The Little Engine That Could is a wonderful story of a small, and struggling, train engine (enchantingly alive as things so often are in children's stories) pushing the limits of its capacity and endurance to succeed despite its own small size and the odds stacked against it.
This wonderful story of homeless and unemployed people in Victoria pooling together what little they have to help those who are suffering or seeking to help in response to Nepal's recent earthquakes reminds me of that little engine that could. Little to their names, the odds stacked against them in so many ways, and yet they found a way to reach for resources they barely have for themselves in order to help others.
In stark contrast, Australia – one of the world's wealthiest nations with a $1.6 trillion dollar (and growing!) economy and the sixth lowest level of debt in the developed world – last night decided that we are the comfortable nation that couldn't. Or, rather, the comfortable nation that wouldn't.
While Government expenditure continues to grow in other areas and many tax loopholes remain unplugged, the Government is implementing the largest ever cuts to aid in Australia’s history – including a $1 billion cut from the aid budget immediately, and a total of $3.7 billion being stripped from aid over the next three years.
The cuts to the aid budget mean that Australia’s aid levels will now fall to 0.22% of national income by next year. This amounts to less than 1% of Federal Government expenditure dedicated to supporting our poorest neighbours and helping address global challenges. Aid to Bangladesh will be cut this year by $28 million (40%) which will severely affect programs that are helping the poorest girls and boys access primary education and supporting the poorest and most vulnerable families with income support and livestock. Aid to Vietnam will be cut by $39 million (40%), which will have huge impacts on programs to increase access to clean water and sanitation, support communities to adapt to climate change and which help build the infrastructure needed for economic growth.
Aid to Sub-Saharan Africa, where the world’s absolute poorest people live, was cut by 70%. Three years ago, Australian aid to Sub-Saharan Africa was over $240 million. Today our aid to that entire region will be only $31.8 million.
Disasters like the Nepal earthquakes and Cyclone Pam, epidemics such as Ebola or Tuberculosis, and the challenges the world faces in generating inclusive economic growth and responding to climate change all remind us how interconnected our world is. Yet Australia's responses to these challenges and this interconnectedness is not only ungenerous and shameful, but counterproductive. Australian aid helps provide hope and opportunity for many in ways that are also in our own interests.
There is no basis for these decisions in need. Roughly one in every three people who live in Sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished and almost half the population live below the international abject poverty line.
These decisions cannot be justified based on aid effectiveness either. Australia’s aid programs in Africa have been extremely effective in supporting agricultural development, providing clean water and sanitation, and responding to emergencies. In fact, despite the Government's stated commitment to improving performance in the aid program,there appears to be no link between the cuts and the effectiveness or quality of our aid to different countries. While countries in the Pacific were largely spared any cuts, countries in Asia – including countries with enormous levels of poverty and challenges facing them, such as Bangladesh, Laos or Indonesia – all saw their aid cut by 40%. Only Cambodia and Nepal escaped drastic cuts – largely because Cambodia has agreed to help Australia process humans and because Nepal has just suffered its most devastating earthquake in over 80 years.
The biblical call to leaders is clear: they are to prioritise justice, mercy and protection of the poor and vulnerable. But when they do not, the call to Christians is equally clear. We must join together and raise our voice.
Our collaborative Campaign For Australian Aid (in partnership with Make Poverty History) is aimed at building up long-term support for Australian Aid, by shifting the narrative and encouraging politicians to see generous support for the world's most promising people as fundamental to our identity. It's not what we do until our leaders declare a (swiftly forgotten) budget emergency. Australian aid is what we do because it is who we are. Please lend your voice to the campaign.
Ben Thurley is the National Coordinator of Micah Australia.