14 May, 2013
In an unusual move, most of the big news about Australia's aid budget was announced well before Budget Night. We've known the big picture since Foreign Minister Bob Carr let us all in on the secret on Monday morning.
The aid budget will grow by $518 million from last year, reaching almost $5.7 billion dollars, or 0.37% of Gross National Income (GNI). And while this is very welcome news, lifting aid to its highest level as a proportion of our national income since 1985, it's also not the only side to the story.
The commitment to increase aid to 0.5% GNI has been pushed back for the second year in a row – now expected to be reached in 2017-18. The effect of these two delays has been to remove around $4.8 billion from planned aid spending over the period 2012–16. To my mind, these two delays really do call into question whether the Government is serious when it says it "remains committed" to reaching the 0.5% target. I'm not sure that the word committed means what they seem to think it means.
The Government confirmed as well that they would again use $375 million of the aid budget to process, detain and support onshore asylum-seekers, making Australia the third largest recipient of its own overseas aid, after Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. As the world's 12th largest economy, it seems to me that Australia could find a way – despite budget pressures – to support asylum-seekers without asking the world's poorest people to help bear the cost. But I'm, you know, idealistic like that.
That said, there was some welcome news in tonight's budget announcement. Micah Challenge supporters and other campaigners can celebrate two big wins, in particular.
First, the Foreign Minister went out of his way to note the strength of the community campaigning, and Parliamentary lobbying, that led to foreign aid being increased, when many other Government programs are being cut. He also noted that the strength of the community lobbying led to the Treasurer agreeing to place a cap on the amount of aid that can be diverted towards asylum-seeker support. It still means that up to $1 billion can be spent in this way over the next four years, taking money away from life-saving overseas programs, but the cap at least limits the damage, and makes the level of our aid more predictable for our partner countries.
So, yet again, we have helped bring about an outcome that is less than we hoped, and less than we campaigned for, but much better than it would have been without our efforts.
Second, there was a bigger than expected increase in funding to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) programs – a 70% increase from $164 million last year to $279 million in this budget. Micah Challenge has been campaigning to Give Poverty the Flush over the last two years, so it is great to see the message being acted on. While this falls short of Australia's fair share of increasing access to clean water and adequate sanitation for the hundreds of millions who live without, it is a really significant step forward.
The Government also announced a commitment to invest $391 million over the next for years to accelerate progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific – targeting, particularly, MDG 1 on hunger, MDG 2 on education and MDG 5 on maternal mortality. While the details of how this will be implemented are yet to be revealed, this new program aims to help one million people have improved nutrition, better access to education for 1.2 million children and provide improved maternal and child health services for 900,000 women every year.
It's the kind of thing that Australian aid does so well. When it's not being delayed or diverted.
You can see ACFID's budget analysis here.
Visit our campaign page to take action in response to the 2013-14 aid budget.
Ben Thurley is the Political Engagement Coordinator for Micah Challenge Australia. Ben previously worked with TEAR Australia and as an advocacy advisor with United Mission to Nepal.
Photo credit: Prem Singh Sintan / UMN