Sixteen years ago, in a clinic in the middle of the Ugandan bush, I watched helplessly as a tiny baby girl slowly died from neonatal jaundice. Without basic equipment, like phototherapy lights, the nurses could only rely on sunlight to treat her. They placed her on the window ledge, lying in a blanket, in the hope she would have a better chance there. While her grieving and exhausted mother watched on, they took the baby outside and held her up to the sun, desperately trying to save her. But the cloudy, rainy season was upon us, and the little girl died. Her family bent double and keened, and I swore I would not forget her.
Since that time, the world has made remarkable progress in the fight to reduce child mortality. Since 1990, we have almost halved the number of children worldwide who die every year before the age of five – from 12.6 million to 6.6 million, largely thanks to investments in foreign aid. But there is much more to be done.
The recent budget announcement that the government is making further cuts to Australia’s foreign aid commitments is deeply disappointing. It does a disservice to who we are as a people, and as a nation of givers. It also hinders the progress being made to alleviate poverty across the globe and seemingly fails to grasp the huge potential that smart investments in foreign aid can have for Australia’s long-term security and economic growth.
In this age of globalisation and interconnectedness, the case for international aid is at once both a deeply moral choice, as well as a profoundly sensible economic decision.
Australia is a resource-rich nation, with one in five Australian jobs directly linked to trade. In order to unlock potential for Australian trade across the globe, investments in aid are vital. As people are released from poverty they are better able to contribute to their economies, and opportunities for trade and commerce increase.
Investment in aid is also critical for the stability of our world. Extreme poverty brings an increased likelihood of extremism, conflict and disease outbreak, which, despite being an island nation, we are not immune from. We have seen many examples of this – a swine flu outbreak in Mexico in 2009 led to Australian schools closing the following week. The SARS scare in Asia impacted us immediately.
We furiously debate our responsibilities to those fleeing for their lives from violence and chaos, yet miss the point that poverty is at the root of all such misery. Simply put, Australia benefits when nations across the globe have improved standards of development. The stability of every country on this planet equals our own stability.
I sometimes wonder when and why the concept of sharing, which we teach our children so early on, took on a different, more negative connotation in the adult world. I watched with amazement a few weeks ago as a couple of mums were sitting with a coffee in the park with their kids, and speaking loudly against “bludgers”, “illegals” and the “welfare state”. At the very same moment, a child wandered into the group, attracted by the array of toys on offer. When one little boy reached to protect his toys from this newcomer, the mothers turned in unison to scold him for not sharing. The irony was entirely lost on them.
Australia has a commitment under the Millennium Development Goals to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on effective aid by 2020. With these cuts, we will only be contributing 0.29 per cent of GDP by 2017. Many other nations that sit far below Australia on measures of wealth and wellbeing have made foreign aid a critical part of their economic strategy. Yet we, with all we have, want to keep our toys to ourselves.
I have seen firsthand the incredible impact that smart investments in international development can make through the work of my organisation, The ISIS Foundation. Over sixteen years, ISIS has witnessed entire communities transformed through the provision of education, healthcare and infrastructure projects. Fast forward to today and that small clinic in the Ugandan bush is now a model hospital in East Africa, providing expert care in maternal, infant and child health, with one of the best-equipped neonatal intensive care units in the region. Tens of thousands of mothers and babies who otherwise might have died have been saved.
Aid is not charity. It is not just a nice thing to do. It is imperative for our economy, for the stability of our world and perhaps most importantly, for our own humanity.