Speculation that the Labor government will not honour its commitment to increase the foreign aid budget is mounting in the week before Budget day.
While Prime Minister Julia Gillard should be motivated to honour her government’s promise to assist the world’s poor, she would be wise to also be mindful of her own reputation.
As foreign affairs minister Kevin Rudd championed this area, overseeing the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness and committing his government to increase the budget for overseas development assistance to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income by 2015.
As foreign aid had been an after-thought for some previous foreign ministers Rudd’s diligence was widely appreciated by those associated with the aid sector. While some of his detractors linked his interest in delivering more aid programs to his desire to win a seat for Australia on the Security Council, his attention to this aspect of his portfolio continues to be a plus for his reputation.
For the Gillard Government to honour Rudd’s commitment, made coming into the 2007 and 2010 elections, this year’s budget needs to lift Australia’s aid allocation to at least 0.38 per cent of Gross National Income.
With most of the world’s poor living in the Asia Pacific region any reduction in government funded development programs would be a bad look for Australia and for our Prime Minister.
Public support for foreign aid programs has always been strong, and as the rumours intensify about a possible broken promise people are mobilising. Twitter lobbying has taken off under the hash tag #dontcutaid and today more than 100 prominent Australians have signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard calling on her to honour the government’s commitment to increase the aid budget.
The argument that Australia now faces tough economic times will provide no cover for the Prime Minister. The global economic downturn is, as the term suggests, worldwide. Rather than adopt what would amount to a selfish position if we reneged on the promised increase, Prime Minister Gillard could show leadership and stand by Australia’s commitment to work with low income countries to reduce poverty and hardship.
She could draw strength on this issue from recent developments in England. Her Conservative Party counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron, along with the Opposition, just rejected a recommendation from the House of Lords Economics Committee that the government drop its commitment to increase the British aid budget.
Australian aid organisations and their overseas partners have a wealth of solid aid programs that urgently require funding — projects that promote universal access to sexual and reproductive health, vaccinations programs, sustainable agriculture methods and expansion of disaster relief plans. We need an investment in female health workers, safe drinking water initiatives, strategies to combat climate change and lots more.
Certainly constant vigilance is required to ensure that Australian aid programs actually assist communities in low income countries and do not result in environmental damage. Initiatives Rudd set in train that open up Australia’s aid budget to greater transparency are an important step to achieving this.
Australia’s 0.35 per cent of Gross National Income for aid is already below the OECD 0.46 per cent average. This ranks Australia at a miserable 13 out of 23 of the world’s wealthiest nations that give aid.
Backing off should not be an option being considered by the Treasurer and Prime Minister as they fine tune the 2012 budget.
Prime Minister Gillard should continue the good work that Kevin Rudd started. His legacy, in this case, is one well worth honouring.
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