• A date with Rudd, AusAid and passionate advocates

    Posted by Simon

    11 May, 2011

    Yesterday, on a cool winter's evening at AusAid headquarters in Canberra, Gershon, Eliza and I had the good fortune of attending the foreign aid budget briefing. As we walked into a large room, full of people; there was a feeling of anticipation. How would Swan's ‘tough' budget affect the world's poorest and most vulnerable people?

    The foreign aid briefing began almost right on time with The Hon Kevin Rudd providing the opening statement. With his usual air of confidence, Mr. Rudd explained that the Australian Government was still completely committed to raising Australia's foreign aid program to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2015-16. Mr Rudd went on to say that the foreign aid program had been effectively ‘quarantined' to ensure it reached this target. In a challenging and uncertain economic climate, we applaud the Federal Government's actions, which highlight the effective advocacy over a number of years by groups including Micah Challenge. However, this 0.5 per cent commitment is still well short of the internationally agreed aid target of 0.7 per cent.

    In a very direct way, Mr Rudd went on to acknowledge that our response to the aid budget should not be one of 'triumphalism'. Rather, he reminded us that Australia is still ranked 14th of 23 OECD countries in terms of the proportion that we devote to foreign aid. We all have a responsibility to continue the momentum in support of Australia's foreign aid program; it may be a tough road ahead.

    Mr Rudd was followed by Mr Peter Baxter, Director-General of AusAid, who provided more details on the foreign aid program. Some key areas to highlight:

    Health spending
    It turns out that last year the Government spent about 80 million dollars above what had been originally budgeted for health ($634 million instead of $555 million). This is good news for mothers and children under five! Micah Challenge has been calling on the Government to increase the priority to health in the aid budget, and this spending certainly reflects this.

    However it is clear that there is still work to be done. In dollar terms the amount spent on health is budgeted to go up by a further $8 million against this year's budget. But, in percentage terms, this represents only about 13% of overall aid spending, and is actually a reduction of about 1% from last year's figures.

    While it is likely that these numbers could improve— there is currently a reasonable pool of unallocated funds in the aid budget that may be allocated to global health conferences/aid meetings throughout the year—the number will still fall far short of the 20 per cent target that Micah Challenge has been calling for, and is certainly not set to reach this amount by the MDG end date of 2015/2016.

    MDG7
    Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) which had previously been classified as infrastructure spending will now, appropriately, be moved into the health portfolio. This will better reflect the fact that WaSH spending is one of the most significant and beneficial forms of public health expenditure available. A number of previously funded WaSH programs will be winding up by the middle of this year, which will result in a temporary reduction in WaSH spending. WaSH spending is expected to fall next year from $173 million to $117 million. After this point however, spending is expected to increase significantly, rising to $271 million by 2013/2014. While it is unfortunate to see this temporary reduction in WaSH spending, the overall trajectory is promising.

    Micah Challenge has been calling on the Australian Government to increase total WaSH spending to $500 million by 2015/2016. While on current trends we will fall short, the new commitments announced by the Government will get us much closer than we have been previously. Some more promising news for the poor there.

    At the conclusion of the briefing, we all trekked over to ACFID headquarters to prepare our response to constituents and the public at large. All of agencies represented were supportive of the increases and the continued commitment of the Australian Government to the 0.5 per cent aid target. The mood was one of relief and appreciation for the increased value placed on people who live in poverty. Micah challenge is today asking supporter to email the Government thanking them for increasing the aid budget. You can click here to take part in this action.

    However, over the past twelve hours articles in mainstream tabloids and comments from leaders in the Opposition have expressed criticism towards the rise of Australia's foreign aid program. As we all know, Australian aid saves lives and contributes in very real and concrete ways to development opportunities that children and families around the world would not otherwise have. As advocates, we must remain firm and work our hardest to garner increased public and political support for Australia's foreign aid program. I for one will be watching the Opposition's budget reply closely tomorrow. Let's hope that these comments don't translate to a backing away of the bipartisan commitment to 0.5%.

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    Simon Massey works in Child Advocacy Relations for Compassion Australia and also serves on the Micah Challenge Campaign Strategy Group.