The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Better ways to help Indonesian kids.

In February Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed cutting Australia’s overseas aid budget to pay for the Queensland floods, rather than impose a levy on taxpayers.

Specifically highlighted was the $AUD 400 million allocation to build schools for Indonesian kids. Many commentators found this abhorrent, stressing that education is critical to lift standards in Indonesia. However the benefits are more imagined than real – there are no figures available showing how many children are going to school who would otherwise have stayed home as a result of the aid programme.

Nor is there any information on the curricula being used in these schools – that’s something that Australia cannot control.

Of course education is important, and as an advanced nation Australia has a duty to help its neighbours. But building schools is a totally flawed policy.

It’s the Indonesian government’s job to care for its citizens; the responsibility is in the Constitution. That means providing the teachers, buildings and equipment.

If Australia does the job that releases local administrations to divert funds to other less worthy causes. These tend to be opulent government complexes, officials’ mansions and lavish places of worship.

There’s no way Australian agencies can control cash used for capital works which require suppliers, manufacturers and builders. The opportunities for graft are limitless, meaning Australian taxpayers’ money will fuel corruption.

The idea that the locals will recognise Australian generosity and change their attitudes is naïve. It assumes people will notice a plaque acknowledging AusAID and consequently stop despising unbelievers. On the contrary – the fundamentalists will use these programmes as proof that the West is trying to ‘Christianise’ Indonesians.

Far better to use the money so teachers can study in Australia, boost their skills and expand their horizons. There are some scholarships – but too few. When the teachers return they can push their governments to build better classrooms and equip these with modern technology. They can also tell their students that the West is not peopled by the devils conjured up by the narrow-minded ill-educated people who often run pesantren.

(First published in East Asia Forum 26 February 2011)

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