When our neighbours are in a world of Payne, we are so ungenerous

by Allan Behm

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) aid budget summary runs to a full four pages. That is a poignant reflection of the exiguous nature of Australia’s Official Development Assistance program. At $4 billion, Australia’s ODA is 0.22 per cent of GNI, once of the lowest among the OECD countries.

Basically, there is no increase in the aid program. The Budget provides $304.7 million over two years in supplementary funding to assist Timor Leste and the Pacific nations meet the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document makes it abundantly clear that this funding is separate from the ODA program. It does not reset the baseline.

The nations to our north, the members of ASEAN, are of critical economic and strategic importance to Australia. Yet the budget allocation is a paltry $60 million to contribute to their health security programs at a time when Indonesia, in particular, is in dire straits. And Australia’s supplement of up to $300 million for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to provide loans to Pacific countries to deal with the impacts of COVID-19 takes assistance minimalism to a new (low) level.

In view of the Government’s highly publicised and unsophisticated advocacy for an independent international inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus, it is astonishing that there is no additional funding for the World Health Organisation. The WHO will play a crucial role in this inquiry, which will need all the financial and scientific support it can get. To maintain Australia’s total contribution at $12.4 million is tight-fistedness to the point of self-sabotage.

Given the over-hyped strategic imperative that justified the expenditure of billions of dollars in ADF operations in Afghanistan during the past decade and a half, it is embarrassing to see the ODA assistance to that broken nation cut by over 40 per cent from $80 million to $52.5 million.

In the Pacific, aid to PNG, the Solomon Islands, Niue/Tokelau and the Cook Islands has fallen, with small increases to the remainder. While it recognised that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed “critical gaps in global health security”, this Budget does very little to address the chronic underfunding of health and education in the Pacific. Yet health and education are the key to prosperity, security and community wellbeing in the Pacific, as they are for Australia.

This Budget’s parsimony does not deliver Australia’s interests in the Pacific, or in Asia for that matter. Moreover, in view of the generosity of nations around the world during Australia’s summer of bushfire catastrophe, it looks ungrateful and mean-spirited.

In Australia’s great hour of need, during the devastating Black Summer bushfires in which three billion animals were killed or displaced, 12 million hectares of land burned, thousands of homes were destroyed and dozens of people died, the world responded with generous donations.

In defiance of the idiom that “charity begins at home”, countries, foreign companies and private citizens raised millions of dollars to help support Australians.

Vanuatu donated to assist bushfire victims, Papua New Guinea offered 1,000 soldiers, firefighters and other personnel to be deployed if needed, and private citizens and enterprises in Fiji and PNG made donations. The French village of Villers-Bretonneux raised money for its sister-city Robinvale, and for the particularly badly affected Bega Valley Shire. Chinese investors, international athletes and British and American celebrities also donated millions of dollars. The US, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore provided support on the ground. A US-based aircrew were killed when their water-bombing aircraft crashed. Many of the donations on Celeste Barber’s Facebook appeal came from international supporters.

Was this repayment for Australia’s generosity?

Not really. Over the last seven years, the ANU’s Development Policy Centre estimates that Australia has cut its international aid program by 27 per cent.

Australia happily accepted assistance from the rest of the world during our time of need but fails to return the favour.

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