Why aid should keep growing

Foreign aid, Opinion article written on the 06 Aug 2013

IT’S week one of the formal election campaign, and all parties are in full swing outlining why they deserve our vote.

The amount of money Australia gives in overseas aid won’t be a defining issue of this election. Indeed, on Friday, the Federal Government yet again treated the aid budget like an ATM, announcing it would strip foreign aid to pay for its refugee deal with Papua New Guinea.

But by the time it takes to finish reading this article, 65 children living in poverty will have died from easily preventable diseases.

Australia’s spending on foreign aid is roughly equal to just one cup of coffee a week for every Australian.

This Thursday in Adelaide, South Australian Senators from all parties, including Simon Birmingham, Anne McEwen, Nick Xenophon and Sarah Hanson-Young, will take part in one of 50 debates around the country on whether Australia is doing enough to tackle global poverty.

The reason the aid budget needs to be protected from cuts, and should continue to grow, is because aid works. Furthermore, it’s in our national interest.

Through targeted and effective aid, our generation has halved extreme poverty.

Aid has helped to eradicate polio in the Pacific and decreased the number of mothers dying during childbirth by 40 per cent.

From Australia’s perspective, our nation’s political leaders have overseen an increase in our overseas aid program, which has improved the lives of millions of people.

For example, since 2009, Australia has helped 600,000 people access safe drinking water and 400,000 people access basic sanitation in Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In Afghanistan, Australian aid has helped to increase the number of girls enrolled in school from just 5000 in 2000 to over two million today.

Since 2003, Australia has helped reduce malaria cases by 80 per cent in Vanuatu, and by more than half in the Solomon Islands. This is something of which we as a country can be proud.

Effective aid is that which helps people take control of their own lives, become self-reliant and create positive, lasting change.

But we still face daunting challenges. The majority of the world’s 870 million hungry people are involved in food production, and many of them are women. They know what local solutions are needed to tackle hunger, but they need more support to do it.

Oxfam has heard countless stories of women in countries like Indonesia. They are successfully growing food throughout the vast nation, but with a little investment could do so much more.

For example, Maria, 33, grows coconuts, cashews, bananas and sweet potato. “I also have 30 chickens. The problem is they die easily.”

Maria needs support to be more successful in her farming. She explains she needs “vaccines for my chickens (but also) tools to grind (my corn) which I would then fry and sell as a local food snack”.

Given that small-scale farmers like Maria feed their communities and collectively feed billions of people globally, simple investments pay huge dividends in the fight to reduce global hunger.

Properly targeted aid can also help prevent conflict and make countries more prosperous and stable. For example, Australian aid has greatly contributed to peace and stability in Timor-Leste by supporting governance and security sector reforms.

More safe and stable countries make better trading partners for Australia and are also more likely to protect their citizens from the kinds of abuses that force people to flee their homes.

In the 2010 election the policies of both major parties contained a bipartisan commitment to lift Australia’s investment in overseas aid to 0.5 per cent of national income, or 50c out of every $100 of income, by 2015-16.

Disappointingly, in the last two federal Budgets, we have seen Labor delay reaching this goal. Labor now promises overseas aid spending will reach the 0.5 target in 2017-18, two years later than initially promised.

The Coalition has said it remains committed to achieving 0.5 per cent, but has not said by when. The Greens remain committed to reaching the internationally agreed target of 0.7 per cent.

Charity may start at home but it shouldn’t stop at the front gate. We help our neighbours, and they help us. During the Queensland floods, people from Kenya to Pakistan donated to survivors and victims of the floods. Australians do the same.

According to the World Giving Index, Australians, as individuals, are the most generous people on the planet.

Our Government needs to continue to match this generosity, as a crucial investment in the stability and future of our region, which can only be good for us all.

Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia

Dr Helen Szoke is the chief executive of Oxfam Australia and the co-chair of Make Poverty History. She will be speaking at a political forum on Australia’s efforts to fight extreme poverty at The Meeting Hall, Adelaide Town Hall, on Thursday at 6pm.

This opinion editorial first appeared in The Adelaide Advertiser on 6 August 2013.