A few days ago I came across this article, which brought to my attention that the idea of cutting foreign aid to fund the recovery and rebuilding process from the Queensland floods had been raised – something I should have anticipated, but was still saddened and frustrated to hear.
Luckily the article covered the Government’s rejection of this idea, with PM Gillard stating:
I think Australians are a generous nation and we do go to the assistance of other countries for poverty alleviation, kids that are literally at risk of starvation.
It’s a pretty sure thing that this decision was in no way altruistic – most likely driven by a desire to appease foreign neighbours and perhaps with a vision to maintaining and building a certain level of peace and stability in our region – however it raises what is for me a more important question around our attitude towards are role in the world.
The Australian public does not necessarily agree with the idea that we can support both ourselves and our neighbours who are in dire need. Articles reporting on the expected flood levy were quickly met with comments such as:
Heres [sic] a quick solution stop all International aid and change it to Australia Aid the amount of money wasted on overseas aid could help all our Australians in need remember the saying Charity begins at home. [emphasis added]
It’s partly driven by an ignorance around Australia’s international aid contributions. One Australian mother comments:
I have a question though……… Our international aid fund. Why dont we take it out of that??? Or take a little bit out of that???? What is our international fund amount???
At least she is honest enough to admit she doesn’t know how much we contribute to the international fight against poverty in all its forms. She’s not alone. Only 6% of the population have heard of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the global plan to reduce poverty by focusing on eight broad goals in areas such as health, food, environment and education (to which Australia is a signatory). Under this agreement, we have committed to assigning 0.7% of our GDP to international aid. This target was actually set in 1970 (the first time round), so we’re a little behind schedule; now contributing 0.34% of GDP to the global battle. Although figures are hard to come by, that’s almost certainly a whole lot less than most Australians think. Anecdotally I can comment that, while staging conversations in Queen Street Mall in Brisbane in late 2009 around the MDGs, the question of how much aid Australia gives was generally answered with a guess upwards of 10% of GDP. So perhaps it is this ignorance which drives the call to reduce our international aid and let ‘charity begin at home‘?
If that is the case, then although there is a PR question for international aid and development organisations, we can perhaps take comfort in the fact that many Australians are without facts, not without heart, concern or an understanding of the global importance of lifting the billions out of extreme poverty.
Which means that I should not be alone in being disappointed at the lack of coverage of the horrific floods in Brazil (25,000 homeless, 830 dead, 500 still missing) and Sri Lanka (where some of the one million impacted people face their third humanitarian disaster in ten years, and they’re now waiting to see whether the floods have moved landmines into areas previously declared a safe zone). These sheer catastrophes, in countries lacking the infrastructure and capacity to quickly rebuild themselves and avert the health, hunger and other crises that will follow on hotly from this kind of devastation, should provide some perspective.
But what is our national, or even our state, perspective on the ‘ongoing’ disaster that exists across the developing world? 925m people go hungry. 1.4b live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25/day. Where more than 840m adults are illiterate and 75m children don’t attend primary school.
From my perspective, there is no doubt that we (as a country and as individuals) must continue to support the efforts of developing countries to lift the standard of living for their people. If anything, the events of the past few weeks in Queensland and the rapid government response serve to highlight our good fortune to live in a country where the words “flood” and “landmine” are not used in the same sentence; or where the question is how quickly we can get new books to the flood-affected school libraries, not how we can ensure children actually have access to education in the first place.
So as the process of reconstruction and rebuilding begins in earnest, I hope we can still spare a thought (and maybe even a penny) for those across the world who truly have nothing – no support, no opportunities, no safety nets to catch them. May we continue the fight to give them hope.