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Putting a face to the effects of Australia's aid freeze

  • 12 May 2017


Alain is five years old. He is just beginning school. Like every kid, it is both a big adventure but one marked with mixed feelings about leaving home for so long and being no longer free to play with his younger siblings.

On the way to school he passes near a small building whose purpose it is to house the two child protection officers who hear and deal with complaints that arise in his refugee camp community. He of course has no idea what that entails, nor to what the badge attached to the wall, 'Donated by the Australian Government', refers.

Alain is one of around 11,000 people living in this particular camp in the south of Zimbabwe. More than half of these are children. It seems an unlikely location to talk of the freeze on funding for Australian foreign aid announced in the budget, but it is in places like these, unseen and therefore unknown by the Australian population, that the effects are often felt.

Alain is lucky: the camp where he lives has good education. Worldwide however, only 50 per cent of children in forced migrant situations will attend primary school, 22 per cent secondary and a paltry 1 per cent any institution of higher learning. It is not accurately known how many school aged children in forced migrant situations are missing out, but it is estimated to be in the order of 25 million.

That is equivalent to almost the entire population of Australia.

Research now tells us that these uneducated children are more likely to become the foot soldiers of violent ideologies that hold the promise of giving their lives meaning. They are more likely to be depressed or chemically dependent, and are almost certain to remain poor. But this is the negative view of looking at it: imagine, for a minute, what 25 million people could contribute to the human community if they had the chance.

I had two encounters with Australian overseas aid while working in southern Africa. There was a small grants program overseen by the Australian embassy under which presumably the child protection facility was built. I approached them but was told that they did not do any personnel costs or administration or project support — only the project itself. The American equivalent was much more expansive and allowed, for instance, someone to follow up to see whether the facility is indeed useful.

My second was to try to elicit,