Three years after Australians donated $400 million to rebuild Asian lives devastated by the 2004 tsunami, aid groups are under attack for spending much of the money on social and political engineering.
A survey by The Australian of the contributions by non-government organisations to the relief effort found the donations had been spent on politically correct projects promoting left-wing Western values over traditional Asian culture.
The activities – listed as tsunami relief – include a “travelling Oxfam gender justice show” in Indonesia to change rural male attitudes towards women.
Another Oxfam project, reminiscent of the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign, instructs Thai workers in Australian-style industrial activism and encourages them to set up trade unions.
A World Vision tsunami relief project in the Indonesian province of Aceh includes a lobbying campaign to advance land reform to promote gender equity, as well as educating women in “democratic processes” and encouraging them to enter politics.
Also in Aceh, the Catholic aid group Caritas funds an Islamic learning centre to promote “the importance of the Koran”. This is seen as recognition of the importance of Islam in a province that has been the scene of a long-running and bloody independence struggle against the secular central Government.
The earthquake on December26, 2004, created the most powerful tsunami in 40 years, killing about 230,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean nations, just under half of them in Aceh.
Critics say the aid agencies have exceeded the mandate provided to them by mum-and-dad donors from middle Australia who thought they were giving money to rebuild houses and lives shattered by the tsunami, rather than forcing the ideological views of the Australian Left on traditional Asians.
One critic, Don D’Cruz, wrote at the outset of the relief operation that Indonesian claims of “foreign interference” through Australian NGOs were too often brushed aside.
Mr D’Cruz, then a research fellow with the right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, wrote “it would be a mistake to ignore the substance of these claims, especially when it comes to the activities of Western aid groups operating in Indonesia. The trend among aid organisations has been to become more involved in politics, although this activism has been largely masked.”
Going beyond humanitarian and development aid, he wrote, risked alienating Asian governments, which could deny access.
Looking through their websites, the aid groups ventured far beyond standard aid and development.
The Oxfam website describes how $18,690 of its tsunami relief fund is being spent on a theatre production to “help change attitudes toward women in Acehnese society”.
“In one scene, Apa Kaoy, who cannot cook, grumbles when his wife, exhausted from working in the rice field, has not prepared supper,” Oxfam says of the play.
“In another, he disapproves of his daughter’s ambition to study at university. Instead, holding a newspaper upside down because he cannot read, Apa Kaoy tells his daughter it is important that she learn to cook, clean, marry and have children.
“Eventually, though, his attitude towards women softens as other more enlightened men point out the error of his ways.”
Oxfam Australia chief executive Andrew Hewett yesterday said his organisation initially concentrated on immediate humanitarian relief, including providing food, shelter and medicine to those affected by the tsunami.
It had since then turned to reconstruction, and rebuilding the ability of those affected to earn a living.
But Mr Hewett said Oxfam “did not shy away” from its concentration on those less well off and less empowered, including women, indigenous groups and the low caste, saying it was a practical issue of delivering aid for maximum effect.
“Women, like it or not, fare least well when it comes to resources and political power, including within a village community, and those who are disadvantaged often suffer most when disaster hits,” he said.