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Country of the fair go drags its heels on reducing world poverty

Date

Peter Singer, Norman Gillespie

We're the lucky country - it's about time we let that luck rub off on others.

Stingy ... Australia is giving just 35 cents in every $100 we earn as a nation, yet 75 per cent of the world's poorest people live in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood.

Stingy ... Australia is giving just 35 cents in every $100 we earn as a nation, yet 75 per cent of the world's poorest people live in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood. Photo: Jason Childs

Australians are stingy. Do you believe it? Well, when it comes to international aid, among the world's 23 richest countries, we come in a lowly 13th when aid is measured as a percentage of our income.

Built on the principle of the fair go, the notion of Australians failing to support the underdog may be difficult for many of us to comprehend. Don't we always dig deep when our mates are in need? Yet today Australia is giving just 35¢ in every $100 we earn as a nation.

Although there is a bipartisan commitment to increase our aid spending, cabinet murmurings suggest the government, in its desire to achieve a budget surplus, is preparing to cut our limited commitment even further.

In 2000, then-prime minister John Howard joined 188 other world leaders to commit to the Millennium Development Goals, a 15-year global plan to tackle poverty. As part of this commitment, privileged countries like ours recognised we needed to increase our aid spending to 70¢ for every $100 earned.

Twelve years later, Australia has reached just half that amount. Britain, which has had an infinitely more challenging time through the global financial crisis, has ring-fenced its aid program and legislated that by 2015, it will be be giving double what Australia now gives.

Yet 75 per cent of the world's poorest people live in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood. As a lucky country with a tradition of a ''fair go'', we have always cherished the principle of helping out those in need. But the case for building on the achievements we are making through our aid program goes well beyond our ethics, to national security, economic prosperity and nation building.

There is no doubt that aid is saving millions of lives. UNICEF research shows in 1990, 36,000 children were dying every day from poverty. Just 20 years later we have reduced this number by 14,000 deaths a day. With Increased funding and the improved effectiveness of aid, we are on the right track to bring this number of poverty-related deaths close to zero.

Simple interventions make a massive difference. The miracle food ''Plumpy'nut'' can bring a severely malnourished child back to health in a month at a cost of less than $50. Insecticide-treated bed nets are drastically reducing the number of deaths from malaria. Immunisation from polio costs 15¢ and may free a child and his or her family from its tortuous burden for life. Improved water and sanitation have prevented millions of deaths by diarrhoea, dysentery and water-borne diseases.

The tragedy of cutting aid now is that the momentum would be threatened. Effective, sustainable development takes years to foster in a community and in a country.

Our aid also delivers a lasting dividend to Australia. We may be an island nation but we are not immune to the world's ills. As swine flu demonstrated, a disease outbreak in Mexico one day can close schools in our suburbs the next. By building resilience within foreign communities, aid protects us against the impact of disease, instability and violence that incubates amid the very worst poverty.

Aid also fosters economic growth. Australia earns an estimated $130 billion in export dollars from countries that receive our aid. And recent natural disasters in Australia have given us a front-row seat to the devastation and suffering that we too often see beamed into our lounge rooms from across the world.

As a rich nation, and one that avoided the worst of the financial crisis, Australia has the capacity to help at home and beyond. We must not let our compassion end at our borders, and our elected leaders need to demonstrate this generosity of spirit.

Despite economic challenges, escalating unemployment and the terrible toll of the recent flooding and London riots, Britain has maintained its commitment to aid. Australia can and should do the same.

Meeting these commitments bolsters the security, economic stability and international standing of our country and region. Fifty cents of every $100 we earn is a small price to pay for a world where every child has the chance to achieve their full potential.

Australia can ill afford to deliver a budget surplus on the backs of the world's poorest people.

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the centre for applied philosophy and public ethics at the University of Melbourne. He donates 25 per cent of his salary to UNICEF and Oxfam. Norman Gillespie is the chief executive of UNICEF Australia.

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24 comments

  • As soon as I read "fair go" I stopped reading. That's the kind of rhetoric that Labor has been using for the past 5 years to bash anyone who has the temerity to work hard and earn over $80k. "You should pay more in health insurance/flood levies/super tax/mining tax/carbon tax because Australians believe in a FAIR GO". Every time some wants to take something from you they use the "fair go" as justification. Bloody sick of this rhetoric.

    Commenter
    LiamH
    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 9:42AM
    • 'Earn over $80K" - this is the kind of rhetoric the Liberal Party have been using to justify the top end of town making 7+ figures while the economic regime that makes it possible screws over 99% of the world's citizens.

      To be clear LiamH, no one anywhere EARNS more than $100G by any reasonable definition of the word. If we base it on hard work, then a laborer works harder than any investment banker. If we base it on intelligence that is manifestly unfair given no one can choose their genes. And if we based it on objective value to society then nurses and teachers would be far wealthier than someone who speculates on share or takes advantage of cheap foreign labor.

      You aren't the only one who's sick of the rhetoric, so let's talk facts. The developed world in roughly 1/3 the world's population and consumes 90%+ of the resources. This is unjust.

      Your witness.

      Commenter
      GYoung
      Location
      Ringwood
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 12:23PM
    • GYoung - You claim "a laborer works harder than any investment banker" and "if we base it on intelligence that is manifestly unfair given no one can choose their genes" - sounds like you are a communist. We know what happened to the USSR. China is not communist but a dictatorship of the Communist Party of China. You give no consideration to supply and demand, the years of learning needed for a relatively higher-paid job and you seem to think only physical effort (not cerebral) is worth considering.

      Commenter
      hbloz
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 12:50PM
    • hbloz - GYoung sounds like a "communist"???

      *gasp*

      Quick, call the ideology police! We can't afford to let one of those loose around here...

      You, on the other hand, sound like a hysterical fool.

      All the best,
      N.C.

      Commenter
      N.C.
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 1:15PM
    • @GYoung. People who are more intelligent should earn more because it increases their capacity to have children. This is a good thing because it improves society's gene pool.

      With regards to % of world's resources consumed, it's rubbish. The most valuable resource by far is knowledge (particularly scientific/technological). All other resources ultimately come from the sun and are in practical terms limitless. The main resource you'd be referring to is energy. Well, your argument doesn't really hold water since we're moving towards renewables. I guess you could be referring to rare earth metals? But then they can be recycled. They don't "disappear"!

      In contrast, guess where the knowledge has come from to exploit renewables...? Hmmm, oh that's right, the developed world, not Africa (or any other developing culture). Where do the medicines they rely on come from? Or the internet/laptops that Indians/Chinese are using to pull themselves out of poverty? Western society! Romans/British/American. The rest of the world would never have graduated from living in smelly caves without them. Have we occasionally exploited poorer people? Of course. But lets get one thing perfectly clear. They (and their decedents) have and will continue to benefit much more from the existence of our culture then we ever did from their existence. It might satisfy your need for self-flagellation to state otherwise, but it really doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

      Commenter
      LiamH
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 2:02PM
  • First, I agree completely with the substance of the article. I live in the Philippines where Australia is now the single largest foreign government aid donor and it is something we can all take real pride in. Also, it has given Australia enormous influence over the development of the education system (where we focus) and is delivering fantastic outcomes.
    Second, there should also be a focus on jobs. I realise offshoring jobs is unpopular but the other side of the coin is that every job outsourced to a place like the Philippines provides an opportunity for a worker to lift not just themselves but their whole family out of poverty. They also pay tax in the Philippines providing a more stable tax base for the government to more reliably deliver its own services. Also, a rising middle class is increasingly holding various public officials to account in terms of things like corruption and service delivery.
    There are 100 million Filipinos with an unemployment rate of more than 7% - but the participation rate is only around 30%... shipping jobs we don't really want over here is a huge way to help a neighbour.

    Commenter
    Chris Moriarty
    Location
    Manila
    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 10:07AM
    • Thankfully now with a Labor govt our foreign aid can now go to Family planning clinics for contraceptive and termination assistance.
      Let's never forget Sen Harradine and the limitations placed on our Aid.
      Time for the Philippines to reduce their family sizes and listen to the clinics not Rome.

      Commenter
      a country gal
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 3:14PM
  • It's incredible worrying that the government is even considering cutting our aid budget. We've glided through the GFC, have huge mining revenue, we can afford to help those less fortunate. shame on you gillard, don't break this promise.

    Commenter
    EmmaW
    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 10:18AM
    • I presume you are already contributing 50% of your after-tax income to World Vision etc......

      Commenter
      hbloz
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 12:51PM
    • You'll notice if you read the article this is about the Government's aid commitments. It doesn't involve individual donations, except from what you're paying through tax.
      But yes, I do donate a significant amount to charity.

      Commenter
      EmmaW
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 1:00PM

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