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Are we giving our fair share?

My responsibility is to make sure that Australia’s generosity matches the need of those who are in distress.  - John Howard, 5 January 2005

The Make Poverty History campaign has inspired global solidarity. Nation states and their citizens have tightened their focus on the plight of the poor. The challenge of ending poverty has progressed from an idea of good intent to a global campaign, enthusiastically embraced. A global coalition of goodwill is clearly evident. A music festival in the slums of Maputo; an open air concert in Lusaka; a peaceful rally in El Salvador; rock concerts; white wrist-band days; debt relief by G8 leaders—all in the name of poverty reduction. Can the current mood of idealism be converted so that the ideal becomes real?

A child dies every 15 seconds from water-borne diseases. One woman dies every minute as a result of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. Of these, 99 per cent are in developing countries. More than eight million lives are needlessly lost each year as a result of inadequate health-care facilities. While it is difficult not to despair at the chilling reality of global poverty, there is good reason for hope.

Although certainty cannot be attached to the task of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, evidence indicates that the challenge can be pursued with optimism. In The End of Poverty: How we can make it Happen in our Lifetime (Penguin, 2005), Jeffery Sachs, development economist and special adviser to UN Secretary Kofi Annan, methodically maps out a ‘way towards the path of peace and prosperity, based on detailed understanding of how the world economy has gotten to where it is today, and how our generation could mobilise our capacities in the coming 20 years to eliminate the extreme poverty that remains’. His account is one of ending poverty in our time. He does not offer a prediction as to what will happen, but an explanation of what can happen. Through fairer trade, debt relief, and more and better aid, Sachs argues that our generation can be the first to choose to end extreme poverty by 2025.

It is a sentiment shared by Fr Bruce Duncan cssr in his recent discussion paper Ending Hunger—How far can we go? (Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, Sydney). For Duncan, the challenge facing Western countries is a profoundly moral one. Are we, he asks, ‘prepared to commit a tiny fraction of our unprecedented economic prosperity to alleviate the acute suffering of hundreds of millions of people?’

Eradicating extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other preventable diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing global partnerships for development are all within humanity’s reach. It is, however, our commitment, rather than our capacity, that is being questioned in regard to meeting these challenges.

Australia is an ideal case in point. The Federal Government’s response to the Boxing Day tsunami was swift and decisive, pledging $1 billion in direct aid to Indonesia alone. The Australian public also gave generously to both secular and faith-based tsunami appeals. Prime Minister John Howard was proud of Australia’s response. Delivering a prepared statement in Jakarta in the week following the tsunami, Mr Howard said, ‘The world has come together in a remarkably compassionate and effective way. We should all be very proud of the contribution that different people and different countries have made, not least of course the contribution that’s been made by Australia which has been widely applauded and respected as it should be because it does represent an extremely generous contribution from a country that has been blessed by providence and good fortune over the years, and we’re in a position to help. But it’s one thing to be in a position to help, it’s another thing to actually provide the assistance.’ That is a statement that warrants closer scrutiny.

By international standards Australia is, as the Prime Minister rightly suggests, fortunate, wealthy and in a position to help. But is Australia contributing its fair share? Consider this: Australia’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) program, an initiative aimed at advancing Australia’s national interest by assisting developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development, has an allocated budget of $2.133 billion for 2004–05. This figure is estimated at around 0.26 per cent of Australia’s Gross National Income, well below the 0.7 per cent target agreed to by United Nations member states.

If, as the Prime Minister has suggested, the Government does have a responsibility to match generosity with the needs of those most in distress, impoverished Africans, who will receive just three per cent of Australia’s allocated ODA, may justifiably ask, ‘What about us?’ Those in the ocean of poverty are not waving, they are drowning. By directing 70 cents out of every $100 earned towards overseas aid, developed countries such as Australia are in a privileged position to make poverty history. Are we up to the challenge?
Every three seconds a child somewhere in the world dies because they are simply too poor to live. Humanity’s time clock is ticking.  
Shaun Cannon is Executive Officer of the Melbourne Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace.



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