The humanitarian crisis: Australia fiddles while the world burns

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The Turnbull Government denies human rights to those who seek asylum while simultaneously lessening its efforts to prevent the conditions from which they wish to escape, writes Jake Watson.

“We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”

These are the words of Stephen O’Brien, humanitarian chief of the United Nations. He is referring to the impending starvation of 20 million people in the next six months — across Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. This unprecedented crisis coincides with the lowest ebb ever in Australian foreign aid spending.

At its highest level, under the rapid-fire prime ministerships of Holt, McEwan and Gorton in 1966/68, our ratio of aid to gross national income (GNI) was 0.48%. The data for this is a little unreliable, but we know definitively from the Development Policy Centre’s Aid Tracker that under Gough Whitlam the ratio was 0.47%.

This was roughly maintained over the next 30 years, with the value increasing slowly. But then the ratio decreased to an eventual slump under John Howard’s leadership to 0.24% of GNI. Howard, however, began the "scale-up" decade in 2004 — prompting an annual average growth rate of 7%. This peaked in 2012/13 at 0.34% of GNI under Julia Gillard’s Labor Government. Even Gillard, however, failed to meet expectations, deferring her promised increase to 0.5% and failing to match the 0.7% target of the United Nations. Successive Coalition governments have razed this to a mere 0.22%.

It is, disappointingly, not hard to see why. Despite living in the time of the most severe refugee and humanitarian crises ever, many Australians tend to both not care and not know anything about our aid policies. A recent poll shows that 43% of Australians don’t know how much we spend on foreign aid as a percentage of our budget. Some 19% guessed we spend 5% or more and 65% of these people believed it was too much. Bizarrely, 43% of those who did not know our aid expenditure still thought it was excessive. It is not hard to find the opinion that we oughtn’t to be wasting our money on poor people abroad when we have poor people in Australia.

Tony Abbott, chief architect of our aid disgrace, shared this opinion:

“Obviously, it’s important for all countries to ensure that their own domestic economic house is in order, because if you don’t have your domestic economic house in order, it’s very difficult to be a good friend and neighbour abroad.”

Abbott, who impressively achieved neither of those things, also said:

“We will build the roads of the 21st Century rather than shovel money abroad.”

His aid evisceration has become sacrosanct with the Coalition, though this isn’t a strictly partisan thing. David Cameron’s Conservative Government in the UK was one of the few in the world to have achieved the UN targets. Even Treasurer Scott Morrison, in his maiden Parliamentary speech, said that aid is “the Australian thing to do”. His opinion seems to have changed.

Here’s how much we "shovel" to foreign aid: 0.85% of the 2016/17 Budget, or $3.8 billion. In the 2012/13 Budget, aid got 1.32% of funds ($5.44 billion). To put that into context, the UN are asking for $4.4 billion by July. Any less or any later and this crisis will not be averted.

Unfortunately, the areas affected are also the regions treated most callously in the aid budget cuts of recent years. The Pacific region, in which we are a stalwart, was largely untouched — and fairly so. But it was largely Africa and the Middle East bearing the brunt of these cruel cuts, with Africa’s funds decreased by a massive 70% and the Middle East’s by an enormous 82%. Failing to quickly remedy this would be at best complacency in the face of large-scale human misery — a tacit admission that the hopes of re-election and the white whale of a budget surplus outweigh 20 million human lives.

We are not, of course, the only country in a position to prevent this. Our international standing and our relative wealth do, however, mean there should be significant pressure on the government to lift their game. Let’s look at the rankings of the 29 countries in the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC). Our economy is the ninth largest, but in aid spending we are 12th in volume, 14th per capita and 16th as a percentage of GNI.

(Holocaust survivor Margit M discusses the humanitarian crisis in Syria via Preventing Genocide.)

Of course, we aren’t the only country shirking our moral responsibilities — the United States being the best place to look for consolation by comparison. But the world order is in flux and Australia cannot sit idle while millions of the world's most vulnerable die in the most painful and undignified manner imaginable, or flee their homes and their lives.

Some of those fleeing will possibly attempt to gain entry to Australia and here rises a little side benefit for our government – who don’t seem to be motivated by silly things like human rights and moral responsibility – asylum seekers, or rather, lack thereof. It seems apparent that the underlying cause of our refugee "problem" is that they need to come in the first place. The same government that denies human rights to the people who come fleeing starvation and war – and even those who come as economic refugees – is simultaneously lessening its efforts to prevent the conditions from which they wish to escape.

We won’t remedy these conditions by ourselves, but we certainly won’t help by closing ourselves off , content with remaining a subservient and underachieving middle power. We have the capability to be a leader, to champion the cause of the downtrodden — a voice that seeks man-made solutions for man-made human misery.

Otherwise, if we and other nations like us who are fortunate enough to be in a position to help the world do not intervene, at least seven million Yemenis may be dead well before Christmas; the 3.4 million displaced South Sudanese may be caught by the cholera outbreak before they ever find a new home; one million Somalian children under the age of five facing acute malnourishment may have succumbed to it and north-eastern communities in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has driven 2.6 million people from their homes and the adults are too weak to walk, may never get the chance to say farewell properly to their toddlers — all of whom are already dead in many places.

I say "may", not "will", for it can be prevented, as long as we and other nations do not turn a blind eye to the hunger-bloated belly and the weeks-long wandering in search of drinking water and do not decide to confer human rights only onto those we decide are the right humans. It can be prevented.

Stephen O'Brien said:

"To be clear, we can avert a famine .... We're ready despite incredible risk and danger ... but we need those huge funds now."

Australia must answer this call. We must increase our foreign aid and we must increase it quickly.

You can follow Jake Watson on Twitter @watsonj12.

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