, including Australia, remain in terms of networking.

The New Colombo Plan, however, focuses on sending domestic undergraduate students to universities in neighbouring states, both developed and developing. Whilst there is great merit in exposing young Australians to learning cultures outside of our own borders, the benefits to the host nations are not as overt, nor arguably lasting, as those offered by the AVID program.

With the Australian aid budget being slashed as part of a broader attempt to reduce the Australian government’s fiscal deficit, it seems odd that the New Colombo Plan’s cost of approximately AUD27 million in 2015-16 is a greater sum than the AUD17 million haircut experienced by the AVID program.

The funding cuts to the AVID program Australia remove a source of professional development, subsidised expert labour and citizen ambassadors. While the New Colombo Plan may maintain some of the citizen ambassador network, it arguably does so at the expense of a program designed to upskill local and foreign counterparts to achieve development outcomes.

The New Colombo Plan is not an entirely flawed program. But rolling out a new program with soft diplomacy as one of its chief benefits at the same time as scaling back another that has more obvious two-way gains seems peculiar.

This decision, however, aligns with the starkly shifting focus of the Australian government towards development aid in the two years since the Abbott government was elected. This is a government that appears to see development aid as not as successful in furthering the national interest when compared with the realpolitik tools of diplomacy, military and trade.

* Disclosure: Aidan Craney is a former volunteer under a previous guise of the AVID program

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