Monday, January 09, 2012

Foreign aid money feeds fat profits for corporations

Foreign aid is a joke and a racket. As the late Peter Bauer once said, it is "an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries."

AUSTRALIA'S booming foreign-aid program is delivering handsome profits to a group of seven corporations that has scored a staggering $1.81 billion in taxpayer-funded contracts.

But the lack of scrutiny of their profits, and huge sums being provided to agencies such as the World Bank, which receives $450 million a year, is under challenge.

Aid experts and the Opposition are demanding greater accountability for the money being spent to tackle global poverty.

GRM International had $500 million in AusAID contracts over the past 18 months, including $92 million to encourage Africans to study here.

Cardno, which lists former defence chief Peter Cosgrove on its board of directors, and which reported a record $59 million profit last year, has $442 million in contracts.

Coffey International booked $353.4 million in contracts, including $31 million to weed out corruption in Papua New Guinea.

The dividends for shareholders and executives will grow even fatter because Australia's aid budget is forecast to soar to about $8.5 billion by 2015-16.

Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd has pledged to spend record sums trying to tackle poverty in some of the world's poorest countries, but the rise in spending is causing resentment among ministerial colleagues.

Contract information listed on the Government's AusTender site shows SMEC International, which grew out of the Snowy Mountains scheme, had $202.9 million in contracts since July, 2010.

Aid money is also encouraging global firms to establish Australian branches, including the US-based URS, which had $170 million listed in contracts.

Stephen Howes, part of the high-level review of the foreign-aid program, wants a "greater level of scrutiny", particularly given the large increases in funding.

"There are risks that as quantity goes up, quality goes down," said Prof Howes, who is director of the Australian National University's Development Policy Centre. "As the money goes up, the scrutiny should go up as well," he said.

The review recommended the Government establish an independent evaluation committee to oversee AusAID's effectiveness in delivering tangible results.

Coalition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop is demanding Mr Rudd urgently announce how he plans to better measure performance benchmarks of the aid program, as recommended by the review.


Government doles out tough love for teenage parents

COOKING classes will be among the life skills programs offered to teen parents in the Federal Government's tough-love welfare trial.

The first 1000 teens to join the trial, which ties Centrelink payments to efforts to finish year 12, have been sent letters telling them what they have to do. From next Monday, teenagers who have children between six months and six years old must book a meeting with welfare staff to discuss their education plans.

If they fail to meet appointments and do not have a valid excuse, they could lose parenting payments.

During the first Helping Young Parents meetings, discussions will also cover free support measures, such as childcare, that can be used to allow more study time. Other support measures include cooking tuition, parenting classes and budgeting advice.

The classes are separate from the requirement young parents must try to finish year 12 or its equivalent.

Human Services Minister Brendan O'Connor said the trial, which in Victoria will run in Hume and Shepparton, had been designed to give young people a range of skills. "This is about equipping them with the education that will help them enter the workplace," he said.

He said cutting off parenting payments would be a last resort, and that a reprieve was possible. "If parents do have their payments suspended, as soon as they get back in touch with Centrelink and start up their activities again, they will have their payments back-paid," he said.

The back-pay rule will help placate concerns from social services groups' that cutting welfare could lead to more problems for young families.

To coincide with the first Centrelink meetings, a new blog site will go live on January 16, allowing young parents to talk directly to other participants.

Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said encouraging teens to finish school would help them later in life.


Free Skype 'much better' than Labor's $7.2m telehealth grant

RURAL doctors received $7.2 million from the federal government for software to enable them to communicate more easily with specialists, but some found downloading Skype was a better option.

Since the launch of the federal scheme six months ago, 1200 doctors across Australia have applied for one-off $6000 grants, which were part of the government's $620 million "telehealth" program.

But the head of a private nursing service that took part in the scheme said doctors who downloaded various paid software programs found they were not compatible.

"It's a great … initiative but the doctors should have been provided with more support and guidance about how to implement the technology," the chief executive of Hunter Nursing, David du Plessis, said.

Rural Doctors Association of Australia president Paul Mara said the use of Skype among doctors was common.

"In many cases it works much better than some of the more sophisticated things out there," he said. "There is a whole range of technologies and, in establishing video-conferencing, [doctors] are not going to go out and buy some extravaganza of a system, they are going to stick with the simple stuff.

"Inevitably, there will be shonky players coming into something like this. Doctors have concerns about people putting together hardware and software and calling it a video-conferencing solution."

It is unclear how many of the 1200 doctors who received the grant have downloaded and used Skype for work and there is no suggestion any doctors have misappropriated government funds.

The telehealth scheme was launched last June and aims to provide for nearly 500,000 digital consultations by mid-2015. Instead of country residents travelling far to visit medical specialists, they can visit a local GP and have the appointment by video link.

The scheme also depends on the rollout of the national broadband network bringing fast internet links to rural communities.

A federal Department of Health and Ageing spokeswoman said the government was ensuring access to technical advice and that the payment to set up digital consultations was not meant only for software.

"It is paid to encourage change in the way doctors provide services, and recognises that incorporating telehealth into everyday work flows represents a significant change to traditional practice," she said.


Camping's all white, but you can keep it

By Tanveer Ahmed

I have just returned from a trip where I lay for hours prone on a thin strip of air with only polystyrene separating my strained back from the ground below. The rain belted down all night and its thud upon the tent sounded like a stream of thunder. I pondered whether nature was overrated while several kookaburras shrieked in unison and dragged me in a kind of aural violence from my first period of restful sleep at 5am.

Welcome to the joys of camping.

According to Monash University academic Bill Garner, camping is essential to the Australian experience. From Sydney Cove to the goldfields, the overland telegraph to the Snowy Mountains scheme, camping has been instrumental to almost every phase of our historical development, he says.

It was supposed to be one of those dowdy pastimes that became perversely fashionable for a moment, only to become just as unfashionable again once everybody tried it and found out what it actually entailed.

Yet, according to industry insiders, camping is experiencing a boom, partly due to the lacklustre economy and an aversion to extravagance and environmental unfriendliness.

"Glamping" - sleeping in a luxuriously appointed tent someone else has put up for you - is increasingly seen as an acceptable, if not preferable, alternative to a bed-and-breakfast booking.

In our high-tech world, a striving towards gadget-free simplicity and proximity to nature acquires a greater dimension. This may be more apparent in Australia, where our national identity is partly tied to the rugged environment.

But while it has shifted from practical necessity to leisure activity in the past 50 years, there are large sections of Australia that would never consider camping as an idyllic way to spend their holidays - particularly those from ethnic communities.

As I surveyed my surroundings in a coastal caravan park, I was struck that I was the only non-white person among hundreds of gleeful holidaymakers. For many people from ethnic backgrounds, particularly Asian or Mediterranean, the connection between simple living and poverty is just too strong.

Any attempt to brag about my view of green pastures and scenic lakes to my parents is met by comparisons with their own rise from Bangladeshi villages.

In his popular blog "Stuff White People Like", Charles Lander writes: "Once in the camp area, white people will walk around for a while, set up a tent, have a horrible night of sleep, walk around some more. Then they get in the car and go home."

While his blog is often a satire of the bourgeois middle class - our equivalent of the chardonnay socialist - camping arguably unites the white working class and the white middle class in one of their few shared activities, even if they are unlikely to be sharing the same tent.

The late Oxford-based political philosopher G. A. Cohen even used camping as an analogy for why socialism is still the ideal way to organise society.

He described an imaginary camping trip made by several different families, and argued that the trip proceeded according to two principles - "an egalitarian principle" and "a principle of community" - that together captured the socialist vision of a just society.

Nonetheless, after lying awake listening to the nocturnal sounds of nature, I became grateful for our capitalist ability to generate wealth and modern goods and services, including mass production of pharmaceuticals, when I prescribed myself sleeping tablets the following morning.

The prospect of camping becoming a unifying, cultural experience for all Australians remains a possibility, with latter generations of immigrants far more likely to consider it a viable leisure activity.

In fact, in an age where we lack outlets for transcendence, camping has the potential to become the new Buddhism. It encourages us to loosen our attachment to worldly goods, except for expensive outdoor equipment usually transported to a site in a four-wheel-drive. It encourages extended contemplation free from the constant distractions of hectic, modern life.

And finally, it allows for the priceless luxury of simplicity and enjoyment of pure family time, well worth the complexity of preparation required. As Bill Garner put it in an attempt to sell the virtues of this unique leisure activity, "You do just spend a lot of time sitting".


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