An extraordinary gathering of survivors and Catholic leaders occurred last week in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for the 10th anniversary of the Boxing Day Tsunami, the most devastating natural disaster in modern history.
We gathered to commemorate a decade since the Tsunami that killed over 230,000 men, women and children and left many millions displaced and whole communities torn apart.
We listened to the stories of devastation from those who had survived, and we listened to the stories of hope. We also listened to some alarming news from home.
Last week the Australian media reported Juie Bishop's confirmation that Australia's overseas aid program is in line for further budget cuts as the Government seeks to find savings for the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
This news is deeply concerning. Between September 2013 and May 2014 our Government cut the aid budget by close to $8 billion over the next five years. Australia’s overseas aid program only makes up 1.3 per cent of the Federal Budget. The 20 per cent of total savings the aid budget absorbed in May was more than a fair share of the budget burden.
Australia prides itself on being a fair country. But how is it fair to have the world’s poorest people to shoulder more cuts? As the tenth wealthiest country on earth, this trend damages our reputation and undermines our ability to be taken seriously as a global leader.
It was upsetting for me to hear news of potential cuts to Australia’s global compassion while witnessing the successes of Australian aid. There was Faridah, a young woman from a village in the East Coast of Sri Lanka, whom I met with her three children. Faridah lost her parents and other relatives. Her husband, a fisherman, also disappeared. Faridah’s life, stability and support network was destroyed by the Tsunami. She lost all hope for her children’s future. Yet, with the support of Australian aid, she was slowly able to re-build her life. Following the Tsunami, Faridah and her children were able to access life-saving assistance in the form of food, water, shelter. She also received psychosocial support on an ongoing basis. Faridah went on to become a community leader and role model. All three of her children are now in school.
Faridah’s is just one of the powerful stories of hope made possible with the support of Australian aid.
Australia was the largest per capita contributor to the Tsunami recovery effort. Our Government committed more than $60 million in immediate emergency relief. This represented the largest peacetime operation Australia has ever undertaken overseas. Australian aid made possible the rapid deployment of emergency health workers, food, clean water and temporary shelter. All of which played a huge role in supporting people and communities to survive and to re-build.
Internationally there is a deep appreciation for Australia’s role in providing urgent humanitarian assistance and working in partnership to rebuild families, homes and futures.
It was in this context that the delegates who attended the commemoration expressed surprise and dismay at the proposed further cuts to Australia's overseas aid program. In their eyes, Australia has developed a reputation as a tremendous actor and leader and one that is so often there during times of crisis.
Delegates questioned why Australia, as the most prosperous country in our region, would now turn its back on the world’s poor.
Successive cuts to our overseas aid program mean that we are starting to be seen as a country turning inwards.
Other OECD countries have been far more generous and recognise the importance of steadily growing their overseas aid program. Take for example the United Kingdom; under a Conservative Government the country has steadily increased its overseas aid contribution to an impressive 0.7 per cent of gross national income. Not bad for a country hit hard by the GFC, with greater levels of debt than Australia and with lower levels of per capita income.
Australian aid saves lives. It increases access to healthcare, helps educate children and in times of crises like the Tsunami, helps people like Faridah recover and re-build.
Every year almost two million Australian households donate to the work of Australian aid and development agencies. While Australians reach out to the men, women and children most vulnerable to poverty and natural disasters they expect their government to do the same.
We are surrounded by countries that are better able to tackle the challenges of poverty and natural disasters when our nation plays its rightful role as a leader and a contributor and as a country that sees its future inextricably linked to the future of our region.
Paul O'Callaghan is CEO of Caritas Australia.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
Michael D. Breen
13 December 2014
Aussies are mostly generous. Just look at the aftermath of fires and floods or droughts, or needy families in rural communities for whom there is often a whip around. For the government to be going the other way and enacting miserliness on our behalf is distressing to say the least. As well as being un-representative of us. But the xenophobes, cultivated by the conservatives, won't mind; they may even celebrate. On the other hand, making good neighbours is good social and political sense. And anyway so much of the aid budget employs Australians. Paradoxically the only part of the budget I have not seen challenged is the spending on defence. Is the policy to frighten our neighbours with our firepower rather than treat them as human beings less fortunate than our prosperity bloated obese selves?
14 December 2014
The time has come to change our attitude to giving "Aid" to the poor. Government should assist businesses and entrepreneurs who are prepared to start businesses to help poor in Australia and overseas. It is time taxpayers money is given to these old egoist do gooders.
15 December 2014
This article should be reprinted in every media outlet and church bulletin in the country - I could weep
15 December 2014
This government is marked by an absence of morality much less generosity. Soft power is overseas aid, economic growth is overseas aid, sound relationships is overseas aid, we need to lift our eyes and cease narcissism.
15 December 2014
"Australia prides itself on being a fair country." Yes, just another part of the 'land of the fair go' myth.
The reality is that we have never allocated 0.9% of GNP to overseas aid, as called for by the United Nations. The reality is that we are leading the world in our inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. The reality is that we have removed the requirements of the international Refugee Convention from our "sovereign borders" legislation. The reality is that we now send refugees back to likely persecution, torture, death in their countries of origin. The internal reality is that we now place the load of balancing the federal budget unfairly and squarely on the shoulders of the poor and disadvantaged. The reality is that we reduce access to unemployment assistance as the rate of unemployment is increasing. Australia a fair country! Australia open for business! Feel good political slogans increase as we reduce real opportunity.
15 December 2014
A simple question, Mr O'Callaghan. If the father of a large family who over many years has been generous to the poor and disadvantaged suddenly loses his income or a large part of it, does he abandon the care of his family in order to continue the level of his generosity to the poor, or does he re-apportion his now lower income to reduce his contributions to both the poor and his family while still supporting both to the best of his ability. That is what is happening in Australia. However, such an approach I imagine is acceptable in the social justice world only from a socialist government. The real world is not a fairy tale.
15 December 2014
Mr Frawley, are we living in a poor country. Certainly there are poor people and we should help them. But when we look at the amount of money our average families spend on their luxurious houses and cars we see mostly families that can afford to give much more to the needy, forming a country that also could give much more.
15 December 2014
John Frawley: Australia still has much wealth. One simple way forward is for all of us who have properly-paid, ongoing,and secure employment to pay more tax. Australia is one of the lowest tax paying nations in the OECD.
15 December 2014
dear writer, When you did your last budget did you budget for MH 370 or MH 17 or the EBOLA CRISIS? No?
16 December 2014
Good morning Gavan and Robert. It depends on how you define wealth, gentlemen. For example, the priceless artefacts of the Vatican are worth nothing until they are placed on the market for sale. The businessman who owns nothing and lives opulently on borrowed money which he constantly repays with interest to the bank from his earnings is not wealthy - he owns nothing of value. Australia, like it or leave it, has great potential wealth provided we sell wealth generating commodities on the market for money or in kind. Following our last socialist government we have borrowed money in vast amounts to make us look good including the welfare for the poor. This is grossly irresponsible. We are not contributing as a country from our own earnings but from borrowings from foreign usurers. The wealth of this country is currently like the Emperor's new clothes - it is allegedly there in the finest of possessions and life style but is false and indeed non-existent. It took an un-sophisticated, innocent young lad to tell the assembled populace admiring the Emperor's clothes that he in fact was wearing nothing. Time to stop conning ourselves with the great comfort of being astoundingly wealthy.
John Cronin, Toowoomba Q
17 December 2014
Unfortunately, we are all poor in many areas of our lives, and we need to surrender in our human poverty to God. Only then, when we are filled with some humility & the freely given gifts of the Spirit, will we really gain the wisdom to appreciate both the material & spiritual poverty all around us, present here in Australia and in our overseas neighbours. Like the parable of Lazarus & the rich man, we often have a foot in both of their camps, simply by our lack of faith and through our fears about our material future. Of material & spiritual poverty, the latter is the worst. Only when we realise the great gifts we have as Christians or just as Australians of "good will", can we all share both the material and spiritual gifts God has bestowed on us here in Australia.
19 December 2014
Well said Paul.
It has been good to see recent outpourings of national sympathy and compassion, but we need to lift up our eyes and open our hearts to our regional neighbours too.
22 December 2014
Thank you Paul. Your message is clear and talks to me about love, justice and our need to keep overseas aid at the heart of our thinking and giving as a wealthy nation. . Our present government, I believe, has a "siege mentality" This makes me very sad.
06 January 2015
Australians do enjoy a high standard of living. How can we neglect our responsibilities to work for a fairer, more just world? We need to cut back on our consumption so others can survive. Foreign aid helps poorer communities to build a future.