The budget axe must not fall on vital foreign aid

Published in Sydney Morning Herald online May 13, 2013

By Tim Costello, World Vision Australia chief executive and Dr Helen Szoke, Oxfam Australia chief executive

In the lead-up to federal budget day, advocates representing a wide variety of interests are coming out of the woodwork to plead their cause. No one wants their industry or sector to be affected by what now seems like inevitable cuts to government spending. But most of these campaigners are lobbying for their own patch.

Compare that to the thousands of young Australians who have been working tirelessly over several months to raise awareness of overseas aid. These young volunteers are not lobbying the government out of self-interest. They believe in our aid program because it's affordable and because it works.

In fact, our overseas aid program delivers a truly stunning level of human benefit per dollar spent. For the humble offering of $4.50 per week per Australian, we can offer opportunity and hope where there was once despair.

Unfortunately, our aid budget is often misunderstood. Most Australians believe we are far more generous than we are actually are. On average, Australians estimate that we give 16 per cent of our annual budget to aid. In fact, the real figure is 1.4 per cent.

The truth is we rank well below many other wealthy nations on the generosity scale - 13th out of 24 donor countries. This coming year, if the government honours its commitment, we will give just 37¢ in every $100 of national income. In comparison, Sweden gives 99¢ in every $100 and even Britain gives 70¢ - and that's despite the severe economic challenges it faces.

Now that our own government faces a multibillion dollar hit to revenue, you might be thinking that surely every sector needs to take a haircut. But our aid program and in turn the poorest people on Earth have already copped a big whack. In the last budget, the government delayed a promised increase in aid, effectively eliminating $2.9 billion over four years from the aid budget.

Then late last year, the government announced it would be diverting another $375 million from our aid budget to pay for Australia's domestic asylum seeker program. Australians rightly expect our overseas aid program to be spent helping eradicate poverty overseas, not on filling domestic budget shortfalls.

And given how small our aid contribution is compared to Australia's total budget, it's hard to imagine how reducing it further will make any difference to the government's revenue problems, especially considering that aid spending is one of the most effective areas of all government expenditure. The government's fiscal problems can be managed only by way of major structural changes, not with a one-off delay or diversion.

Of course, we should never view our aid budget simply as expenditure. At its best, our aid program is an investment in the future. Peace and stability across our region is in our country's best interest and a well-targeted and effective aid program is one important contributor to this sort of harmony.

Just think about the tremendous effect our aid dollars have had. In the past year Australian aid helped 1 million children to be enrolled in school; allowed 2.5 million people in Asia, the Pacific and Africa to access safe water; and ensured 230,000 women gave birth with the support of a skilled birth attendant. Every day, Australian aid helps reduce the number of children dying from preventable diseases, it helps build strong societies through education, it increases the yields farmers get from their crops, it helps get these crops to market.

Since 1990, global child deaths have fallen by more than 40 per cent and maternal deaths by nearly 50 per cent - aid from Australia and other donor countries has been central to these gains. We are making genuine progress in the fight against poverty, but much more still needs to be done. It is a tragic fact that tonight, one in eight people around the globe will go to bed hungry.

Australia is well placed to be a global leader on this issue - we hold a seat on the UN Security Council, the Prime Minister co-chairs the UN's Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group, and next year we will assume the presidency of the G20, the world's premier economic forum. It is critical that we continue to set an example of good global citizenship.

Bipartisan support for our aid program is vital. We see time and time again that the best aid programs are designed for the future with an emphasis on long-term funding. Both sides of politics must not waver from long-held promises. Australia's contribution to saving lives and overcoming poverty should be above politics.

This budget day we look forward to the Australian aid budget rising to 0.37 per cent of our national income and bipartisan support. Anything less will hurt the world's most vulnerable people.

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