Live Below the Line or Wear a Dress - Making a Difference & Development Aid

Much ink has been spilled since last week’s release of the Commission of Audit’s recommendations on reducing the nation’s spending. However, one piece of advice – likely to be implemented – has attracted scant notice.

Recommendation 31 includes calls for “better manage[ment]” of Australia’s overseas aid programme through an untying of aid spending to our Gross National Income, a limiting of any future aid increases to a rate no greater than that of inflation, and a focus in reporting and evaluating the success of spending focused on outcomes rather than “the quantity of resources applied.”

In other words, forget about the promises recent political leaders of both stripes have made to boost Australia’s aid spend to .5 per cent of Gross National Income – a promise that falls far short of what is required of the world’s wealthier nations to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

The Commission’s advice was as predictable as it is regrettable. Advice to politicians is – well, political – and development budgets and commitments are traditionally one of the first causalities when money is tight.

The reasons for this, says the Associate Director of the Indo-Pacific Governance Research Centre Andrew Rosser, is that domestic aid supporters are predominantly NGOs, church groups, aid contractors, and universities. These groups lack the economic and political clout of the business lobby and trade unions that gets their voices heard. In any event, a former Foreign Minister told Rosser, “There are no votes in aid.”

But such analysis is the beginning of the story – not the end.

Yes, it would be wonderful if successive Australian governments kept their promises to dedicate a reasonable and reliable proportion of the nation’s income to reversing the grinding poverty, hunger and disease of those living below the poverty line in places like East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands.

Certainly, there are sound, practical reasons why they should. These include increasing Australia’s security and maintaining and expanding trade opportunities. Foreign development aid creates the connections, trust and goodwill that serves the national and commercial interests of today and tomorrow.

But we don’t have to wait for Australian governments to act in the national interest when it comes to foreign development aid. We can do something to help our nearest neighbors now. We can choose to act not just because it’s in the national interest, but because we care and helping those in need is the right thing to do.

It’s hard to overestimate how important it is to many Australians to feel they can make a difference about issues that matter to them. This is not surprisingly. Humans search for meaning and doing what we can to leave the world a better place then we found it is one way to find it.

For many, charity starts in the home or with neighbors. Such locally-oriented givers feel best when they are assured their contribution got where it was going, and made a difference they can see. But even those with a more national or international focus want to know their doing the right thing and their efforts aren’t being lost to corruption or inefficiency.

Increasingly, philanthropists want to actively contribute to change, not just send cash. A hands-on approach asks more of the giver, but is worth it. Giving to others is – for all but psychopaths – one of the surest routes to fulfillment and happiness.

So what should we do in the face of what could be significant cuts to Australia’s development aid?

My advice is don’t get cynical, depressed or angry. Instead, get active!

Take the challenge of living below the poverty line, fast or do it in a dress. If you’re time poor or unwell, don’t worry. She who doesn’t try to do everything does something. There’s nothing wrong at this time of your life with signing and sharing petitions or donating to those able to do more.

Be inspired. I like the story of the young Aussies who dared one another to try eating on less than $2 a day after they’d toured the slums of Bangladesh together. These young men were so radicalized by the understanding the challenge gave them of living below the poverty line, they started what became a global movement to raise money for the poor.

Make changing the world your bread and butter. Think of Anita Roddick whose tiny cosmetic shop in Britain built on the principle of social and environmental change became the world-wide Body Shop chain. Or Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, provides the poor in India with micro-finance to start a business.

We can’t let our individual moral priorities be determined by what our government does or doesn’t do. Each of us has the power to make a difference to this world by being the change we want to see right here and now.

Dr Leslie Cannold is an ambassador for the 2014 Live Below the Line Campaign

Publication history

The Coalition is set to slash foreign aid – but we can still make a difference  The Guardian - Comment is Free