Fiona Higgins addresses a difficult question: What is it about Australia in 2018 that means we are becoming less generous towards the needy beyond our shores?

It’s almost Federal Budget time and in the lead up, there’s been the usual animated debate about how our government carves up the fiscal pie. One area that never fails to ratchet up public inflammation levels is Australia’s commitment to foreign aid. In case you missed it, here’s the background.

In early April, in the wake of the Australia Institute’s Charity still ends at home report, SMH journalist Matt Wade pointed out that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has overseen a 38% drop in development assistance as a share of gross national income. This isn’t unusual: aid spending has fallen under seven of Australia’s last 10 foreign ministers. In 1995, when Australia was still recovering from a recession, we managed to contribute 34 cents out of every $100 of national income to help developing nations – these days, we offer only 22 cents. Wade ended his article with a provocative question: what is it about Australia in 2018 that means we are becoming less generous towards the needy beyond our shores?

A few weeks later, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, told the Overseas Development Institute in London that 75% of Australians don’t support any further spending on the nation’s aid budget and announced that Australia’s aid commitment would therefore remain static for the next two years. The alarm this prompted in the international development sector was documented by Luke Michael of Pro Bono Australia – with sector leaders branding Fierravanti-Wells’ comments as problematic on multiple levels.

Funnily enough, however, very few others outside the sector kicked up a stink about this issue. Why?

What lies beneath

If you trawl through the barrage of online opinion in discussion threads about the debate, there are some recurrent themes. Summarised below are the six most common refrains that lie at the heart of population-level objections to foreign aid and – because some of them aren’t always rational – a counterpoint position

1. Corruption. Whether it’s 34 cents or 22 cents for every $100, most foreign aid ends up lining the pockets of corrupt foreign leaders anyway.

Misconduct is everywhere – even in our own backyard, as the findings from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry demonstrate. Corruption and humanity are natural bedfellows, it’s just a matter of gradation: is it ineffectual bumbling, wilful misconduct, or bribery and corruption? And it’s not a phenomenon exclusive to the developing world: the most recent EY Global Fraud Survey revealed that 40% of senior executives in Australia and New Zealand believe that bribery and corrupt business practices are common in industry. Whatever form it takes anywhere in the world, it makes little sense to demand punitive action against ordinary citizens because of their corrupt political and business leaders.

2. The needs in those countries are endless. Funding seems to be plugging a bottomless pit.

The needs of our domestic health, education and welfare sectors are also ‘endless’ – but do we stop spending on them for that reason? Solving complex problems requires commitment, trial-and-error approaches and a preparedness to turn up over the long-haul – often for benefits that we may never see in our lifetime.

3. Development is dead. The UN is a basket-case. Aid is a band-aid solution. There doesn’t seem to be any real long-term plan to fix things and no real improvement.

There is a long-term plan: it’s called the UN Sustainable Development Goals, developed in consultation with local communities. Like any strategic plan, it’s not flawless, and it requires cooperation and partnership of governments, the private sector, civil society and citizens to make it happen – so it gets complicated in implementation. Just like our domestic agencies, the UN is far from perfect, but it’s the biggest humanitarian actor in the world – feeding 80 million people in 80 countries last year. People’s basic needs – food, water, shelter, safety – must be met before you can enact more complicated development agendas, like cultivating a culture of economic growth to help lift people out of poverty.

4. Foreign aid should be spent on contraception. These countries will always be disasters until they get their family planning under control. If they stopped having babies, they wouldn’t be in this mess.

Family planning certainly reduces maternal and child mortality and empowers women and families. But the most effective force for contraception is to lift people – especially women – out of poverty, give them stability, access to credit, and allow them agency over their future. Additionally, in most developing nations birth rates are falling and there is a direct correlation between improved access to education for women and declining fertility rates.

5. Charity begins at home. We’ve got problems of our own to solve.

Yes, and they don’t seem to be improving at any great rate, either: the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, poverty, the rising cost of living, homelessness, youth suicide, mental health issues, rural decline, health and education. Should we ignore these too?  Our ambitions for solving our domestic problems should never preclude us from providing aid to desperately vulnerable people overseas at the same time.

Further, problems abroad become problems at home when they aren’t dealt with properly – economic migrants, political refugees and soon-to-be climate refugees are all a product of instability. While the vast majority of new arrivals don’t wish to abandon their roots, they naturally seek what each human seeks – a better life for themselves and their families.

6. We’re not all that well-off. It’s hard being charitable when you’ve got mountains of debt to service for the roof over your head.

We are, per head of population, one of the richest nations on earth. The fact that some of us here are in dire need – or that many of us experience mortgage stress – is no reason to withhold assistance from those even poorer. If you doubt that you’re rich compared to most of the rest of the world, check out this relative wealth calculator.

Nervous about the neighbours

Interestingly, when Australians cite examples of their key reservations about foreign aid, they often refer to Indonesia. Commentary usually goes something like this:

There are 20 billionaires in Indonesia – if they are not helping their own poor, why should we? They’re never grateful for our help, and their death penalty laws are inhuman. What difference does it make, anyway?

There are billionaires in Australia, too – 43 of them, to be exact – but we don’t skimp on domestic donations on the basis that these 43 individuals aren’t providing the support they could, in theory, for the needy in our country. Indonesians have the same level of control over the actions of their wealthy as we do. As for Australian foreign aid buying political leverage – the ‘we’ve been kind to you, so you have an obligation to us’ mentality – Indonesia is a sovereign nation. The biggest victims of its death penalty are Indonesians. If we seek to inspire our neighbours to rescind this policy, we should support international development initiatives that foster a healthy civil society to see inhuman policies overturned in Indonesia.

Australian aid does make a real difference in Indonesia, as the annual performance reports indicate. Last year, Australian aid helped:

  • Increase financial inclusion for Indonesians not covered by major banks through new financial technology regulation.
  • Improve Indonesian Government budgeting, through the introduction of multi-year budgeting in 87 agencies.
  • Increase income for 44,000 small farming households.
  • Enable 50,000+ women to contribute to policy and decision-making in their communities.

Australia’s aid to Indonesia is smarter and more targeted than the ordinary Aussie may think – because foreign aid is primarily about promoting national strategic and political interests, and then helping people. Thus, under Objective Three of the aid program to Indonesia – An inclusive society through effective governance – our support is delivered via counter-terrorism measures. Assisting Indonesia is enlightened self-interest; the stakes for not helping those in need are even higher, as extremism becomes more likely when economic disempowerment and under-education converge.

What lies even deeper?

Common themes/myths about foreign aid aside, Matt Wade’s original question remains. Why exactly are we richer, but meaner than ever?  In my view, three key factors are informing this phenomenon:

1. The decline of religiosity and the ascent of consumerism

This is not a popular argument in our increasingly agnostic and atheist society (and to be clear, I’m not a proselytising Christian). While religious affiliation can itself be problematic and generate its own issues, the decline of religion (of all types) has destabilised formal frameworks enshrining mutual responsibility. In the absence of those old-fashioned notions that we should all give to those needier than ourselves because it’s the right thing to do, generosity is increasingly reliant on the whims of the individual. Meanwhile, non-religious alternatives like ethical humanism are not exactly mainstream, but the power of consumerism is growing. People are so focused on acquiring the latest thing, riding the newest trend, or participating in the most talked-about events, they have little or no mental bandwidth to consider the bigger picture – why are we here, what is most important, how can I live with purpose?

2. The impacts of social media

Our increasingly fragmented media environment could be contributing to a decline in public awareness of global issues. More likely, however, is that social media is reinforcing people’s own interests and taking insularism to the next level. Simultaneously, social media may also be contributing to public desensitisation and indifference: seen one horrific African famine clip on Facebook, seen them all. Yet stealthily, social media fosters the illusion of action. If I ‘like’ a post about a global or domestic social issue, then I’m demonstrating I care, right? (It’s almost as if I’ve done something about it.) Finally, social media exacerbates the ascent of consumerism by constantly depicting all the ways in which we are not enough, pushing us towards a proverbial mouse wheel in which no matter how fast we run, it will never be fast enough. Social media deadens our sense of a bigger picture – like levels of foreign aid and what we might do about it – because we’re so busy running in the mouse wheel, trying to live up to a fabricated ideal.

3. Prolonged prosperity and peace fosters a sense of ‘entitlement’

Does anyone else remember their grandparents’ tales of the Great Depression? How no one had much of anything, but everyone banded together to help each other out? Since the 1950s, Australia has never had it so good. We’re living in a prolonged epoch of actual prosperity, yet our sense of community is disintegrating. Perhaps it takes a little hardship to bring out the best in people: qualities such as grace, mercy and generosity. Could the absence of any real duress be encouraging a more mean-spirited and selfish society?

‘Entitlement’ seems to be a particular problem in ‘younger’ (colonised) countries such as Australia and the US, but is less prevalent in places where there is a long memory of hardship that has written itself in the stones of cities (such as Berlin, which is effectively a city-wide shrine to WWII and a constant reminder to its citizens, visitors and all Europeans of the dangers of nationalism and white supremacy). Even in Europe, however, decades of peace followed by a refugee crisis are now causing a new wave of populism.

It’s harder to take action than it is to criticise

Whether the muted public response to Australia’s decreasing foreign aid commitment is driven by common myths or something deeper at work in society, one thing’s for sure: it’s easier to join a chorus of critics about the imperfect ‘system’ than take a stand and declare that helping the poor and the vulnerable – when we, by comparison, are rich and secure – is the right thing to do. Without a doubt, we need to be judicious about delivery by supporting international development initiatives that are evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted, underfunded and requested by local communities, and where the latter have a lead role in their design. Even when we do all that, our foreign aid efforts will inevitably be flawed – but surely our common humanity calls us to try.

Fiona Higgins is Grantmaking Specialist at Australian Philanthropic Services. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Australian Philanthropic Services.


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