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Tim Costello: Abandoning generosity in Overseas Development Assistance

Yet we are set to see our aid commitment as a percentage of national income drop to a record low level. Already since 2012 it has slumped from 0.36% of national income to 0.23%. This relegates us to the lower half of OECD countries in terms of generosity despite being near the top for economic capacity. In fact we were roughly three times as generous in the 1960s, even though today we are roughly three times as wealthy. 

Last week Fairfax reported that Australia’s aid program had declined to its lowest level for eight years, with the prospect of continued tightening through to at least 2020.

The federal government’s slashing of the aid program has been premised on its need to address the budget deficit.

But while development assistance represents only a tiny proportion of overall government spending, it has been singled out for massive reductions – even as the government commits to new spending in other areas, and has failed to take any serious revenue measures.

Cutting aid is bad news for our neighbours, bad for our region and bad for Australia. But unfortunately aid is a politically easy target in a time of short-sighted quick-fix politics, confused leadership and a growing insularity.

Cutting aid is politically attractive because the people who need it most don’t have a vote, and because Australians don’t recognise the value and importance of the aid program to this country’s own prosperity and security.

Aid is frequently misrepresented either as charity or as waste. Only rarely is it presented by politicians as a purposeful and successful program of which Australians can and should be proud.

In reality Australian aid has made, and continues to make, some impressive contributions to health and education, to economic development and infrastructure, to water and sanitation, and to promoting peace, stability and human rights, including the rights of women and girls, especially in our own region.

It is obvious that healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous neighbours benefits Australia as well as our partners. Yet political expediency allows our aid program to be shrunk and degraded.

If it is hard to get cut-through in Australian media and politics for development arguments, there is at least some space for humanitarian needs. Australians are often caring and generous when disasters strike, yet even here there is plenty of scope for our government to step up and show greater leadership.

Support for a stronger and more consistent Australian commitment in both humanitarian and development spheres is not confined to aid agencies.  I often hear the same sentiment from with foreign policy and national security circles, people who would see themselves as realist hard heads rather than bleeding hearts.

We live in a time when security concerns of all kinds tend to trump concerns about humanitarian needs and human development. Indeed feelings of insecurity lie at the heart of the myriad crises of confidence currently sweeping democratic political systems everywhere.

After the year of Brexit and Trump, 2017 seems likely to provide new shocks as populist politicians exploit an atmosphere of insecurity, uncertainty and discontent. Elections in Germany may prove a harsh test for Angela Merkel’s liberal policies, while the French presidential contest is overshadowed by the figure of Marine Le Pen, who recently described herself as “the Anti-Merkel”.

People are not just feeling insecure because of terrorism or the prospect of inflamed international tensions with the rise of China and a resurgence of Russian assertiveness. There is also the complex challenge of mass migration and all the related issues of cultural identity and social cohesion.

And above all, it is economic insecurity that bites hardest.  Not only have millions of traditional jobs been lost in developed economies, but there is a wider sense that economic opportunity has narrowed.

Even people who still have well-paid jobs worry about being displaced by technology, by globalisation, by disruptive business models and by a culture of contract and casualisation.

The sense of economic fragility is heightened by regional disparities within countries, by generational inequity and by a steady growth of inequality.  Together these factors mean that many people feel less confident or affluent, and we are seeing the unfamiliar phenomenon of a rising generation who expect to be less well off than their parents..

Economically and politically, Australia has a much milder case of these ailments than most other rich countries.  Yet there is no denying the genuine feeling of doubt and disenfranchisement that permeates our community.

This makes it difficult to highlight Australia’s comparatively strong and prosperous position.. Yet compared to most countries, and indeed compared to Australia’s own past, our current situation is outstanding.

There are many different ways to measure national wealth but Australia stacks up well by any of them. On per capita income the countries ahead of us are mostly tiny ones like Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, not really comparable.

The UN’s Human Development Index, based on a basket of social as well as economic indicators, places Australia second in the world behind only Norway.  Even adjusted for our greater inequality, the Index still puts us fourth in the world.

Yet we are set to see our aid commitment as a percentage of national income drop to a record low level.  Already since 2012 it has slumped from 0.36% of national income to 0.23%. This relegates us to the lower half of OECD countries in terms of generosity despite being near the top for economic capacity.

In fact we were roughly three times as generous in the 1960s, even though today we are roughly three times as wealthy.

I feel perplexed and disappointed that as a nation we have let ourselves become the prisoners of pessimism.  We need to focus less on our limitations and much more on the positive and constructive contribution we can make.

2017 is not an easy time to be advancing the ideas of rational optimism and pragmatic idealism, but we absolutely need to be starting conversations about where human security really lies, and about how we effectively marshal our talents and resources to promote it.

We are not helpless in the face of challenges, and the choice to slash Australian aid is just that – a choice.

Australians still retain a powerful reserve of resilience, positivity and a willingness to do hard yards for the sake of high achievement. You can see this spirit at work every day, in everything from farming to fashion, science to sport.

I would love to see an Australia that shows just as much pride and determination in the excellence and effectiveness of a world-class aid effort.

Tim Costello is Chief Advocate for World Vision. 

First appeared on John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations.

This campaign is backed by Australia's aid & development groups

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