Australian aid in action in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan.

Australian aid in action in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Photo: Jo Chandler

The message is quite simple - hands off the overseas aid budget. The Australian aid program represents the generosity of the Australian public to those living in our region or across the globe who require humanitarian assistance to improve basic living standards or support in times of emergency.

Domestic financial constraints - especially those based on political expediency - should not drive our commitment to the world's poor. Yet, two recent decisions have done precisely that. The commitment in 2007 to increase Australian aid to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2015-16 was a clear demonstration of the importance given to our international responsibilities. This planned increase was to effectively double the Australian aid program in a few short years.

On the ground, this would mean more children having access to education, more mothers being able to access maternal and child health for themselves and their babies, more communities having access to clean and safe drinking water and sanitation. This increase in aid would improve millions of lives.

In the last budget, the federal government postponed by one year its target for reaching the goal of our aid program being 0.5 per cent of GNI. This delay had the effect of reducing the Australian program by $2.9 billion over four years and cutting $362 million from this year's aid program. World Vision Australia's CEO, Tim Costello estimated that these cuts would result in 250,000 lives being lost.

In the past few days, a similar effective cut to the Australian aid program has also been announced. In order to fund the costs associated with asylum seekers in Australia, funds to the value of $375 million have been diverted from the Australian aid program to pay for the food, housing and other associated costs with the care of those seeking refugee status.

The justification of this diversion of aid funds is that providing humanitarian assistance onshore is just as valid a use of overseas aid funds as providing humanitarian assistance of asylum seekers offshore. Unfortunately, such a justification is plain wrong.

Official development assistance is clearly defined as those funds which, as their primary purpose, promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. Moreover, these funds must also have a concessional character, that is, they must in part be a grant or discounted loan to a developing country.

Australia is not a developing country, nor does the protection of asylum seekers within Australia promote the economic development or welfare of any other developing country. Therefore the Australian government cannot claim that spending on asylum seekers in Australia is a legitimate component of our aid program.

If these funds are required, then of course the Australian government is free to divert these funds from one area of spending to another. However, it is not appropriate to continue to count these funds as part of our program. This spending simply fails to satisfy the definition of foreign aid.

Over the past 10 years or so, the phenomenon of the Christmas wishing tree has taken root across Australia. Places of worship, shopping centres, private companies, and non-governmental organisations all provide opportunities for us to give Christmas gifts to be distributed to children and families in need.

In a relatively short period of time, the buying of gifts for those we don't know or have any real connection to has become a normal part of the Christmas ritual for many Australians. As we buy gifts for our own families and friends, we now, as a matter of course, purchase an extra gift to be placed under a Christmas wishing tree knowing that it will be delivered to someone who would perhaps have gone without. This is in effect how we might also understand our foreign aid budget.

At this time of year especially, the Australian government is in effect taking $375 million from those who go without every day of the year, in order to deliver a budget surplus.

Surely, the needs of those living in real poverty throughout Asia, the Pacific, and Africa should be given priority, and Australia, as the generous nation it is, should be able to find the funds to give aid to those overseas in need as well as provide domestic welfare services to those living in need among us.

Professor Matthew Clarke is head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University.