Caritas Australia, the Catholic international aid organisation, has asked its supporters to email Senator Bob Carr, our new Foreign Minister, both to congratulate him on his appointment and to thank him for the Government’s commitment to increase Australia’s Official Development Assistance budget to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income by 2015-16, “as a step towards meeting Australia’s long-standing commitment to increase aid to 0.7 percent of GNI”.
The Caritas reference can be found at http://www.caritas.org.au/act/send-our-new-minister-some-love
This is pertinent not only because of the appointment of Senator Carr who has in the past expressed support for aid and for the Millennium Development Goals, but also because of the Lenten season – traditionally a time when alms-giving is on our minds.
But it leads to the question of where Australia is on Overseas Development Aid (or Official Development Assistance (ODA), government aid as distinct from aid from private organisations such as Caritas Australia).
The AusAID website notes that, “In 2011-12, Australia will provide $4.8 billion worth of official development assistance. The Australian Government continues to increase aid in line with other donor countries. By 2015-16, the annual aid figure is estimated to reach around $8-9 billion (0.5 per cent of Gross National Income)”.
The current aid level represents about 0.35% of GNI, up from 0.28% of GNI in 2007-2008, and does represent progress. Increasing the percentage and the GNI itself both see the substantive increase forecast.
The Government commitment to lifting this to 0.5% by 2015-16 compares to the UN target level of 0.7% which the EU has agreed to achieve by 2015.
The OECD plots Official Development Aid (ODA) as a percentage of GNI in 2010. On this basis, Australia ranks 16th out of 23. We can hardly pat ourselves on the back on this basis. Further, Harry Minas last year noted, “…Australia, along with other developed countries, made a commitment 40 years ago to lift overseas development assistance to 0.7% of GNI”.
Australia is by any standard a wealthy and lucky country, largely untouched by the GFC, and with a bright economic future underpinned by growth in China and India. If any country is in a position to commit to increasing its level of aid, it is ours.
Most other OECD countries have been saddled with major economic problems, and this will likely impact on their aid budgets. But that is not the case for Australia.
The danger here is that the policy of returning the Commonwealth Budget to surplus will be a herculean task, and the Treasurer will be seeking budget reductions everywhere to achieve this. At least in the short term, reducing the increase (or having no increase at all) in ODA would be one of the levers he can pull.
It is therefore all the more worthwhile that we assist Caritas in urging Senator Carr and the Government to continue to meet its promises to increase aid to 0.5% of GNI by 2015-16. I would add that we should not ease off the accelerator in this coming Budget. We should maintain the momentum.
 Harry Minas is Director of the Centre of International Mental Health at the University ofMelbourne. His article can be found at http://theconversation.edu.au/australias-aid-funding-does-our-performance-match-our-promises-1391