Additional Estimates - Thursday 16 February 2012 - Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Committee - AUSAID
Senator LUDLAM: I am going to shift us to a different part of the world and ask a couple of questions about Burma. We had an exchange earlier in the day with your colleagues in the department and got a sketch of how the political situation has changed over the last six or eight months. Can you tell us whether there has been any material difference in how the changes that are occurring there have affected AusAID's work in the country?
Mr Baxter: I will make some introductory comments and ask my more expert colleagues to answer the detail of your question. The reforms that have been undertaken so far have improved our operational environment, in particular the willingness of some of the more reform minded ministers and their departments to engage directly with us on issues relating to development challenges that Burma faces. We still do not deliver any of our program through the Burmese government. We still rely on multilateral agencies and NGOs for the delivery of our program. But we are certainly looking at what opportunities the reform process might open up for us. As you know, Burma, by a long way, remains the poorest country in South-East Asia so there is no shortage of work to do there. We made a decision about 18 months ago to increase our Burma program to $50 million a year by next year. We are very much on track to do that. We are about $48 million this year. Like everyone else, we are watching to see what happens in the reform process over the coming months and years before making decisions about other investments.
Senator LUDLAM: The funding increase was very welcome and I think very wise. Is it possible to provide a breakdown by region as to where the aid is distributed?
Mr Baxter: I am sure we could do that but we would not have that with us. We have the sectoral breakdown but would be very happy to take that on notice and give you a geographic map of our assistance.
Senator LUDLAM: I suspect most of it still runs in through Rangoon but it would be interesting to know. Are there places that you are able to access now that you could not before? Have you tested those boundaries?
Mr Brazier: As Mr Baxter noted, the operating environment has improved but we have not yet changed the geographic footprint of programs in response to that.
Senator LUDLAM: So, you have not tried to. It is not that you have been blocked or anything. Are there places that you would like to be able to get to that you have not been able to thus far? Is that under consideration?
Mr Brazier: Not yet, Senator.
Senator LUDLAM: Perhaps I will be specific, rather than have you guess what I am on about. There is still a pretty serious humanitarian crisis in Kachin State in the north. I understand that since June of last year at least 60,000 people have fled their homes because of military attacks and ongoing human rights abuses. Aid to those internally displaced persons obviously continues to be restricted by the government and the army. My understanding is that the UN agencies have only had one visit since that conflict blew up again. Is there anything that we are doing to try to increase the flow of aid or access to that part of the world specifically?
Mr Brazier: Yes, as you said, armed conflict resumed in Kachin State in mid-2011 and resulted in the displacement of around 60,000 people in Kachin itself and in Northern Shan State. Insecurity and logistical constraints make it difficult to regularly assess the needs of and to provide assistance to those affected populations. The World Food Program and the humanitarian community believe that insecurity will persist in Kachin over at least the next six months. In recognition of those humanitarian needs Australia provided $200,000 to the World Food Program for emergency food assistance to those affected by the conflict in December last year.
Senator LUDLAM: Is that additional to your regular budget or did that come from that?
Mr Brazier: That is in additional to Australia's contribution of $12.25 million to WFP's broader operations in Burma supporting two million food insecure people.
Senator LUDLAM: Where did that come from, if not from AusAID's regular appropriation for that country?
Mr Brazier: It came from the Burma budget. It is additional to the contribution for WFP, though.
Senator LUDLAM: The answer to my earlier question is that you would not have tried to get in there. You have not tried to work in there directly. You have been working through the WFP instead.
Mr Brazier: Yes, that is right.
Senator LUDLAM: Much of Burma is still off-limits to aid organisations-I might have to channel this question through the minister; I do not know whether I am drifting into politics here-particularly in areas where internally displaced and other extremely vulnerable people are. I am wondering what we have done either at the level that you guys work at or at a diplomatic level to address the ongoing restrictions that are imposed on aid organisations-not just in Kachin, but in the other areas where there have been ongoing conflicts.
Mr Baxter: There is certainly a greater willingness on the part of the Burmese government to engage with organisations such as AusAID, and we are looking for opportunities through that dialogue to encourage the Burmese government to allow greater access to those areas that at the moment and, as you know, for some time have been off limits. There is an element at the moment where a lot of countries are willing to assist Burma but there is limited capacity within the government to actually deal with the enhanced interest of the donor community. We have seen this phenomena occurring in many countries that have opened up relatively quickly, where there is a gold rush of development assistance. If not dealt with correctly it can actually become a problem in and of itself.
Senator LUDLAM: That is happening in Afghanistan at the moment.
Mr Baxter: So we are certainly talking to the Burmese government about how they may be able to be assisted to deal with what is a much enhanced level of interest by donors from the EU and the UK. You have seen the steady stream of visitors to Burma over the last few months, most of whom are offering some enhanced packages of assistance. This is an ongoing issue.
Senator LUDLAM: We are still one of the largest donors.
Mr Baxter: We are the second largest donor.
Senator LUDLAM: Who is the largest?
Mr Baxter: The UK.
Senator LUDLAM: I would like to backtrack to a comment you made earlier about the fact that we are solely in a multilateral capacity there.
Mr Baxter: And with NGOs, I said.
Senator LUDLAM: Yes. In a recent interview the foreign minister did say that Australia was providing bilateral aid to Burma. Are you familiar with that instance? Was that just a misstatement or has there been a policy change?
Mr Baxter: It is bilateral in the sense that it is between Australia and Burma. We have a scholarship program that we have piloted now for one year. We thought very long and hard about resuming a scholarship program in Burma, and we have done so on the basis that we select the successful applicants. We run the whole process. So people apply to the Australian embassy and are selected through a process we run rather than being government nominees. So there are some things that we are doing directly as AusAID, and that is what the minister was referring to.
Senator LUDLAM: Thank you. I will leave it there.