Maintaining foreign aid a ‘moral obligation’, NGOs say ahead of cuts
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Aid organisations are calling on the Abbott Government to “stick to its moral obligation” to maintain foreign aid, which has seen more than $11 billion in cuts since the Coalition came to office.
Treasurer Joe Hockey cut $7.9 billion over four years in his first budget last year, followed by a further $3.7 billion in December’s mid-year budget review.
Researchers have said the cuts mark both the largest ever multi-year aid cuts and largest ever single year cuts, while Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures find that 2016 will see the Australian government’s foreign aid spending drop to its lowest levels since records began in 1960.
Thulsi Narayansamy, director of AID/WATCH, Australia’s independent watchdog on foreign aid, told SBS that Australia had an inherent responsibility to have an aid budget.
‘There needs to be an understanding between the poverty that people experience in other countries and our relative wealth’
“We have a moral imperative to support people who are living in disadvantage in other countries,” she said.
“In many ways, the system that we live in that perpetuates poverty is something that we benefit from… I think there needs to be an understanding between the poverty that people experience in other countries and our relative wealth.”
Ms Narayansamy said although wider cuts were expected, they shouldn’t impact on areas prioritised by Australia’s domestic policies, meaning Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Cambodia weren’t likely to see cuts.
Other countries and organisations aren’t expected to be as lucky, with Fairfax Media reporting that ambassadors from African countries including Botswana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Angola and Ethiopia implored the government to maintain funding during a March meeting.
Meanwhile, groups working in growing need areas such as climate aid and disaster prevention are also expecting cuts.
Ms Narayansamy said the budget needed to be maintained and should involve shifting funding from areas such as aid for trade and private sector enticements to infrastructure, health and education.
“The one trend that we’ve seen since the Coalition stepped into government is there’s an overwhelming sense of unease, because there isn’t a continuation of policy priorities,” she said.
“Things are changing rapidly with very little accountability or transparency, which makes things very difficult.”
‘Things are changing rapidly with very little accountability or transparency’
Ms Narayansamy also criticised politicians such as Jacqui Lambie, labelling her calls for further cuts “disappointing”.
The Independent Senator caused controversy with her comments about aid, including a call to redirect aid from Indonesia to Nepal in the wake of the Bali Nine executions.
“I make no apology for putting poor Tasmanians and Australians first, before any other country’s people,” she said.
“Charity begins at home.”
Senator Lambie has called for “the truth” about the size of the foreign aid budget, which Care Australia has described as “sliding to unprecedented low levels”.
Head of Care Australia Julia Newton-Howes told SBS said a further $1 billion would be cut from the foreign aid budget in the coming year, representing one sixth of its former total.
‘We are going from being a relatively generous donor among developed countries to being one of the least’
“Although [$5 billion] sounds like a lot of money, and clearly it is a lot of money, it’s around one per cent of federal government expenditure,” she said.
“I don’t think ever the Australian aid budget has received such a massive cut. We are going from being a relatively generous donor among developed countries to being one of the least.”
Dr Newton-Howes said while the exact cuts are not yet known, her own agency was looking at having to cut funding to programs such as those targeting maternal health in Papua New Guinea.
She said the program helped address the mortality rates among expecting mothers, which, at 250 per 100,000 mothers, is around 50 times the rate among Australian women.
“These areas have some of the highest maternal fatality rates in the world,” she said.
“That’s the sort of program we’re really concerned we may not be able to continue.”
Dr Newton-Howes said the government had to not only address its revenue issues, but examine the funding allocated to programs which have no proof of successful outcomes.
‘These aid budget cuts are unfair because they hit the poorest people the hardest’
“Some of the aid cuts have been made to increase spending to ASIO on surveillance,” she said.
“It would be good to have an evidence-based discussion on the likely impact of that sort of expenditure.”
The Australian Council for International Development has also criticised the cuts, which Executive director Marc Purcell described as “ungenerous, unfair and unthinking”.
“These aid budget cuts are unfair because they hit the poorest people the hardest,” he said.
Dr Purcell’s comment reflect sentiments reported by the most recent Lowy Institute poll, which found that 75 per cent of Australians believed that helping reduce poverty in poor countries was the most important objective of Australia’s foreign aid program.
Foreign Aid funding (as a percentage of gross national income)
1. Sweden – 1.1 per cent2. Luxembourg – 1.07 per cent3. Norway – 0.99 per cent4. Denmark – 0.85 per cent5. UK – 0.7 per cent14. Australia – 0.27 per cent (will fall to 0.22 per cent)