Australians are a generous bunch. Every year, almost two million households donate to the work of Australian aid and development agencies. Among 5.4 million Catholics nationwide, around 90 per cent of parishes and 70 per cent of schools support Caritas Australia’s work with the children, women and men most vulnerable to poverty and injustice.
While Australians readily reach into their own pockets to protect human rights and dignity around the world, they also expect that their government will continue a decades-long tradition of using the overseas aid program to help ease the burden for the world's poorest and open opportunities for their economic prosperity.
Though far from the global target to commit 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) to foreign aid by 2015, Australia's aid budget increased to 35 cents (0.35 per cent) in every $100 of GNI in 2012. Both major political parties had committed to lift that level to 50 cents in every $100 of GNI. In the absence of any timeline, there is effectively no such commitment now.
Yet, for a country with a proud half century history of constructive international engagement, this federal budget marks a notable shift to a more inward-looking Australia; an Australia that heavily prioritises its own interests in our immediate neighbourhood. The combined effect of the three successive cuts to foreign aid in less than 12 months equates to a decrease of nearly $8 billion over the next 5 years.
Based on the budget, by 2016-17 Australia’s aid funding will fall to 0.29 per cent of GNI, which would see Australia regress from its current 13th position among OECD countries to a ranking alongside Portugal. As the 10th wealthiest country in the world, according to the IMF, this downward shift demonstrates a withdrawal from a respected, co-leadership role in international affairs.
It is worth recalling the constructive policy approach of former Coalition leaders. Prime Ministers Fraser and Howard successfully pursued active foreign policy engagement through Australia's significant contribution to the economic transformation in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and further afield through deepening ties with African nations too. These policies improved opportunities for trade and investment and are also recognised as having contributed to improved regional security.
It was the Coalition that instigated for the first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1971. It was Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who played a critical international role in pressuring South Africa to dismantle its apartheid regime. And Coalition Governments have sent or supported sending 53 Australian peace keeping missions beyond Australia’s region.
Last week this Coalition government committed to a much smaller and a ‘just in our neighbourhood’ aid program for the long term. This major change had sent a signal to the world; for the first time in decades, last week’s budget marks a notable turn to a more insular Australia. We can, and should, do better.
Given that a substantial part of publicly donated Australian aid is directed to programs in Africa, and Australian mining investment means our bilateral trade with Africa is booming, Australia need not - and should not - shrink down to a one region role.
In just over 10 years, Africa will be home to 80 per cent of the poorest people in the world. Caritas Australia has worked with the poor communities in Africa for several decades and we know that accountable, sustainable and community-centric aid works. With support from the Australian Government, our local partners in Malawi have succeeded in cutting the average number of months when 16,000 community members have almost no food from five months of the year to one month. And in just six months, almost 7,500 people in one community have saved USD 153,669 in village savings and loans.
All Australians expect their government to use tax payer funds prudently and in a very accountable way. At the same time, given that one in five households give privately to address the causes of poverty overseas and take pride in Australia’s long bipartisan tradition of constructive international engagement, there is no clear rationale for now becoming a "small Australia" on the world stage.
But last week's budget hasn't just downsized our role in the international community. It is a decision to largely exclude most of the world's poor from an aid program that has great potential to address the causes of inequality and drive stable and sustainable growth in Africa. At a time when Australian investment in Africa is booming, our decision to divest the poorest communities is more than perplexing.
Paul O’Callaghan is Caritas Australia CEO and a former Executive Director of the Australian Council for International Development. Donate to Caritas online or call 1800 024 413.
Image: Caritas Australia
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21 May 2014
Australia will pay for this foolishness with increased terrorism and the Australian public will pay for cutting back youth allowances with increased crime. The Adults have done a great job fo spreading the seed. Just wait for it to come back and bite us
23 May 2014
Maybe we shouldn't call it generosity. Maybe we should frame it more in terms of justice or obligation. I find this article on a distinction between charity and justice interesting: http://www.aleteia.org/en/society/article/the-redistribution-of-wealth-is-justice-not-charity-5811866496401408?page=2
23 May 2014
I agree with Paul O'Callaghan - it is disturbing to find that Australia's aid program being cut back so much, and restricted to 'our area'. I'm sure Julie Bishop announced something else - that aid would be connected to our strategic interests, or words to that effect. If this is so, it is even more embarrassing, and out of tune with what Australia had stood for over many years. I think Tony Abbott knows he can get away with this, by playing to the indifference of many voters to anything outside their immediate interests.
23 May 2014
Australia spends billions overseas and I agree we should. Its about time we took things under control, reviewed our commitments and readjusted. That time is now and I have no issue with us doing this for the next few years. Money will be released back into the community as things like Nauru being closed in less than 18 months allow us to save money.
Joe Hockey has at least had the guts to be unpopular for the better of all and in my world I have yet to hear someone criticize the budget we had to have.
The catholic church has done more to lift people out of poverty than anyone else and caritas should be proud. But we need a breather.
24 May 2014
Thanks Paul for this very interesting article. I agree we as a nation can do more to support international development, However, as someone who worked for some years in Africa, and observed on the ground what is happening - one area that NGO's and development partners and governments need to do more is the lack of discipline with misappropriation of funds. Don't underestimate the general Australian public knowing that many funds are unaccounted for. If we donate money, we don't want it wasted and for it to be used appropriately. More disicpline is needed.otherwise this "culture" becomes more and more part of international development. All the best to you and Caritas. God Bless
24 May 2014
Why do we need a breather, Phil? I live and work in a developing country, and my organisation receives Australian funding through several Australian NGO partners. A "breather" for Australia means cutbacks in programs that are working - saving lives, getting kids into school, providing better healthcare for mothers and babies. 20% of the savings in this budget are from the aid sector, which is just 1.3% of the overall budget. It's pitiful. And as John says, it will come back to bite us.