Foreign aid is not just a question of money, but also morality

One of the biggest areas of debate since the election of the Coalition government in early September this year has been changes in Australian foreign aid policy. Currently we know that Prime Minister Abbott’s government intends to reduce Australian foreign aid spending by roughly $4.5 billion over four years, to the extent that Australian aid would comprise merely 0.31 per cent of Australia’s gross national income (GNI), according to economist Stephen Howes of the Australian National University. This plan is introduced as part of a staple principle of Coalition policy: to reduce government spending and return the federal budget to surplus. The current United Nations standard for national aid-giving is that a country’s foreign aid should be a minimum of 0.7 per cent of GNI – we provide only around half of that, and with the Federal Government’s plans, that figure will fall further.

According to UNICEF, Australian foreign aid comprises five core themes: opportunities for continued development, sustainable economic development, effective governance, humanitarian and disaster response, and saving lives. The bulk of Australia’s foreign aid is concentrated in South-East Asia, especially to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. According to UNICEF, Australian foreign aid has, since 2002, contributed to 19 million more children attending schools, including 54 per cent more girls. It has also provided jobs for 300,000 new teachers, built 30,000 classrooms and distributed more than 200 million textbooks to primary schools. UNICEF further states that Australian aid has helped successfully fight polio in the Pacific, and has seen more than 1.5 million children immunised against measles and polio in Papua New Guinea. And with this coming from UNICEF, we can take that as a testament to these numbers’ credibility.

So, in these reductions of our foreign aid spending, we need to question: is this the right thing to do? Is the decision to give less aid to other countries in need undermining our role as a good global citizen?

Going back in history, the world changed significantly in the wake of the World War II and from the ashes of global conflict, emerged a new hope that the nations of the world could begin to cooperate to greater success than in the aftermath of the World War I roughly three decades beforehand. In the years following, progressively throughout the 20th century to now, globalisation has effectively solidified an integrated world economy, in which nearly all the world’s nations are economically and diplomatically tied to one another. Australia had a fundamental role in the early establishment of the UN, and with the contribution of Dr Herbert Evatt, has consistently signed crucial UN legislation.

According to Geoff Gallop of the University of Sydney, Australia has a ‘relatively small population and small market needs that allow international trade and investment to prosper’. In this sense, as Gallop emphasises, ‘we are a trading nation and as such need to be “in the world” in every sense of those words.’

Consequently, Australia has a strong obligation to fulfil the role of a good global citizen in the contemporary age. We have been giving aid for years for development purposes, starting with the Colombo Plan in 1950, and this is no time to change that. If anything, we should be increasing our aid expenditure to at least meet the UN standard for aid-giving. Aid is important not only for development purposes in our neighbouring countries and beyond, as mentioned beforehand but it is also a mark of us being good to one another, helping to improve developing peoples’ lives in countries and helping to satisfy a strong social responsibility. It is an important practical measure for international cooperation, the improvement of bilateral and multilateral relationships and fostering a greater sense of unity. Aid also empowers communities in other countries, building their capacity to participate in continued development, and is thus essential for long-term plans of social and economic development.

A common argument against increases in aid is that so much money is lost in the system to corruption that it is hardly worth contributing. But, in fact, AusAID reported in 2011-2012 that as little as 0.012 per cent of Australian foreign aid was lost to corruption. An even greater argument, perhaps, is that people wish to see the money properly invested here in solving domestic issues before we start spending it overseas. However, we often forget that aid increases our trade potential with other countries in the long term, and domestic issues are targeted by a greater portion of the budget. If we really want to find more money in the budget, perhaps we should consider other elements of our spending: for example, massive government subsidies to the already highly profitable coal industry.

There is little that can be considered right in cutting our aid which has a massively positive impact overseas. As World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello attests: “We understand our country faces economic challenges but we should never, ever balance the books on the backs of the poor.” Costello argues that our economic challenges should not be solved by withdrawing funding to our neighbours from a vital system and therefore reducing our morality. We are not even really in economic circumstances which require us to reduce the amount of aid we send to countries in need.

Australia’s provision of aid under the Federal Government’s proposal would be 0.31 per cent of our GNI – less than a third of one per cent. I find it difficult to agree that we should cut down this amount simply due to the argument that it’s already small funding is critical to the solution of our domestic social issues. In the grand scheme of what we earn, 0.31 per cent is not much, and neither is 0.7 per cent. In fact, foreign aid that meets 0.7 per cent of our GNI, as the standard provided by the UN, should be the least we can do.

We must not forget that our foreign aid brings social, economic, diplomatic, defence and, most importantly, moral benefits for both ourselves and the countries to which we provide it. We have economic and moral international obligations in the field of aid, so to cut our foreign aid can be considered a partial withdrawal from our responsibility to help those around us.

What would that say about who we are as a nation? What would that say about what we stand for?

As Gallop argues, with our provision of foreign aid, ‘not only do we gain from the production and export of a range of goods and services in the global marketplace, we also gain from the export of goodwill and the commitment to help.’

Sure, we can cut a bit of spending here and there and identify what would best be reduced. However, in the dimension of foreign aid, to reduce spending here would be cutting off lifelines of assistance to developing communities who need it. We must seriously question whether the Federal Government’s proposed foreign aid reductions are wise and, at the very least, moral.

We have long believed that mateship, generosity and giving a fair go are quintessentially Australian values.

Well, I guess we only have to give some of our mates a fair go.

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