Australian aid: Why does It matter?

Imagine yourself walking along a dirt road. You see nothing except for miles and miles of rubbish. You suddenly feel lost – am I in the right place? This isn’t fit for any kind of habitation. Yet for many men, women and children, this is their daily reality.

There is so much more than just rubbish in this place; a sense of hopelessness lingers. As the local school principal explains, the chance a child in this village can break the poverty cycle is slim. They are trapped.

The story told by Caitlin Figueiredo, who visited Cambodia with VGen to learn more about the Battambang community there, made everyone’s heart sink. After returning, she worked with VGen ACT to deliver this discussion forum – 'Australian Aid - Why Does It Matter?’ In particular, she hoped to engage more young people in the dialogue around Australian aid, community development and solution to the extreme hardship faced by children in developing regions.

A panel featuring a federal MP and young NGO leaders shared their experiences on working with impoverished communities and offered their perspectives on Australian Aid. The panel comprised of Gai Brodtmann (MP of Canberra), Jeeven Nadanakumar (World Vision representative), Cameron Allan (Community Organiser at Oaktree) and Caitlin Figueiredo (Australian Global Resolutions Ambassador & Director of VGen ACT).

The dialogue around Australian Aid is a sensitive one. Gai emphasised that there are heartfelt reasons both for and against aid, and characterising opposition arguments as selfish or heartless is not productive. “We must respond more meaningfully. Any spending of taxpayer’s money is not beyond justification.” A meaningful conversation should aim to resolve the two common concerns: 1) can it do the work, 2) why should we do it?

Australian Aid in real times

The panelists, having done aid-related work and witnessed Australian Aid working miracles in Asia-Pacific communities, collectively emphasised that Australian Aid has an overwhelmingly positive impact on local communities.

Gai shared the story of how a simple water container provided by Australian Aid transformed the life of a Cambodian single mother, Tham. Tham and her children used to survive on 25 cents a week and struggled to make ends meet.

The water container allowed Tham to carry more water, leaving her with more time to focus on income generation. Now, not only does she make more money in a week than she used to in a year, she can support her children in pursuing further education and their dream to become teachers – all thanks to a simple water container supported by Australian Aid.

Without this simple tool, her children would not have had the opportunity to escape the deep-rooted poverty cycle – maintained through a combination of malnutrition, lack of proper education and financial hardships. As such, a well-structured community and evidence-based aid program are instrumental in breaking the poverty cycle.

Caitlin also recalled the moment she saw the Peshawar School for Peace, funded by Australian Aid, which has educated many children since being opened.

Delegates at the aid conference in Cambodia

Jeeven Nadanakumar further emphasized that “it is under-appreciated by the public that Australian Aid is not just goodwill, but also a wise economic choice”. South Korea, for example, went from receiving aid (US$13 billion over a 45-year period from the international community) after the Korean War to becoming Australia’s fourth largest trading partner in trade (US$30 billion bilateral trade revenue in 2014) and a generous aid donor.

We as Australians benefit remarkably from our neighbours’ economic growth. Partnerships of this kind foster healthy diplomatic and trade relationships in our region, which has seen increased stability in our region.

Problems and future directions

Nadanakumar envisioned efficient NGOs to be crucial players in this conversation about aid, as well as the long-standing combat against poverty. He would like NGOs to learn from companies. They should dare to recruit the brightest minds through adequate remuneration, dare to put more resources into marketing, and dare to have more long-term plans. He would like to bring everyone into the conversation – politicians, business leaders and technology entrepreneurs.

The conversation on aid is an urgently needed one. Last year, under the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS, or the Global Goals), Australia promised to commit 0.7 percent of our Gross National Income to Australian aid. Currently, our aid package stands at 0.22 percent. Effectively, this means that many valuable community programs will be cut. All speakers urged the audience to take the impact of this cut seriously, in particular with respect to how efficient aid had been in the past.

For many, this event was both encouraging and informative. The valuable experience shared by the panelists sheds light on the unmistakable importance and efficiency of Australian aid. As Ms Brodtmann said, “Australians believe in a fair go for all”. As one of the most peaceful, prosperous and stable nations in the world, let’s not reduce aid even more. Summarised by Caitlin, “Let’s help bring stability and empowerment to our region. Let’s give every child, every family, every society the chance to be liberated from the poverty cycle."

- Written by Xinyu Shi and Emily Han