As a Grassroots Coordinator with RESULTS International Australia it is my job to equip everyday people for an enormous task: ending extreme poverty.
Our volunteers don’t do this by building schools or injecting vaccines in far-flung countries; instead we empower people to build effective, meaningful relationships with their local member of parliament.
Our government decides how our foreign aid is dispersed. But they work for us — their constituents who may have never been to a developing country, but nonetheless have their fate bound up with that of the 1.2 billion people around the world living in extreme poverty.
The recent federal election showed that this desire is not a priority of our leaders. Those who work and volunteer in the aid and development sectors were heartbroken at the Coalition’s announcement last Thursday that $4.5 billion would be slashed from the aid budget, to make room for more spending on roads and bridges in Australia. This despite huge public advocacy efforts, including 80,000 people signing on to the Movement to End Poverty, and 3000 people spelling out “Halve Global Poverty – 2015” in the sand on Tony Abbott’s local beach, to name but a few.
This cut is the latest in a string of disappointments for our foreign aid program. A bipartisan policy of spending 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) in aid by 2015-16 was delayed by the Gillard and Rudd Labor governments. In December 2012, life saving funds from the aid budget were diverted towards paying for the Gillard government’s detention of asylum seekers to the tune of $375 million per year.
Australia first endorsed spending 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid in 1970. Forty-three years later, and despite being in arguably the most prosperous position of our history, we have reached just 0.37 per cent GNI in aid spending. With these cuts, we will drop back to less than half of the 0.7 per cent target. We are slowing down when we should be speeding up.
The election saw a focus on the rising cost of living, but not the cost of inaction on poverty. As Australians we will all benefit from a world without extreme poverty, and that goal is within our reach. Progress has been made — since 1990 the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day has halved.
It would be folly to think that diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria will never be a serious concern in Australia, given that one third of the world’s population is infected with latent TB, and 1.3 billion people are at risk of malaria in South East Asia — the same region that includes all those holidaying hotpots we Aussies love to travel to.
A poverty-free world can only have positive effects on peace and security. The stability of knowing where your next meal is coming from, that you are protected from preventable diseases, and that you have an education giving you opportunities for meaningful work goes a long way towards promoting a peaceful society.
It also seems misguided to redirect the small amount of aid we do give to domestic projects. Surely our economy would benefit from the economies of our closest neighbours being strengthened? Building Papua New Guinea and East Timor into strong trading partners would surely only do good things for the Australian economy.
I often wonder what it would do for our national character and sense of identity if we were to play a leading role in ending extreme poverty. If compassion and a keen sense of justice drove policy instead of the pursuit of economic growth at all costs. Ending extreme poverty is not a matter of duty, obligation or even charity, but of humanity.
Three weeks ago, a life-saving vaccine that protects kids from five diseases at once was launched in Indonesia, partly funded by Australia’s contribution to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation. Australians can feel pride that their tax dollars contributed to this effort — these achievements must be known and celebrated more widely.
RESULTS and similar organisations are not about to give up on our lifesaving aid program. We are non-partisan, and we welcome the opportunity to work with the newly elected government to consign extreme poverty to the history books. We will inspire our leaders to make and fulfil a firm commitment to the world’s poor, and ultimately to ourselves. We must. For if not us, who? And if not now, when? We have never had a better opportunity.
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