Poor Form

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Illustration by Cameron Baker
Infographic by Nicholas Hynes

We saw it coming a mile off, but the scale of the devastation was unprecedented. Governments have toyed with the foreign aid budget for years, but never before had we had such a radically ideological government manically hell-bent on an ideological agenda.

We expected pain. But this year’s budget was still breathtaking.

$7.6 billion gutted from the aid budget over three years. Twenty percent of the entire savings the budget delivered came from this one area. We spend less than 0.4 per cent of our gross national income on aid, and yet it represented the single biggest cost saving of the budget.

We can all assume the basics of what this means. Yes, kids will die. Yes, the world will hate us just that little bit more. Yes, we’ll all have a little bit of extra cash to spend on the essentials, like the beauty industry, which grew by 13 per cent last year. But what does it mean for us as a country?

We can no longer speak about the destructive policies being handed down as being isolated cases of poor decision-making. It’s become too much. We can speak only of what Tim Costello has described as a generalised ‘turning inwards’. The country is becoming more insular, more blinkered. They’re euphemisms, obviously. The Reverend Tim can’t say it because he’s too gracious and tactful, but I can: we’re becoming a pack of selfish xenophobes. The aid debacle is but one stunning example.

Joe Hockey likes to say that we must all do the heavy lifting in this budget, and that’s what the cuts are all about. In this, he is either deliberately misleading the public, or is unsalvageably stupid. When you’re cutting foreign aid, while retaining subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and cutting tax for multibillionaire mining companies, it’s patently obvious: the heavy lifting is not being done by those most able to do it.

The heavy lifting is being done by kids of varying hues of brown in the backwaters of the world, who will now waste away in comfortable obscurity, and cease to disrupt us in our splendour.

Let’s just get some facts straight: We know aid, when spent well, works. And we know that we have been, and know how to, spend aid well. Australian aid has helped eradicate polio. That’s right: eradicate polio. It has lifted millions out of poverty in the Asia-Pacific and our aid program is globally recognised as being sector-leading. We know aid spending is good for us as a country. If we eliminated hunger from the earth, it would add $1 trillion to the global economy. Eradicating child labour would add $4.1 trillion. The $7.6 billion we’re “saving” by cutting funding to these goals is laughable. We know that reducing inequality is good for economic growth and delivers improved health and social outcomes, not just for the poor but for the rich. I don’t have the space here to delve deep, but I don’t need to; Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level and the work of economist Thomas Pickety have already done this beautifully.

So if foreign aid makes sense as economic, social, and environmental policy, whyMedia_foreign-aid-infographic_723x2239 have we cut it again? For no other reason than political expediency.

This is the pitiful act of a morally and intellectually bankrupt government, and it punishes us all. Make no mistake, the only winners from the aid cuts are a handful of Liberal marginal seat holders, who exploit very human fears about the future to justify this evil policy, and make xenophobic gluttons of us all. The world loses. Australia loses. You and I, we lose.

The government justifies this recklessness with the facile line “we can’t borrow money to give it away”. This intentionally perpetuates a perniciously inaccurate myth about foreign aid by implying that ‘foreign aid’ involves ripping cash from its rightful home in the pockets of the plumbers and businesspeople of the burbs, and feeding the African fat-cat politicians (p.s. African politicians = obviously corrupt). No one wants that. And that’s not how we do aid anyway. It’s populist fear-mongering.

They also like to say that we should be focusing on the outcomes, not the dollars. Amanda Vanstone produced a revolutionary assertion when she wrote in The Age that $5 billion spent well is better than $10 billion spent badly.. What she didn’t say was that $10 billion spent well is better than $5 billion spent well (this act of arithmetical and logical genius can be corroborated by five year olds across the nation). Put simply: we have the cash, the need is there, we just don’t wanna do it. To defend the aid cuts in the name of ‘outcomes’ is farcically nonsensical. Vanstone bemoans that no one is talking about aid effectiveness, as if she invented the concept. She must have missed the slogan of the Make Poverty History campaign: “More Aid, Better Aid”. On top of this, both Vanstone and Julie Bishop, the Minister in charge of foreign aid, laud the benefits of aid-for-trade, a concept widely discredited within the aid community. But I guess Ms Bishop would know better than the accumulated expertise of the entire global aid community. After all, she is a trained lawyer.

This government likes to rub the growing bellies of it voters, assuring them that in their plasma-screen filled McMansions, they’re doing it tough. Unlike, say, those living in Timor-Leste, who are living in what the UN has described as a “constant state of humanitarian emergency” (on par with Iraq or South Sudan).

It is surely a telling betrayal of the government’s priorities when the first thing they say about their aid cuts is not “sorry, people will die, and that sucks but it’s necessary”, but rather “it’s Labor’s fault the economy is crap and the citizens of this country, the richest one on Earth, are really suffering”. They don’t encourage people to use their savings from the abolition of the earth-saving carbon tax to sponsor a child, or donate to an environmental organisation that actually reduces carbon emissions. Rather, they talk about consumer spending. Have they seen the H&M queue?

I call bullshit. This government doesn’t care one iota about our responsibilities to the developing world. In a private conversation with a certain Federal Liberal MP, I was told verbatim: “I only care about what my electorate cares about. And I don’t think my electorate cares about foreign aid”. For shame. This is a government that prioritises its own ideological agenda above measures that will actually boost growth, here and abroad. This unconscionable exploitation of the ignorant might serve them well at the minute, but there is no question that we—all of us—will come to rue this.

We will rue this when we’re flooded with refugees from famine-struck countries that could’ve benefited from our agricultural development programs. We will rue this when the island nations that surround us sink into the rising seas, as we know they will. We will rue this when an Indonesian child that could’ve been educated in an Australian-funded school in Sumatra, is radicalised by fringe groups that exploit his poverty, and convince him to blow himself up in a nightclub in Bali. Or Bondi. We will rue this when Australian soldiers die in the Middle East, in resource-fuelled conflicts that didn’t need to happen. We will rue this in the decades to come when our kids look back and see that we chose to fund fighter jets instead of mosquito nets. And we should rue this right now, when 20,000 kids under five die every day from preventable causes.

Australia might as well be a palace in a slum, hoisting up the drawbridge as the masses burn. Now that would be a sight to behold from the Treasury balcony. Over cigars, perhaps.

It might all be funny, if it weren’t so numbingly horrific.