This morning I read this tweet from Fairfax journo Ross Gittins: My first thought was, a new kind of human being has emerged. One without empathy. This is why we don’t care anymore. Our species is devolving. For someone who only yesterday re-watched Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, my first thought rather remarkably disregarded history. Visconti’s film…
We think we’re more generous than we are but we’re downright miserly.
Australian aid to Vanuatu will be welcome, but the impact of Cyclone Pam also illustrates the limits of Australia’s commitment to the most vulnerable.
On Tuesday, Australia announced an increase in aid to Vanuatu in response to the devastation the island nation has suffered. After initially committing A$5 million to assist disaster relief by United Nations and non-government organisations, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that Australia would send additional medical staff and search and rescue personnel.
Given the scale of the cyclone damage, the initial $5 million is unlikely to go very far. The amounts being donated may increase as the full effects of the cyclone are realised and as the scale of contributions from the private sector and other states becomes clearer.
Giving from a shrunken aid budget
It is appropriate for Australia to help with disaster management in a poor country in its neighbourhood, especially with a disaster of this magnitude. This assistance will certainly be welcome. But, in important ways, the disaster also exposes the limits of Australian internationalism.
First, Australia’s disaster relief package masks the gutting of our aid program. While Australia’s leaders express concern for the people of Vanuatu, the welfare of poor states is a commitment from which Australia is walking away.
In its first budget, the Abbott government announced a $7.6 billion cut to Australian aid over five years. This was the largest single saving announced in that budget.
This action clearly paints a poor picture of our concern for vulnerable outsiders. But it also undermines the capacity of those in impoverished states to adapt to disasters. This is particularly the case in the Pacific, where the vulnerability of island nations to cyclones is a product of geography, rising sea levels and under-development.
Pleas on climate change ignored
Second, Australia’s domestic inaction on climate change – despite increasingly urgent warnings from Pacific island nations – exposes a lack of concern for the well-being of the most vulnerable. Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale was quick to link Cyclone Pam to climate change, and he has a point. The scientific community has consistently identified an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as cyclones as a likely effect of climate change.
We cannot say with certainty that this was an event caused by climate change. But we can say with confidence that this type of event will be both more likely and more severe in a climate-changed world, however unpopular such a position may be with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. This reality compels all states to consider the ways in which they can significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – a consideration Australia is simply not taking seriously.
No-one can reasonably make the case that concerted Australian action on climate change will be enough to prevent climate change or its effects. But Australia is not doing its fair share to reduce emissions, and its inaction makes a significant global agreement more difficult. As a wealthy nation with among the highest per capita emissions in the world, Australia has a particular obligation to provide leadership and to help significantly reduce global emissions.
Third, and more directly, our approach to global efforts to build adaptive capacity to climate change in developing states also undermines our internationalist credentials. Australia surprised many by announcing a commitment of $200 million to the UN’s Green Climate Fund in Lima in late 2014. This fund aims to finance climate adaptation measures in the developing world.
At best, Australia’s commitment is a promising start. But it is a long way short of Australia’s fair share, and a long way short of action by other states. The fund’s ultimate target is $200 billion by 2020.
Viewed in this light, Australia’s belated commitment is simply insufficient.
Aid isn’t charity
Australia’s aid to Vanuatu in the wake of this disaster will be a welcome and important contribution to the rebuilding efforts. This form of aid is important and, at times, a tragic necessity.
But aid should ultimately be focused on the task of helping poor states and societies to develop. This in turn will help provide them with the resources to “weather the storm”: to limit the damage wrought by natural disasters and recover more quickly.
Australian aid is not a charity. It is an obligation that is internationally codified and morally compelled by our wealth. This aid should be focused on long-term poverty reduction rather than high-profile disaster relief, however necessary (or popular) such measures may be.
Australia needs to focus urgently on capacity-building in impoverished states, which will help such states in the region manage disaster. And, as a nation, Australia needs to do its fair share to limit the risk of such disasters in the future.
At a time when the world is giving more to aid, Australia has cut its aid budget by a quarter. What does this say about the kind of country we want to be?
‘A recent Dfat report found that every $1 of aid delivers $1.50 in value on the ground.’ Photograph: Ngoc Vo/The Fred Hollows Foundation
The late Professor Fred Hollows said it was obscene to let people go blind when they didn’t have to. The same can be said of letting people go hungry, or without clean water, or without an education that allows them to escape poverty.
It’s the reason organisations like the Fred Hollows Foundation exist – a deep sense of the utter unfairness of the gap between rich and poor, and the daily proof that our work has an impact.
This week we’ve seen a different type of obscenity: the incomprehensible decision by the Abbott government to tear another $3.7bn from the Australian aid budget in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook. Added to the $7.6bn already cut in May’s federal budget, it means one quarter of the aid budget is gone and Australian aid is now the lowest since 1954.
The Lucky Country is allocating less than 1% of all government expenditure to help the world’s poorest. The Fred Hollows Foundation already had to axe programmes in Africa, Indonesia, China and Vietnam to cope with a $1.9m shortfall in federal funding after May, including a programme in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta that would have screened up to 20,000 people and restored sight to up to 2,300.
The government promised not to make further cuts to aid. Just last month, foreign minister Julie Bishop said aid was the “flagship” of the government’s foreign policy. Now it’s a flagship with a quarter of its hull missing.
Panicked by political and budgetary problems at home, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann looked over the fence for easy solutions. They hoped few would notice and fewer would care.
I hope that over time people will be able to reflect on the significance of the decision announced in a room in Canberra on Monday. It’s not just about a broken promise, it’s a question of who we want to be as a nation.
Times are tough with rising unemployment, falling housing affordability and high living costs, but we’re still relatively well-off compared to developing countries.
The majority of our support comes from the Australian public and the corporate sector, who donate generously to help restore sight in more than 20 developing countries. People do whatever they can – a boy in NSW is breeding guinea pigs to raise money for us, while an Adelaide man walked the length of New Zealand.
These dollars support much of our work in places like Nepal, Timor-Leste and Pakistan. But government funding makes these public donations stretch further, to help more of the 32.4 million people living with avoidable blindness today. Why is the government pulling its hand back, while ordinary Australians keep reaching into their pockets?
Looking at it from the heart, this money puts medical staff in the poorest communities where people have no other access to life-changing eye care. They walk in blind, and walk out able to see their families again, earn a living or go to school.
Australian aid is excellent value for money. A recent Dfat report found that every $1 of aid delivers $1.50 in value on the ground. Our own research showed that for every $1 invested in preventing someone from going blind, at least four times the financial benefit goes to the economy. It’s a 400% return on the investment.
The work of aid organisations also contributes to a much bigger picture: achieving the millennium development goals. As a sign of their success, one goal – halving the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day – was achieved in 2010, five years ahead of schedule.
World leaders have vowed to maintain the momentum and are setting new goals for post-2015. Restoring the sight of a cattle herder in Kenya might seem a long way from the floor of the UN general assembly, but sustainable aid is critical to meeting global development priorities.
Not only is the federal government giving less while Australians are still giving generously, it is doing less when the international community is vowing to do more. We have slipped down to 19th out of 28 developed countries in terms of foreign aid, giving less than countries like Portugal.
Fred Hollows would be appalled. He never listened to politicians, bureaucrats, or anyone else who refused to help people who needed it most. He said, “I’m egalitarian. It’s pretty bloody obvious.”
That’s what most Australians want their country to be. But there’s nothing egalitarian about deep cuts to Australian aid.