• Who pays when aid is cut?

    Posted by Ben

    10 October, 2013

    The new Government faces some tough choices on aid. The first choice is which of the Prime Minister’s statements to be true to.

    Will they be true to his claim that the Government will not cut aid, but merely “reduce the rate of increase”? 

    This would mean maintaining aid at $5.6 billion for 2013-14 and ensuring that all current aid programs are fully funded.

    Or will they proceed with $4.5 billion of cuts over four years, including a $656 million cut this year from money already budgeted or committed (as outlined in the Coalition’s final pre-election costings document)? 

    This would cut Australia’s overseas aid budget by 11% this year (the largest ever cut to aid) and be the first cut in aid since Prime Minister John Howard signed on to the Millennium Declaration and committed Australia to “spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty.”

    Obviously the first option is the only reasonable course of action for a Prime Minister who wants to be seen as a man of his word, who promised “no surprises” before the election, and who has restated the Coalition’s commitment to increase aid towards 0.5% of Gross National Income. 

    However, if the Government proceeds with this year’s cut of $656 million – which is, did I mention, the largest ever cut to Australia’s aid budget – the consequences of that choice are not borne by the Government or the people of Australia. They are borne by the poorest people in some of the poorest countries in the world.

    Today, we are launching a campaign focusing on just a handful of the thousands of effective aid programs that Australia supports. We acknowledge that not all aid is equally effective in reducing poverty and that aid is not the only way that Australia contributes to a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. However, a cut of this size will have real consequences for real people.

    Our campaign will ask who will pay the price for Prime Minister Abbott’s aid cuts. Because, one thing we know for sure is that if 11% of the aid budget is gouged out in one go, someone has to pay.

    For example, will the women and children of Bangladesh be the ones to pay for our Government's aid cuts?

    AusAID has, for a number of years, worked in partnership with the UNICEF, the Government of Bangladesh and BRAC (the world’s largest NGO) to improve maternal health services in the poorest and hardest to reach communities. You can read the full details of the program here, and a powerful and moving reflection on its impacts from AusAID’s Assistant Director-General, Jenny Da Rin, here. 

    The outcomes are startling. And wonderful. In one year, Australian aid helped vaccinate almost half a million children, provided more than 125,000 women with access to skilled support during pregnancy and childbirth and reduced the maternal mortality rate in the four targeted districts twice as fast as the national average rate of reduction.

    I’m not surprised. In 2005, I was able to visit a similar program (not supported by AusAID) run by a different Bangladeshi NGO that was training traditional birth attendants (local women who volunteer to assist poor women with childbirth at home). The program was transforming cultural beliefs, increasing the skill of local women and saving the lives of mothers and babies.

    The traditional birth attendants were trained to challenge the local belief that pregnant women should have a smaller and more limited diet in order to avoid having a large baby, which (they believed) could lead to a harder and more painful delivery. Of course, we know that this is precisely the wrong advice to give pregnant women and in fact a less nutritious diet is more likely to lead to complications in pregnancy, but in a place where pregnancy is already fraught and a delivery at home with no medical resources is downright dangerous, it makes a kind of intuitive sense.

    The program also provided the women with very low-cost equipment and proper training in how to use it. Disposable rubber gloves, surgical blades, bandages and gauze, small bottles of spirits to sterilise blades, and the like.

    These women were also being given basic, relevant medical training. While not qualified nurses, they were proud of their increased medical knowledge and skill. They know the times and types of all vaccinations a child will require. They could recognise the signs of preeclampsia and other conditions in pregnancy and they know which conditions they can provide assistance with and which ones they must refer to the local health post.

    All of which resulted in a dramatic reduction in maternal and infant mortality rates in the areas in which the program was operating.

    These local stories of aid success all scale up. Through support for similar well-targeted interventions and Government policy focusing on improving basic health services, Bangladesh has reduced maternal mortality by over 40%, despite limited economic growth and political instability. 

    This is a contribution that all Australians can be immensely proud of. 

    And inflicting the largest ever cut to aid can only diminish that contribution.

    You can find out more about our campaign, and the other people who could be asked to pay the price for our aid cuts here. Please joining us in calling on our elected representatives to ditch the cut and to support a generous and effective aid program that saves and improves lives.


    Ben Thurley is Micah Challenge's Political Coordinator.