Foreign aid cuts are counter to Australian generosity

It's really disappointing to hear that the Abbott Government is considering making further cuts to Australia's aid budget after already slashing $7.6 billion from it in the May budget. The government's approach is especially galling when there's clear evidence Australians support foreign aid and want to see us do our bit in the region.

Foreign aid cuts are counter to Australian generosity, Canberra Times, 8 October

In the beachside town of Tibar, in Timor-Leste’s Liquiçá District, there is a little community school where local children come each day to learn reading and writing. For a long time, the school’s staff taught only from a couple of outdated textbooks, while the children ground stubs of chalk down to nothing writing on battered slates.

That changed in 2010 when an Australian Government aid program began providing Tibar’s school with brand new textbooks, reading tools and learning materials. For the first time, the school could offer its students an education that fed and inspired their young minds.

The Australian Government’s aid program has supported hundreds of schools like the one in Tibar across Timor-Leste and around our region. Australian aid has also helped countries like Samoa and Kiribati build up their road, electricity and telecommunications infrastructure, and given mothers and babies access to real medical care in places like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Australians are rightly proud and supportive of aid spending that has done so much to help communities less fortunate than ours.

Recently, the Australian National University released findings from its ANUpoll on attitudes towards foreign policy. The poll found that three in four participants approved of providing aid to poorer countries around the world. Three in four further backed allocating aid on the basis of humanitarian need rather than commercial or political interest.

Canberrans are also prepared to put our own money behind international development, with one in three amongst us making regular donations to foreign aid organisations.

That’s why the Abbott Government’s approach to foreign aid is so galling: it displays none of the generosity of spirit shown by normal Canberrans.

Under Labor, Australia’s foreign aid rose from 0.29 percent of national income to 0.34 percent – the highest level in almost a quarter of a century. As a share of our national income, this put us slightly above the developed-country average. But in terms of the dollars we give, Australia was on track to become one of the world’s top-ten donor nations. At a time when many countries in Europe struggled with double-digit unemployment and debt loads that exceeded their annual incomes, Australia’s generosity was particularly welcomed by those in need, as well as by leading philanthropists such as Bill Gates.

That all changed with the May budget when the government cut $7.6 billion from Australian aid spending – the largest single cut in the entire federal budget. That violated the Coalition’s promise before the 2013 election to increase investment in foreign aid in parallel with the Consumer Price Index.

The Abbott Government achieved a big chunk of that cut by freezing a planned increase in aid spending for the next few years. Now we hear that the government is thinking about extending that freeze for another two years because it can’t get its other unfair budget cuts through the Senate.

That would mean Australia’s aid spending would only start growing again in 2018-19 — fully four years from now. In the meantime, what will happen to important initiatives like those supporting schools in Timor-Leste?

Aid programs take time to develop scale and efficiency; they can’t simply be turned on and off like a tap. By cutting funding for the next four years, the Coalition will do long term damage to the effectiveness of our aid delivery in the region and beyond.       

Balancing a budget is all about priorities. By making such huge cuts to aid spending, the Abbott Government is saying that poor and disadvantaged people in our region don’t matter. That we can’t share some of our prosperity to help other communities achieve their potential.

Australian generosity is bigger and better than that. The ANU’s research and our own private giving prove it. We deserve a government which reflects that bigheartedness out in the world too.   

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