How would you like to raise $22 billion for anti-poverty programs around the world? That’s not $22 million but $22 billion. Sounds impossible right? Well maybe not.
Back in September 2000 world leaders, including Australia’s Prime Minister, gathered in Geneva and declared that the new millennium would be one in which we would forge a new world.
We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.
Inspiring words, but such words have been spoken many times before. Would these be yet another empty promise? Perhaps not, because this time the world’s leaders put measurable targets against their pledge. They set 2015 as the date by which eight millennium development goals would be achieved and set targets against each goal – the proportion of people living on a dollar a day would be halved; child mortality reduced by two-thirds; maternal mortality reduced by seventy five percent; the spread of HIV/AIDS reversed; and more.
For the next couple of years there was little action in Australia. Our Prime Minister returned home and it was as if nothing had happened. Our paltry aid budget continued to hover at around 0.25% of our national income and the aid program gave only lip service to the Millennium Development Goals.
So in 2004 two advocacy campaigns began – the Make Poverty History campaign and the Micah Challenge. Both aimed to mobilise Australians to demand that our Government keep its promise to the world’s poor. Make Poverty History focused its efforts on mobilising the wider Australian public, while the Micah Challenge focused on mobilising the Australian church. Over the following years rallies and concerts were held; tens of thousands of letters and postcards were sent to the Prime Minister; thousands of people visited their Federal politicians; thousands of poverty focused church services were held and sermons preached; all centred around one simple ask of the Australian Government: keep your promise. In particular we wanted to see a dramatic improvement in the quality of Australia’s aid, to see it focussed on helping poorer countries achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and a quantum leap in the quantity of Australian aid, from 0.25% of national income to the internationally agreed target of 0.7%.
People told us we were crazy, dreamers, wasting our time. But sometimes history belongs to the dreamers. Within three years of the campaigns beginning the Australian Prime Minister had committed the Australian Government to an aid budget in which the Millennium Development Goals would be placed front and centre and which would rise to 0.5% of national income by 2015. And so began a dramatic revision of Australia’s aid program.
As I write, this has already translated into an extra $8.5 billion assistance to the world’s poor and, assuming the Government keeps its promise, by 2016-17 will see another $14 billion on top of what would have been given had the aid budget stayed at 0.25% of national income. That’s tens of thousands more lives saved, millions more with access to clean water, and millions of people freed from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty.
I remember talking to Bob McMullen, who was the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance. He shared that there had always been politicians from all parties who wanted to see a better Australian aid program. What they lacked was support from the public. Bob had been a Minister in the Keating Government when aid was cut. To his dismay the Government didn’t receive one letter of protest. What the Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge campaigns delivered was the constituency people like Bob needed. And that made all the difference.
That’s how you raise twenty-two billion dollars.
This week a couple of hundred of those crazy dreamers will be in Canberra for the Micah Challenge Voices for Justice event. They will descend on Parliament House and once more push our leaders to keep their promise to the world’s poor. For the first time since this event began I won’t be able to join them. But they go because they know that advocacy works. Change on a scale we barely dare imagine is possible if only we take the time to speak up for justice.