If you’ve listened to Australian government leaders talking about aid and development issues lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that poverty is no longer a problem globally and all that is needed now is trade not aid.
You could get the sense that the economies of most developing countries are quickly catching up with the developed world. This is far from the truth.
Our nearest neighbour, Indonesia, would need to grow at close to 4 per cent for just under 200 years to be equal with Australia and other advanced countries. More than 100 million people there still live on less than $2 a day. Achieving such a growth would be, historically, very impressive. As highlighted in Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, high growth rates historically are in the 1 to 1.5 per cent range.
Indeed, there are still 2.4 billion people living on less than $2 a day (the benchmark for absolute poverty) across the globe. And although this may represent an improvement over the last 20 years, what can be forgotten is that living on $2 is an extraordinarily difficult and lived daily experience for billions of people.
What is also masked by the numbers is the great disparity of wealth across the world. This means that, although a country’s GDP may look healthy, men, women and children continue to live their lives crippled by grinding poverty. As an Oxfam report (2014) noted, ''the richest 85 people in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion''.
Realistically - and despite the rhetoric - we know that the livelihoods of the poorest people in developing countries are not going to be rapidly transformed by commercial trade with rich countries. They are still too reliant on a limited range of exports and especially a limited number of primary commodities where prices fluctuate widely.
Equally, aid and other forms of development assistance are not going to rapidly solve poverty. But, despite the rhetoric of the political right, good aid is not going to make things worse and, indeed, it can make a transformative difference in the health, education and community development outcomes for many of the poorest people across the globe.
The work of indigo foundation is an example of how development aid - respectfully delivered - can transform communities. Indigo is a small, independent, not-for-profit community development organisation. The approach - based on direct grassroots partnerships - is guided by four key principles: community ownership, sustainability, transparency and equity.
It has produced remarkable results in countries such as India, Indonesia, Uganda and Afghanistan.
In 2003, indigo began supporting the Borjegai, a group of Hazara people in Afghanistan. They had no running water, electricity, roads and very little infrastructure. Being a remote Hazara community, they received little support from their government. The community did have schools, but most classes were held in tents. Teachers were mostly voluntary, with little more than primary school education themselves. But they did have a collective desire to educate their children out of poverty. For the first time in their history, this included girls.
Indigo started the partnership with a $5000 grant to purchase textbooks. Since then it has provided further support for textbooks, salaries of professional teachers, and funds for the construction of five school buildings - including a girls' high school - and the rehabilitation or completion of another three. Approximately $420,000 has been spent in Borjegai village to improve education. Of this, almost half has been contributed by the community, in the form of land, labour and $135,000 cash.
Four-and-a-half-thousand students - 45 per cent of them female, which is higher than the national average - now attend the network of schools in the village. Provincial authorities rank the Borjegai schools as the best in terms of the quality of its buildings and the outstanding achievements of students. There are now more than 550 high school graduates, with approximately 300 students attending or having graduated from a national university. Of these, 10 per cent are women. In the past, rural villages surrounding Borjegai have had fewer than 10 students attend university.
Most telling is that last year the community decided to change the girls' high school to a co-education school. In the decade since, the community requested support from indigo for this school. There has been gradual but significant shift in the community’s attitude towards girls. Most families are now happy to send their girls to the school closer to home, rather than to a school four hours' walk away. There is no longer the demand for an exclusively female high school: a true measure of gender equity progress.
Acting decently towards others is harder the further we are removed from a problem and this is very much the case with global poverty. But, unless individuals and nations in the developed world act with decency towards those poorer, it will be difficult to end global poverty.
Delivered respectfully, development aid allows us to act decently. This is why we need to keep delivering aid. It connects us to our humanity. It helps makes us decent people. Ultimately we are all enriched by collaborative human efforts to create a better world.
Dr Susan Engel has been a director of indigo foundation for more than 10 years and is an academic at the University of Wollongong, lecturing in international studies, global politics and international political economy.
Sally Stevenson is the founding chairperson of indigo foundation. She was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in this year’s Queen's Birthday Honours List for her work in social welfare, both internationally and in Australia.
Indigo foundation is having a fund-raising dinner on Saturday night at the National Press Club to raise funds for four African-based projects. To book tickets, go to the NPC website.