• Why The 0.5% Commitment Matters

    Posted by Ben

    19 April, 2012

    "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21).

    As many have noted, budgets are moral documents. To be sure they are political documents, and represent the outcome of a drawn-out, and sometimes bitter, process of contest and compromise. But they also reflect deep-rooted convictions and beliefs about what is necessary, what is good, what is worthy of investment. The budget is the Government's commitment of our shared resources to projects aimed at supporting the common good.
    In 2007, from Opposition, the Australian Labor Party made a historic commitment to increase Official Development Assistance (ODA) to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2015–16. This commitment was affirmed when Labor took office in 2007, and reaffirmed in 2010. It has become Coalition policy as well – so it is a bipartisan commitment.
    By the way, this bipartisan commitment amounts to investing just 50 cents of every $100 of national income in aid to the poor. Looked at that way, it's certainly not an overly generous commitment. Even considered as a proportion of the Government's budget this commitment would still represent less than $2 for every $100 of Government expenditure. There is no question that this commitment is affordable.

    As a step towards meeting the long-standing international aid target of 0.7% GNI, it has been warmly welcomed by campaigners and citizens – particularly youth and church constituencies mobilised by Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge.
    Australians are among the world’s most generous private contributors to aid. Australians as individuals gave around $1 billion to aid NGOs in 2010. However, this private generosity is not yet matched by Australia’s official Government performance. Our official development assistance is currently 0.35% GNI, which is just 35 cents for every $100 of national wealth, which makes us 13th out of 23 developed country donors in 2011.
    But concerns have been raised about whether the Government will meet this commitment on time and in full. The Government has a stated commitment to increase aid to 0.5% GNI by 2015 but it also has a commitment to bring the budget into surplus this year. Some commentators have seen these pledges as being in conflict with each other. The argument goes that when the Government is finding cuts to create a surplus, it won’t spare the aid program. This might be done by cutting or freezing aid spending in this year’s budget, and putting the target to reach 0.5% back by three to five years.
    Practically, politically, and morally – though – it’s neither necessary nor wise to cut the aid budget. 
    At a time when Australia’s economic performance and debt-to-GDP ratio is the envy of the developed world, Australia has the capacity to make this investment – which contributes to health, opportunity and security in our region and beyond – and still bring the budget into surplus. Under tougher budgetary constraints, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, affirmed the British Government’s commitment to increase Official Development Assistance to 0.7% GNI by 2015 and stated that he was proud that Britain, “will not balance its books on the backs of the poorest.” The Australian Government should proudly make the same claim in the 2012–13 budget.
    There would also be political costs to any delay or backtracking on the commitment. Delaying the 0.5% increase would mean that meeting the target becomes the responsibility not of this Parliament, nor the next, but the one after that. Given that the pledge was made in 2006, this delay would be unacceptable to most of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have supported it. 
    Finally, conservative estimates are that Australia’s aid program currently saves the lives of an estimated 300,000 people each year and provides basic education for almost one million children as well as contributing to improvements in areas such as economic governance, agriculture and infrastructure. So the cost of delay  will be measured in preventable deaths, poorer health and education outcomes, as well as lost opportunities in infrastructure development and increased resilience for poor communities. 
    Lifting aid to 0.5% of GNI would allow Australia to save the lives of an additional 500,000 people each year and provide basic education for another 700,000 children. Increasing the aid program is not simple, but nor is it impossible. By making judicious use of partner country systems, and by investing in high-capacity non-government organisations, as well as highly-effective international funds and programs we can be confident that our aid money is being well-spent for highest impact. 
    For example, the Government has made saving lives one of five strategic goals for Australia’s aid programs. This has yet to translate into a level of funding that reflects the absolute importance of this goal. In fact, spending on health (including the critical area of water and sanitation) actually went backwards in the 2011-12 budget. If Australia boosted spending on community health workers, strengthening the health systems of partner countries, and spent more through powerful international partnerships and alliances such as the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, we would contribute to the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives. 
    Children in CambodiaChildren in CambodiaChildren in Cambodia
    For Christians, concern about the aid budget is not simply a matter of idealism but a more fundamental matter of loving our neighbour as ourselves and of loving – with all our heart, mind, soul and resources – the God who has given himself fully, in love, for the world. It's no surprise that the constant demand in Scripture that God makes of all governments and authorities is to do justice and to "defend the rights of the poor and needy". Justice, it seems, is what love looks like in public.
    In short, meeting the commitment to increase ODA to 0.5% GNI is affordable and achievable. It would contribute to life-saving outcomes. It is the right thing to do.


    Ben Thurley is the Political Engagement Coordinator for Micah Challenge Australia. Ben previously worked with TEAR Australia and has just spent four years in Nepal volunteering as an advocacy advisor to a local Nepali organisation.