Defending Rudd's aid agenda


Caritas Australia Zambia projectIn 2000, the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard, along with 188 other world leaders, signed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Declaration. Australia's signature on this declaration was a commitment to help the world's poorest of the poor.

In a historic sign of solidarity with the world's most vulnerable communities, world leaders committed to a global action plan to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 — a commitment that Australian aid agencies robustly applaud.

For the world leaders who signed the declaration in 2000, poverty was not defined by the boundaries of states and regions. Needless human suffering is prolific, and as a leading international donor, the Australian Government is obliged to respond accordingly.

Caritas Australia is one of the largest Australian NGOs working in the Pacific. With more than 30 years experience in long-term development and emergency response, it knows the Pacific is a region enormously vulnerable to disasters and the impact of climate change; is plagued by HIV/AIDS and is in dire need of our support to build capacity in health services, education and agriculture.

In Papua New Guinea alone, Caritas Australia has facilitated HIV testing for 100,000 people, empowering communities to make informed health decision for themselves and their families.

The poverty and lack of opportunity endured by millions across the Asia-Pacific region is a disgrace, and ought to demand our Government's attention, but it is not enough to try to achieve the MDGs 'at home'.

It is impossible for Australia to turn its back on Africa. Former Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith aptly noted, 'Australia is a country of the Indian ocean as well as a Pacific Nation' — the distance from Perth to Nairobi is 8904km; from Sydney to Beijing is 8947km.

Africa is the poorest continent on earth and the region that is least on track to meet the MDG targets. Almost 50 per cent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $1.25 US per day.

Australia's recent shift to double the aid budget to Africa recognises this. That said, aggregated figures of despair should not outshine the remarkable gains that have been made in the region due to the long-standing efforts of  church and non-government organisations.

For instance, in Zambia, Caritas Australia supports projects that have seen up to 3000 vulnerable people in one community alone yielding more crops, better managing livestock, and accessing clean water, sanitation and health services. Knowledge and prevention of HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB has grown exponentially, women have acquired invaluable leadership skills, a once marginal community better understands its social and legal rights, and 500 children have the opportunity to attend school.

In Uganda, Caritas Australia and AusAID have supported almost 2000 households to increase and diversify their crop yields by adopting sustainable agricultural practices including soil conservation, water management and pest control. Consequently more than 11,000 people have improved nutrition and greater capacity to generate income: 74 per cent of families now sell enough produce locally to invest in their health and children's education.

It's a story that's repeated in communities in the Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and indeed throughout the world where grass-roots organisations seek to break down the structural causes of poverty that permeate our international community.

In a recent article in The Australian, entitled 'Prudent aid agenda is a foreign concept to Rudd', Associate Professor of Public Policy at Australian Catholic University, Gary Johns, challenged the Australian Government's aid agenda, in particular its growing support of African nations.

Johns' views were surprising given the primary objective of ACU's Public Policy Institute — to inform and influence Australian public policy in line with the ethical and values-based mission of the Catholic Church. He suggests the Government's focus should be 'to keep an eye on its own back yard' and 'assist from within our region'.

In so doing, Johns blatantly dismisses the fundamental principles of solidarity, human dignity, common good and option for the poor that ought to define his work.

The Catholic Church and its institutions are called to engage in liberating mission of God. It advocates on behalf of and with the poor because that is what we are called to do. The very solidarity that is central to its mission obliges it to work alongside the poor, wherever they are.

On his first trip to the UK last month, Pope Benedict XVI remarked that global human development ought to command the world's attention no less than did the fall of global financial institutions: 'Where human lives are concerned, time is always short ... here is an enterprise, worthy of the world's attention, that is truly 'too big to fail'.'

Commentary suggesting Australia's aid budget is wasteful or self-serving is at best unhelpful and at worst a gross misconstruction of what Catholic institutions are called to do as contributors to public policy. Aid delivered at the grassroots has the capacity to bring lasting change the world over. Who are we to deny millions that grace?


Jack De GrootJack de Groot is Chief Executive Officer of Caritas Australia, Secretary to the Australian Catholic Bishops Commission for Justice and Development, and Adjunct Professor, Australian Catholic University. Image courtesy Caritas Australia.

Topic tags: Jack de Groot, Caritas Australia, Millenium Development Goals, Africa, Gary Johns



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Existing comments

Australia and other western countries have been providing aid to Africa for years ... and it never seems to make any difference at all. Too many African countries, since decolonisation, are beset by corruption and by tribal patronage feuds. Please spare us the warping of Pope Benedict’s words, as Catholic solidarity can never be the excuse for our turning a blind eye to endemic corruption. Frankly, many African countries, such as Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, were better run under the British than they are now. One of the reasons I ceased supporting Caritas and the like is because of this attitude that NGOs believe our money is always the answer. Until African countries adopt and abide by the rule of law, they will always be poor.
Godfrey Saint | 13 October 2010

Thanks for a clear and compelling presentation. Some commentators note the local political interests that influence our official aid program, and then reject the direction those interests have influenced. Others despair at the challenges that are faced by the people in some countries and regions. Congratulations to Caritas for going back to the basics of their Gospel-inspired mission and the principles of Catholic social teaching: these lead us to eschew narrow geographical and political focus, and to plan expansively to utilize the increasing levels of official Australian development aid.
Denis Fitzgerald | 14 October 2010

I fully agree with Godfrey Saint, These African nations have got to be held accountable, however I still support Caritas.
C. Marr | 14 October 2010

As the founder of Australia’s smallest AIDS-care charity that’s without paid staff or supporting celebrities...or annual church appeal income... and yet is schooling some three thousand children in Africa, including many AIDS orphans and children living with HIV, I was appalled to read Gary Johns’ comment that Australia has “no strategic interests in Africa”, and, thus, by implication, it shouldn’t be a recipient of our foreign aid.

The little dent we are making to relieve the education plight in Malawi would not have been possible had we not had the modest help we’ve had from both the Howard and Rudd governments. (see our website at

Africa has no monopoly on either waste or corruption as any observer of our own geographic neighbourhood would know.

Regarding PNG,we helped build and furnish that country’s first HIV/AIDS hospice, San Michel, and we'd like to see similar efforts there by Caritas.

More vitally,all in the aid field should take heart from the most recent news...that former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance (AusAID),Bob McMullan has been appointed a special envoy for Africa!

Certainly, we do in that regard. Watch this space!

Brian Haill, President, The Australian AIDS Fund Incorporated,
Brian Haill - Melbourne | 14 October 2010

I am sure that Caritas is neither stupid or naive , and knows the realities of tribalism and corruption on the ground wherever it works. That is why NGOs like Caritas are the best way to get the job done and avoid the dollars being syphoned off by the unscrupulous. Jack, may God bless you and your efforts on behalf of us all.
Eugene | 14 October 2010

Well and truly said, Mr de Groot.

Yes, African governments must be held to account, but NOT, the poor who are not responsible for their plight. To use the building of a hospital as a metaphor, working at a political level to effect change(building the hospital) must continue. However, so must the treatment of the victims of poverty continue until there is systemic change. Both are essential.
Patricia | 14 October 2010

I agree with Jack, but it was hardly a surprise to find an anti-Rudd article in the Australian, especially one that supports the cynical suggestion that anything Rudd does is simply to win a seat on the UN Security Council. What is surprising is that an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Australian Catholic University is stooping to irresponsible journalism with ideas that have the effect of diminishing rather than building our efforts to seek solidarity with the world's poorest. As such it does fly in the face of the values so clearly spelt out in Catholic Social Teaching. How can ACU remain comfortable with this position?

We should not ignore arguments about aid effectiveness and the possibility of more coordinated efforts to achieve appropriate outcomes, but as Jack suggests Gary Johns article is a little loose and selective with the facts. Given both Gary and Jack are with ACU it should be possible to have a solid reasoned debate on such issues in the context of the values that underpin Catholic Social Teaching. This is preferable to starting with a short piece that takes a scatter gun approach hoping to get as many hits as possible on Rudd, a target Johns and the Australian appear to share.
Roger O'Halloran | 14 October 2010

Gary seems to have strayed a long way from his roots.
Catherine Wallace | 14 October 2010

I agree with helping the poor and desperate in overseas nations. I gave, and will give, to Caritas. But I'm haunted by those we sweep aside in Australia.

Our most vulnerable, most neglected and most despised Australians are the majority,perhaps 75,000, of indigenous people and all of our 550,000 seriously mentally ill (SMI). Studies show these groups have a life expectancy which is 25 years lower than average; 55 years rather than 80 would be unacceptable to us. This occurs because of higher rates of fatal physical illness and suicide.

Serious mental illness is a permanently under-funded area. The SMI bear 13% of the total burden of disease. The Federal government gave them a totally unjust 2% of the 2010 health budget,equal to Indonesia's 2% funding of mental health.

In January, 2010, the Australia New Zealand Health Policy published research, 1916-2004, concerned with mental health-related mortality rates and implications for government policy. The stark conclusion is that,in these 88 years,for the seriously mentally ill...
"There are no gains"

In six years, unless a miracle of justice occurs,the seriously mentally ill will begin their second century of decline.

Indigenous people live their third century of decline.
Caroline Storm | 14 October 2010

If ever there were regions in the devloping world that would benefit from the types of research undertaken by our agricultural scientists, they would be found in sub Saharan Africa. The rural progress in Uganda mentioned by Jack de Groot illustrates that Australian expertise can make it a perfect fit.
Cheryl Marsh | 15 October 2010

In this discussion about Australia and Africa, we could also note the preparations for the forthcoming Referendum in southern Sudan on January 9th. With the lessons we learnt about ourselves as Australians in the lead-up to the 1999 East Timor Referendum, we can add our voice to the lobby for the preparations for a peaceful referendum in southern Sudan. We are all entitled to peace.
Gerry Hefferan | 15 October 2010

What a revealing comparison from Mr de Groot: Perth to Nairobi(8904km) vs. Sydney to Beijing (8947 km)!

Why not Sydney to Nairobi(12,163 km) vs Sydney to Beijing (8,497km)?

or Perth to Nairobi (8902 km) vs Perth to Beijing (7,956 km)? or even Darwin to Beijing (5,990 km)?

Or, what about Perth to Nairobi (8902) vs Darwin to Hong Kong, China (4249 km)?

Surely Mr de Groot and his episcopally-backed NGO are not into the sullied business of spin?

No prejudice to the bits of Caritas that do substantive good work: my money is with Mother Teresa's mob, the incontestable champions of the "poorest of the poor". But if, against the odds, they start using language like "sustainable", I'll promptly move it somewhere else.

Nick | 15 October 2010


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