The Australian Government previously made a commitment to double foreign aid by 2015. However, as the announcement of the budget looms, analysts fear that the government may abandon this commitment, in order to maintain budget surplus.
Recent reports have indicated that the goal of increasing foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of the GDP (roughly 50 cents in every $100) may be pushed back several years or abandoned altogether. In light of this, several charities have launched extensive campaigns, mobilising Australians to ensure that the Government maintains its commitment. In particular, leader of UNICEF Australia, Normal Gillespie, has noted his deep concern at the lack of an explicit commitment from the government, saying ‘we shouldn’t be balancing the books on the back of the poorest people in the world’. Similarly, Oxfam Australia Director Andrew Hewett noted that the government cannot afford to abandon another promise. Ultimately, it would be detrimental not only to the people of Australia, but to the world’s poorest people.
Although former foreign minister Kevin Rudd previously noted that aid spending would increase to 0.38 per cent this year (around $5.3 billion), he has minimal influence on the decision as he was recently demoted to the backbench. Thus, although there was an explicit election promise in 2007 and 2010, many believe that the promise will not be upheld as he is no longer in power.
Importantly, World Vision Chief Tim Costello has also noted that the decision extends beyond helping the world’s poor. Aid has also been fundamental in enhancing trade opportunities and continuing to increase the Australian influence in international forums. Thus, minimising financial aid to maintain budget surplus could impact Australia’s reputation internationally and more significantly, Australia’s campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.
In particular, many experts fear that any decision to minimise foreign aid could allow China to exhibit a growing influence in the South Pacific. This has been noted due to the large presence of Chinse diplomats in the area and the fact that China has increased aid since 2005, from a relatively modest amount, to around $200 million each year. Already, countries such as Tonga have 30% of their GDP accounted for in ‘soft loans’ from China. As the South Pacific has a substantial strategic value for Australia, experts are urging the government to increase, rather than decrease foreign aid. For instance, Professor Hawes led a commissioned review into foreign aid spending last year and emphasised the importance of upholding the commitment already made. Australia is already lagging behind several other countries in terms of foreign aid, as it is placed 16th among the 22 developed nations. Slashing the foreign aid commitment in order to balance the books may result in Australia dropping even further.
In addition to charities, celebrities, crossbenchers and church groups have joined the fight to ensure that the government honours its promise to the world’s poorest people. The overwhelming numbers of Australians that have already joined the campaign to prevent the budget cuts demonstrates the importance of the budget decision.