Having spent more than a decade of my life campaigning for increases in both the quantity and the quality of the Australian aid program, it has been devastating to see the aid budget slashed by more than 20%, the greatest single decrease in the history of the program.
I have travelled to a number of countries with large numbers of people living in extreme poverty and seen the amazing impacts that well targeted aid can have. Because of Australian aid children who otherwise would have died before their fifth birthday have not only survived but flourished; women who would have died in pregnancy have been kept safe; communities that would have suffered continual sickness and even death due to dirty drinking water have found access to clean water sources. I have met these people and heard their stories. Aid is without doubt one of the best investments we can make and to cut it in order to fund more spending on ourselves seems criminal.
So was the campaigning worth it? Aid levels are returning to what they were decades ago as a proportion of national income. Did all that campaigning achieve anything?
I think it did. First, for a good decade under both John Howard and Kevin Rudd the aid program increased substantially. Even though it’s now fallen back to earlier levels the increases above trend during this period were in the vicinity of $16 billion. That’s a lot of good.
Second, there is a far greater awareness of what makes for good aid amongst our politicians. The campaigns by Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge saw many politicians getting asked questions about aid by their constituents, which drove them to find answers, and many are now much more engaged.
Third, there have been many advances in the quality of our aid program. For example, when we started campaigning a decade or more ago a lot of Australian aid was “tied”, which meant we gave money to countries but required them to spend it on services and products from Australia. This, along with many other deficient practices, has been abandoned.
A perusal of the history of changes in the aid program reminds me not to despair. Since the Whitlam government came to power in 1972 there have been 13 years in which the volume of aid was cut. As the chart shows this happened under both Coalition and Labor governments. Certainly, it doesn’t look like we’ll see any increases under an Abbott government. The budget forecasts further decreases over the next two years and then increases in line with inflation. But we’ve been here before. I remember being berated by Alexander Downer when a group of us suggested the Australian government should increase the aid program, yet just a few years later the Howard government in which Alexander Downer was a minister oversaw some of the most substantial increases in our history.
So yes, the current round of cuts are bitterly disappointing, but now is not the time to give up. We need to keep advocating for more aid and better aid, making sure it stays on the agenda of our politicians and convincing our fellow citizens that money spent on well targeted aid is one of the best things we will ever do together