Floods, earthquakes, droughts and cyclones are becoming more frequent around the world and the number of people affected by them is growing. In developed countries such as Australia and New Zealand we are experiencing firsthand the demands these events place on those directly affected and on those responding. In developing countries these challenges are amplified.
As Australia’s aid program continues to grow – in line with the bi-partisan commitment for aid funding to reach half a per cent of our national income by 2015 – it will become even more important to make sure we are using this money effectively. The current Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, led by Sandy Hollway, is timely, needed and most welcome.
Australia’s aid program has experienced an unusually high profile in recent weeks. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s proposal to ‘defer’ a $448 million aid program to Indonesian schools – and the alleged ructions in Shadow Cabinet over it – generated a lively public debate.
As I said at the time of the announcement, the Coalition’s proposal is short-sighted and should never have been put forward. Yet, it presented an opportunity to highlight the positive impacts of that program – and to discuss more broadly the goals of Australia’s overseas aid program.
Our aid program is already doing much good, but we need to look at ways to make it even more effective in a rapidly changing world where the international community now faces a very different set of challenges from those faced when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000.
A relevant, high-impact and forward-looking Australian aid program must address four dangerous and inter-connected global development trends that together will make or break the world’s progress towards eradicating poverty over the next decade. These trends are scarcity, volatility, inequality and gender injustice.
Firstly, to scarcity. Competition for land, water and energy is intensifying and putting unsustainable pressure on the world’s most critical resources. This competition for scarce resources threatens the food supply and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of women and men living in poverty.
Every night for decades, more than 800 million people have gone to bed hungry. In 2008 the global food price crisis pushed that number over one billion for the first time in history. The physical and mental toll of hunger, particularly during pregnancy and a child’s early years, has life-long consequences that impair efforts to eradicate poverty.
The food price crisis is also an early indication of even greater challenges to come. Food and commodity prices are on the march again. On current trends, the next 20 years will see global demand for food increase by 50 per cent, for water by 30 per cent, and energy by 50 per cent. Yet there are already clear limits to the planet’s resources.
Secondly, volatility. Over the past decade, the world’s poor have experienced multiple, often simultaneous, shocks. These include a global food crisis that sparked food riots in more than 20 developing countries, spikes in oil prices, a global economic crisis and an increasingly unstable climate.
With the growing frequency of floods, earthquakes, droughts and cyclones, so the number of people impacted has grown. Together with unplanned and accelerated urbanisation, environmental degradation and increased competition for resources, this has put poor people at greater risk and has repeatedly reduced their ability to get back on their feet after a disaster.
The combination of scarcity and volatility fuels conflict. Conflict-related deaths have been growing since 2005, with two-thirds of these deaths occurring in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sri Lanka. Ninety per cent of these victims are civilians, the majority women and children. And while civilians are increasingly targeted in conflict, most deaths are caused by the wider effects of conflict, such as dysentery or interruptions to food supply.
The third dangerous trend is inequality. With 75 per cent of the world’s poorest one billion people living in middle income countries in 2007, there is growing evidence that inequality has become the ugly underbelly of global prosperity. It follows that one of the main reasons the world is unlikely to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by the 2015 deadline is because inequalities within many countries have grown to the point of slowing down national progress.
The most enduring form of inequality is the continuing trend of injustice experienced by women. Seventy per cent of the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty are women and girls. Consider this: women perform two-thirds of the world’s work and produce half of the world’s food, yet earn only ten per cent of the world’s income and own one per cent of the world’s assets. Empowering girls through education – as our aid program does in Indonesia right now – is just one example of an effective Australian aid program placing women’s equality at the centre of its work.
The recent public debate on aid has presented a false choice between charity at home and charity abroad. Doing our fair share towards tackling the scourges of gender injustice, scarcity, inequality and volatility are both central to Australia’s national interest and our obligation as a good international citizen.
But aid is just one part of the development equation. Trade, investment, taxation, foreign policy, immigration, defence and security all have an impact on development and should be incorporated and aligned in a whole-of-government development cooperation program.
This development cooperation program must maintain its focus on people. This means making sure that those people and communities who receive Australian aid are involved in the aid programs from beginning to end, from the design of the program right through to evaluating its achievements. We also need to ensure that our aid is accountable to these people, as well as to Australian taxpayers. Only then will we know if it has really succeeded.
The strong bi-partisan commitment to grow Australia’s aid program – and the existence of a movement of Australians dedicated to holding both parties accountable to that commitment – provide the context for a unique opportunity to vastly improve the effectiveness of the aid program. The current review of aid effectiveness gives us a way to seize that opportunity.
This opinion editorial was first published by The Punch on Thursday 24 February 2011.