Coalition Cuts To Aid Will Limit Disaster Relief


In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, aid experts are warning that federal budget cuts may limit Australia’s capacity to provide emergency responses to future disasters in the region and undo some of our most important long term development work.

The Coalition has committed to a four-year spending reduction plan, which will cut $656 million from aid in the current financial year. Sources in the NGO sector who spoke to New Matilda this week are concerned that because much of Australia’s aid budget for the current financial year is already committed, the cuts will fall on the $238.4 million “Humanitarian and Emergency Response Budget”.

These are the funds put aside for rapid responses to humanitarian disasters that occur across the budgeted period. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed that the money being provided to the Typhoon Haiyan response has so far been drawn from this pool.

Robin Davies, the Associate Director of ANU’s Development Policy Centre, said that the emergency response pool would be a likely target for savings. Though praising the “generous” Haiyan response, Davies cautioned that a reduction to the overall size of the emergency response fund could detract from Australia’s capacity to respond to lower profile emergencies.

“We’ve got a lot of storm activity coming up over the Christmas period and we’ve got seven or eight months of the financial year to run. So there’s likely to be considerable pressure on these funds,” Davies said.

Aid agencies are skittish as they try to negotiate for a chunk of the smaller Coalition budget for aid. Multiple organisations approached for comment declined, citing fears of putting the new government offside.

However, one source at a major aid orientated NGO told New Matilda that DFAT would come under increasing pressure when responding to such disasters in the future.

New Matilda’s source said that with much of Australia’s aid spending locked in to legally binding agreements, the emergency response pool was one of the few flexible parts of the aid budget. It would likely have to bear at least part of the 11.5 per cent aid budget cut.

A DFAT spokesman gave no indication of the department's priorities, telling NM that “the government is currently considering strategic, budget and funding priorities for the foreign aid program, including the Humanitarian and Emergency Response Budget” and that details would be made public “in due course”.

Typhoon Haiyan has been the first test of the Coalition's approach to aid. The new government promised to significantly downsize Australia’s aid budget by $4.5 billion over four years, which drew strong criticism, and has absorbed AusAID into DFAT.

Initially pledging just $400,000 in assistance to the Philippines, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced on Monday that the government would be increasing its total commitment to $10 million.

The Coalition has also continued Labor’s policy of using aid to placate the Papua New Guinean government, in return for the nation’s commitment to taking Australia-bound asylum seekers. Another significant section of the aid budget appears to be locked up.

If the government does decide to maintain the Humanitarian and Emergency Response Budget and continue to provide generously to major calls for disaster relief, it will be forced to raid its other aid programs for funds, including preventative programs aimed at preparing at-risk nations to deal with future disasters.

RMIT University’s Dr Martin Mulligan, who conducted a four-year investigation into Australia’s response to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, said that the broad cuts would likely affect such programs. “Part of this will be, for example, to education campaigns and warning systems in places like the Philippines,” he said.

Australia’s long term aid to the Philippines already pays for these projects. One such program, expected to be completed in 2014, provided training and infrastructure to help public health leaders in the Philippines detect the outbreak and spread of disease in a post-disaster environment.

Another, the somewhat drearily named "Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation Integration Project", aims to provide education about the potential aggregation of natural hazards that climate change will provoke and allow local communities to better manage disaster risks as a result.

Given that the Typhoon Haiyan has inspired the Philippines’ lead negotiator at the Warsaw climate summit to plead with developed nations to take stronger action on climate change, such schemes now look particularly prescient.

But with Julie Bishop’s pre-election warning shot that “climate change funding should not be disguised as foreign aid funding”, it looks like exactly the kind of program that the current government will be only too happy to rid itself of.

Perhaps, after the tumultuous events of the last week, the Abbott government will make a special case of the Philippines, but the crisis is a reminder that even in situations where Australia is able to provide short term emergency aid, the reduction of the overall aid budget will have deep impacts on the long term development prospects and disaster response capabilities of our poorest and most vulnerable neighbours.

The ANU's Robin Davies says it will also undermine the long term fight against poverty and disadvantage that Australian aid has pitched: “It’s likely to reduce Australia’s support for the lower profile, slow burn humanitarian crises around the world."

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.