Foreign Aid: As Our Wallets Get Bigger Our Hearts Get Smaller

What emerged from the Budget was an even uglier picture of Australia’s miserly approach to the poorest people in the world.

Last Tuesday night, as Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison began his Budget speech and hundreds of journos emerged from the lock-up, in Opeta, Northern Uganda, 60 pregnant women filed into a new medical clinic. It was 1.30 pm local time and most had already walked many kilometres seeking antenatal attention. There was no doctor but well-trained midwives were busy saving lives.

In a waiting room, a baby boy slept in the lap of his 25-year-old mother. For her, he is a miracle. She told me her first two children were conceived before the clinic was built. She lost them late term because, when she struck troubles, the nearest hospital was more than two hours’ bike ride away.  Bike was her only transport.

Image: Supplied.

I met two new babies, born in the hour before I arrived. I met their mothers who, before World Vision Australia built this clinic three years ago, might have died from any complication.

Anywhere in the world, one in 10 births have complications -- an African woman feels the same searing loss as an Australian woman when she grieves for a child.

Every day in Uganda, 16 women will die in childbirth. But in Opeta, the generosity of an Australian farmer has given children the chance to grow up and live life, for mothers to survive having their babies. It cost $400,000 to build that lifesaving clinic. Importantly, it’s also given national government officials a model of modern healthcare. This investment will reach far beyond the 20,000 people it serves.

Federal Treasure Scott Morrison stepped up to the parliamentary microphone just before I heard government ministers and local Opeta officials thank World Vision for its efforts and the Australian man who gave his money.

Mr Morrison spoke of an Australian economy emerging well from one of the “toughest periods we’ve faced in a generation”. He said the growing economic outlook was improving and Australia was “well positioned” to take advantage.

What a relief, we might have thought. The darkest era in Australia’s aid funding to the world’s most needy must be ending.  The “debt-and-deficit-disaster” excuse used to justify five successive aid budget cuts has finally been exhausted. Our aid shame must surely finish here.

But it didn’t. What emerged was an even uglier picture of Australia’s miserly approach to the poorest people in the world. On Tuesday night, a further $141 million was cut from the aid budget. And this was on top of the $303 million slashed last year.

Image: Supplied.

As Australia becomes richer, we give less, even as other less affluent countries give more. In two years we’ll join the “0.2 club” -- the OECD countries that give just 0.2 per cent or less of their Gross National Income in aid. These are countries such as Greece and Portugal, emerging from economic crises, and former aid recipients, such as South Korea.

Each year we continue to break our own record for tight-fistedness. We drop further down the OECD ranking in the national giving index. The Labor Opposition, while willing to use the Government’s poor aid record as a political mallet, has also given no commitment to stepping up to Australia’s global obligations.

This is embarrassing. Heartbreaking, because I’ve seen how much good can be done for so many desperate people with well-directed aid.

There were some niggling signs in the lead up to Mr Morrison’s Budget that Australia’s aid levels might continue to drop. One of those was a statement from International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells last month.

Against evidence to the contrary -- such as Australian individuals’ high ranking on the World Giving Index -- she declared aid was not popular among voters.

In the same breath, she asked the UK, already far more generous than Australia with an economy much less robust, to put more money into the Pacific region. That’s our neighbourhood.

Instead of asking the UK for help, the government should have studied and followed the leadership of UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

Mrs May came under heavy fire earlier this year, pressured to shy away from a bipartisan commitment -- enshrined in law last year -- that 0.7 per cent of the country’s GNI must be directed to aid. Anti-aid public opinion polls were earnestly presented to her from a conservative Press and her unsettled right-wing backbenchers.

She did not retreat. She was morally courageous. In her approach to the world’s most vulnerable she showed character and leadership.  She stared down her party’s right and a percentage of the electorate that wanted to “look after our own first” rather than “love thy neighbour”. Neighbours like the women and babies I saw in Opeta on Tuesday; like the Rohingyan refugees in Bangladesh in immediate danger of monsoons; like the Syrian children who have known only dusty refugee tents as home.

Image: Supplied.

Last Tuesday night was Scott Morrison’s chance to show the Australian government preferred to do what was right. It could have stopped dismantling the aid budget and redirected us instead onto the road back to generosity.

But that would have taken moral courage.