deferring aid in 2012-13: embodying the alternative

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any group or organisation, including my employers, unless otherwise stated.

The 2012-13 Australian Federal budget, just announced, has incited an outcry from those in and around the aid and development sector who had hoped that the Labor Government would keep its promise to raise the overseas aid budget to 0.5% of GNI by 2015.

In the last fortnight the #DontCutAid hashtag has managed to trend consistently on Twitter as those passionate about alleviating poverty spoke out about Australia’s need to do its fair share. It seems that even in the face of a constant barrage of public messaging (and even public-funded major newspaper spreads) the Government decided to significantly reduce the proposed growth in the aid budget (by $2.9 billion) in order to bring the Federal budget back to surplus.

This insistence on bringing the budget back to surplus has been a recent hallmark not only of Australian economic matters but politics in general. Both sides of politics have communicated the need for a surplus as quickly as possible, and both have expressed a willingness to cut what is necessary to get there despite the widespread criticism of mainstream economists.

Some have called the trading of Australia’s aid commitment for a surplus “immoral” and have already shown signs of continuing to fight for increased aid in line with Australia’s commitment to the MDGs. This is a just and important struggle to be had, however to best engage this issue it is crucial to consider what led us to this place of national compromise. It is equally important not to jump to ill-considered reactions, especially those that express one’s vote is reliant on this one issue (as important as it may be; I don’t recall progressives complaining when Labor passed the carbon tax).

First, it is important to be clear on what has not happened – the Government has not cut aid. Instead it has deferred raising the aid budget by one year; the percentage of foreign aid in the 2012-13 budget will continue to be 0.35% of GNI as in 2011-2012 (a gross increase of about $300 million according to inflation). This is of course a tragedy – Australian aid saves hundreds of thousands of lives annually and a lack of increase equals a wasted opportunity to save more lives than the previous year. Still, it is important that we do not tell less than full truths about what has transpired.

While many social progressives have scourged Labor for breaking a promise to raise the aid budget, turning their attention to ensuring the Coalition Opposition does not break its stated commitment, the reality is Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has already alluded to bipartisanship regarding the delay.

More than this, it is the Coalition who has driven the conversation about a budget surplus all along. The weakness of the Government is not so much its moral bankruptcy (this is apparently universal, see my post on political nihilism), but its inability to define the national agenda and political conversation.

In truth this Coalition-driven agenda is, as is often suggested, populist in nature. That is to say the drive to surplus, and thus the deferral of increased foreign aid spending, finds its provenance in the public mood and discourse; it begins with us. A visionless Government largely follows public opinion.

The irony of #DontCutAid was that it was directed at a Government who was looking to the electorate for moral direction in the first place; in the face of looming electoral demolition they intended their latest budget to appease potential voters.

This is certainly not to say that #DontCutAid was misguided, or pointless – it was a more-than-worthy cause and according to some accounts may have averted an even worse result – but just that it was always in competition with the perceived needs of the majority of the Australian population. Such is democracy in an age of entitlement, and the message did not address the public on that level.

Should we continue to push the Government to keep its commitment to 0.5% GNI, and more than that to reach the UN goal of 0.7%? Yes, yes, yes!

But in a political scenario where neither a Government nor an Opposition will demonstrate vision and leadership to its electorate the hearts of the people must be captivated with an alternative vision of society, both domestic and global.

There is of course much to be said about this theologically. In my last post I addressed an aspect of this topic, asking ‘What is a uniquely Christian vocation and hope?’. Biblically-speaking there is a consistent approach to political engagement in which embodiment precedes confrontation (even in Romans 13 – read Romans 12!).

In short, advocacy must be preceded by embodiment. In regards to the budget issue, the Government will only take an unswerving stance on foreign aid if it can see that a crucial portion of the voting public do first. The beauty of #DontCutAid was that it provided an opportunity for many voices to join in chorus about compassion for the global poor; the problem was that this did not capture the hearts of most of the population.

This, my friends, is the foremost task.

It is beyond the scope of this post to suggest ways to do this. In saying this, perhaps aid organisations can encourage Australians to donate the portion of money that would have been represented by them in the budget ($2.9 billion/22 million people = about $133/person). Perhaps they could call Australians to give 0.5% of their income ($250 for someone on $50,000 p.a.). Not only would this mean more money going into projects to alleviate poverty, it would also mean a wonderful witness to our nihilistic politicians.

Imagine it – citizens self-sacrificially making up for the moral deficit of its own government’s budget.

Perhaps we can all start by embodying our passion for this issue by giving our share to an organisation working in poor communities abroad. I can personally recommend one organisation ;-). It is no use criticising the Government for not doing something (give aid, cut carbon, care for refugees, enact reconciliation) that we are not willing to do ourselves.


[UPDATE: Join with Micah Challenge in responding to the budget by calling on the Opposition to fulfil its promise to increase aid to 0.5% GNI by 2015.]

Posted on May 9, 2012, in Advocacy, Current Events, Development, Economics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Matt, your last sentence sums it up absolutely perfectly. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

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