Foreign aid is not just a matter of offering charity to people in need overseas. It is very important for our own security and development as a nation. Particularly is this so when climate change is rewriting the rules on how the whole weather system works. The historically unprecedented hurricane and flooding in USA and the Caribbean not only cost lives and astonishing property losses, but they weaken the US economy, and may well affect social and political cohesion.
Nearer to home, consider the widespread flooding in South Asia, with significant loss of life, widespread damage to crops and food production, and the dislocation of millions of people. News reports claimed up to two-thirds of Bangladesh was under water.
Such catastrophes are far beyond normal, and likely result from climate change. But consider how the world will cope with such events in the future, with forced migration of very large numbers of people, disruptions to food security, and political breakdown.
To help prevent such widespread distress, the United Nations has been promoting its Sustainable Development Goals to coordinate national and global efforts in alleviating poverty and hunger, and lifting living standards for the most needy people. Each country must be involved in its own heavy lifting, but the international community also needs to help.
Australia: a ‘leaner’ in development issues
Yet we in Australia have over recent years been cutting our aid efforts repeatedly. Since 2007, it was bipartisan policy in Australia to lift Australia’s overseas aid to 0.7% by 2015 of Gross National Income. Australia agreed to support the target, originally set by the United Nations in the early 1970s.
Other countries have already reached this target, the United Kingdom committing £12 billion annually, despite its economic woes. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called this a ‘badge of honour’ for Britain. Other OECD countries which met or exceeded their 0.7% target in 2015 were the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden.
The Australian budget set a target in 2013 to reach 0.5% of GNI by 2017, but alas this fell for 2016-17 to 0.22% GNI – $3.8 billion instead of the hoped for $7 billion – a third less in real terms than the $5.1 billion spent in 2012-13. Australia’s aid is expected to increase slightly in absolute terms to $3.9 billion, but to decline below 0.22% in 2017-18, its lowest level ever at 0.84% of federal government spending.
As the Australian Council for International Development observed, almost $1 billion was cut from the aid budget in 2015-16, and a further $2.7 billion for 2016-17 and 2017-18.
In May this year, the Turnbull government announced it would take another $300 million from foreign aid by introducing a temporary freeze from mid-2018, when it would be $4.1 billion, and not be indexed until 2021-2022.
Since the government came to office in 2013, church leaders lamented last year that the Coalition government has cut $11 billion from its aid budget.
To make matters worse, Australia’s highly regarded aid agency, the independent statuary body AusAid, was abruptly subsumed by the Abbott government in November 2013 into the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, and its priorities reoriented towards promoting private enterprise and trade, resulting in a loss of transparency, and 500 experienced redundancies. The change was directed to prioritise Australian national interests over humanitarian concerns.
In the late 1960s under Prime Ministers Holt, McEwan, and Gorton in 1967-68, Australian overseas aid was much higher than at present, reaching 0.48% GNI, and 0.47% of GNI in 1974-75. As Robin Davies wrote in The Conversation in January 2017, aid generosity under Menzies was twice as high as now, even though per capita income at that time was less than half its current level.
Shrinking our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals
The Australian Head of Advocacy for Caritas Negaya Chorley lamented in May that Australia’s continually slashing overseas aid undermines global efforts to reduce hunger and poverty and promote the social and political objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals. Australia is reneging on its commitment to support the 2030 Agenda of the UN to deal with the effects of climate change and reduce global inequality. These goals are absolutely vital if the world is to avoid the worst outcomes of global warming.
As Chorley said, if we want a peaceful and prosperous world, we need to invest in what makes for peace: “health, education, sustainable livelihoods, women’s rights, climate action, and strong governance”. Otherwise, we are going to face increased international conflict, rivalry for resources, and mass migration of peoples.
Meanwhile, Australia’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly challenged not just by struggling or failing states, but by China’s growing economic expansion.
According to a 2016 national poll of over 1500 people for Campaign for Australian Aid, Australians believed that our federal government gives 13% of the budget to foreign aid, about 14 times more than it actually does. The per capita cost to Australians of its foreign aid amounts only to about $160 a year.
After 25 years of continuous economic growth, is this is best we Australians can do?
For further detail on Australian foreign aid, go to the Development Policy Centre of the ANU and the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade.