9 May, 2012
So, let's get the headline out of the way. The Government broke its promise. It will not increase aid to 0.5% of Gross National Income by 2015. Instead, it has decided to defer that commitment by one year.
The Government will not increase aid to 0.38% of Gross National Income in the coming year as previously indicated. Instead, a much smaller increase of around $300 million will see aid remain static at 0.35% GNI.
In order to save $2.9 billion over four years, the Government has chosen to break a promise it made to the Australian public and to the world's poor. Our aid will continue to do good (and more on this below), but we will be saving fewer lives, helping fewer children receive basic education, helping fewer communities recover from disaster, than we had committed to.
The child who can't attend school today will just have to wait another year. The community that is afflicted by hunger today will just have to wait. The woman who goes through the trials of pregnancy and childbirth without skilled assistance today, well – you know – she can wait because Australia needs a surplus.
The good news about this bad news, though, is that it could have – in fact would have – been much worse had it not been for thousands of Australians raising their voices in support of the 0.5% commitment. At last night's budget lock-up in Canberra, we were quietly informed by AusAID officials that until only last week, the aid budget was facing much more dramatic cuts. So, in an environment where deep cuts were being made elsewhere in Government spending, where a new Minister had only just taken on the portfolio, we can celebrate the fact that the government only went off-track by one year and $2.9 billion dollars.
Below the headline, and beyond the good news that all the campaigning and political action of the last few months has paid off, there is some good news about the budget and the aid program to share.
There have been significant steps to improve the aid program's transparency and accountability. At the same time as releasing the budget, the Government launched its new Comprehensive Aid Policy Framework. This four-year framework sets headline targets for what Australian aid is intending to achieve, and performance indicators for how this can be done strategically, cost-effectively, and accountably.
If the targets are realised, Australian aid will help to vaccinate more than 10 million children by 2015. It will help more than 8.5 million people access safe water and more than 5 million people access basic sanitation. Australian aid will help 4 million more children enrol in school, and it will provide humanitarian assistance in conflict or crisis situations to 30 million people. Just writing this is giving me shivers – and that's not just the Canberra chill.
The Government has also established an Independent Evaluation Committee to hold the aid program more accountable.
There is some good news, too, in the specific policy areas we have been calling for action on. The Government has increased spending on water, sanitation and hygiene to $164 million in 2012-13, with a commitment to spend $1 billion between now and 2015. This falls short of the $500 million annually we are calling for, but it is a very substantial investment in an area that could save more lives than any other health intervention.
A related piece of good news that was overshadowed by the budget campaign is that Australia has signed on to the international Sanitation and Water for All Partnership. Although we have not yet committed any new funding through this increasingly significant and effective global partnership, Australia now sits at the table with developed and developing countries as they seek to develop, fund and implement strategies to provide safe drinking water to the 780 million people who still live without, and decent sanitation to the 2.5 billion people who don't have it.
By the way, if you haven't already signed up to our campaign to Give Poverty The Flush, now would be a great time to do so.
So, we acknowledge these good things, and the life-giving outcomes that Australian aid will contribute to despite the Government's broken promise. We hope that the Opposition will do better when Tony Abbott makes his budget reply speech tomorrow night. It's his chance to stand behind his own words, and keep the promise to increase aid to 0.5% GNI by 2015 if the Coalition forms Government.
In a world of plenty, it is unacceptable that so many men, women and children made in the image of God continue to live in conditions of abject and dehumanising poverty. Australian aid is not the only solution to poverty, but it is a critical part of the Australian Government acting globally to "defend the rights of the poor and needy".
Ben Thurley is the Political Engagement Coordinator for Micah Challenge Australia. Ben previously worked with TEAR Australia and has just spent three years in Nepal volunteering as an advocacy advisor to a local Nepali organisation.