Australia’s Foreign Aid: Why We Need To Stop Being So Bloody Stingy

Australia has a widely held self-image of being the egalitarian land of the fair go. We’re well-travelled, widely-liked larrikins who punch above our weight on the world stage. We’ve always done the heavy lifting when it comes to refugees, and pump heaps of money into helping countries less fortunate.

Hmm. Some of this is half true. But as SMH’s Economics Editor Ross Gittins has pointed out, egalitarianism within Australia has become a total farce. The gap between rich and poor has not stopped growing since the 70s. Meanwhile, support and services for disadvantaged Australians are being hacked away left, right and centre.

Assistance for severely disadvantaged communities overseas is also being wound back at a rate of knots. Australia’s foreign aid has drastically declined in recent years and is slated by the Turnbull government for further guillotining. While treasurer ScoMo and the Coalition are busy protecting the rights of boomers to own three investment properties, they’ve also promised a further 224 million in cuts at the next budget.

Last year Australia shared the dubious honour of being the biggest slasher of aid funding in the OECD club of rich countries. This was along with Portugal. Portugal. You know, that European country still desperately clambering back from the worst economic crisis in two generations.

After long, crippling years of EU-enforced austerity policies, 12.2 percent of the population remain jobless while a whopping one-third of young people are unemployed. Middle-class people have been pushed into homelessness and shanty towns. Child poverty is an epidemic. Many school kids get their breakfast from NGOs.

Meanwhile, Australia not only completely dodged the Great Recession, but managed to chalk up an almost world record-breaking stretch of more than twenty years of continuous economic growth. Unemployment is low and stable.

But we supposedly don’t have the money to help the world’s most vulnerable and impoverished people. How bloody scabby is that?

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

The past two federal budgets have been devastating for the world’s poor.

In December 2014, then-Treasurer Joe Hockey announced his intention to rip $3.7 billion out of the foreign aid budget. This included disbanding AusAID (Australia’s Agency for International Development) which that year was celebrating its fortieth anniversary. For this fantastic work in promoting international development, Mr Hockey has since been appointed the Australian Ambassador to the United States.

Meanwhile, three-quarters of aid to Sub-Saharan Africa was cut. Money to our impoverished neighbour Indonesia was reduced by almost 220 percent, while war-torn Afghanistan lost more than half of its funding.

Cambodia was the only country in East Asia not to face massive cuts – and surprise, surprise, it’s because they agreed to the Coalition’s $55 million refugee resettlement deal. Which by the admission of the Cambodian government themselves has been an abject failure.

At that time, Oxfam bluntly accused Hockey and Tony Abbott for using the “aid budget as an ATM”. The Coalition have since continued to do so. By the 2017-18 financial year, Australia’s foreign aid budget will be $2 billion less than in 2013.

More than 50 programs were cancelled or altered as a result of the 2015-16 budget: from the CSIRO’s Africa Food Security Initiative to the Prevention of Avoidable Blindness program in Pakistan (ditched after its inception phase); to water and sanitation in Vietnam and promoting climate-resilient farming systems in South Asia.

Who needs food, clean water or the ability to see anyway?

Why aid is worth funding

Stereotypes abound when it comes to the international aid sector – of misguided do-gooders on voluntourism projects building wells or visiting orphanages. The worst offenders are hilariously documented by Humanitarians of Tinder.

There are some legit critiques to be lodged against aid: that it can be used purely to advance diplomatic and business interests. Australia seeks to do exactly this. By cutting back on foreign aid programs they deem pointless to advancing our soft power, the current government by its own admission seeks to “promote Australia’s national interests” in the Indo-Pacific region.

The reality is, Australia’s foreign aid has a long history of making genuine changes to people’s lives in poor communities – even when it didn’t directly benefit our national interest. This is something to be proud of and to maintain into the future.

Our aid program has historically emphasised the empowerment of women. This is for good reason: according to the development NGO CARE Australia, when one woman escapes poverty she will bring four people with her. Women stand to suffer disproportionately under funding cuts.

Here’s some pretty damn good reasons why Australian aid matters. In 2015 and 2016 alone,Australian aid has:

  • Provided emergency food assistance for up to 4 million people in Syria
  • Ensured that more than 2.2 million people have safe drinking water
  • Provided treatment for 1.5 million people with HIV/AIDS and more than 1.3 million people with tuberculosis
  • Distributed more than 130 million treated bed nets to fight malaria
  • Responded to humanitarian crises in at least 15 countries

This includes Australia’s recent commitment $15 million, 1000 soldiers and our biggest naval ship to help rebuild cyclone-hit Fiji (which, by the way, also led to repaired foreign relations with our Pacific Islands neighbour).

What you can do!

When it comes to foreign aid, Australia is moving in the opposite direction to the rest of the world. The Coalition’s proposed funding cuts will make Australia the least generous we’ve ever been. In history.

Three years ago Britain’s Conservative government met the OECD’s agreed target of aid funding (a modest 0.7 percent of gross national income). China and India – much of whose ownpopulation still face severe poverty – now have bigger aid programs than us. Even the United Arab Emirates is more generous to the world’s poor than Australia.

If you’re embarrassed by this scabbiness, you can support the Campaign for Australian Aid and tell the government that you don’t agree with the proposed, further cuts to aid.

The campaign is backed by all of Australia’s most well-known and respected international development organisations: Oxfam, The Fred Hollows Foundation, World Vision, Save the Children, The Global Poverty Project, Caritas, Action Aid, Wateraid and Australian Volunteers International, amongst many more.

How can you help right this second? Get onto ScoMo and let him know what you think about cuts to aid. Tweet at him. Text him. Email him. Or even call. Here’s how you can do that.

If you’ve got a bit more time, you can volunteer in your electorate for the Campaign for Australian Aid. Given it’s a movement funded by already cash-strapped NGOs, they could use all the help they can get.

Originally published by Fairfax’s The Vocal.

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