The Observatory

Australia loses sight of international aid commitments

Jennifer Gersbeck

To say the last 12 months have been disappointing for the Australian aid sector is a gross understatement.

A woman gets her eyes tested at a eye clinic in Cambodia

 

The Australian Government’s May Federal Budget delivered the biggest single-year cut to foreign aid in Australia’s history, a move that has undoubtedly hurt the country’s international reputation. The Budget revealed $1 billion - 20 per cent of Australia’s current foreign aid budget - would be cut, bringing the total cuts to the aid program since the Abbott Government was elected in 2013 to $11.3 billion.<

Australia’s aid budget is now the weakest in history.

The scale and immediacy of the cuts has forced Australia to break commitments made to partner governments and organisations all around the world and will lead to untold harm to millions of families and communities that Australian aid previously reached. Caught up in the Budget cuts is funding for the Vision 2020 Australia Global Consortium

For the past eight years I’ve felt very proud of Australia’s leadership role in the elimination of avoidable blindness across the Asia Pacific region – now I feel ashamed.

In 2008, the then Australian Labor Government made one of the biggest commitments ever to strengthen eye health in the region through the establishment of the Avoidable Blindness Initiative.  Australian NGOs formed a Consortium to implement programs under the Initiative, achieving great results throughout Asia and the Pacific.

We have come a long way in reducing avoidable blindness and vision loss and local capacity is stronger than ever before, but the sobering reality is that the cessation of the Avoidable Blindness Initiative and funding to the Consortium will have a significant impact in the region.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve experienced the full gamut of emotions over the past 12 months – starting with concern and moving to hope and ending in dismay and disbelief.

It is personally difficult to discuss the impact of these cuts with the Foreign Minister’s staff and Departmental officials – not just because the Consortium was unsuccessful in securing funding, but because like many others, I’m aware of the individual human cost of these cuts. It’s heartbreaking to think that thousands of people will remain needlessly blind or vision impaired because a wealthy country like Australia is putting its own interests ahead of others.

2015 marks the end of the Millennium Development Goals and the beginning of a new sustainable development agenda. This month, global leaders will come together to agree on Sustainable Development Goals that will apply to all nations, and will recommit to giving 0.7 per cent of national income to aid. While foreign aid isn’t the answer to ending poverty, it still plays a critical role in ensuring many people have access to water and sanitation and basic healthcare, including eye health. Of concern is the signal Australia is sending to the rest of the world. Despite our region being home to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, the recent aid cuts send a very lukewarm endorsement of the new global commitment to end extreme poverty. By 2016-17 the Australian aid budget, as a share of national income, will fall to just 0.22 per cent (22 cents in every $100) – an all-time low.

Australia could do so much more.

Early in 2013, Australia was instrumental in securing a resolution at the World Health Assembly (WHA) for the Universal Eye Health: a Global Action Plan 2014-2019 and played an integral role in the development of the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific regional plan. Failure to continue the Avoidable Blindness Initiative and fund the vital work of the Global Consortium will jeopardise the Australian Government’s commitment to meeting the WHA’s goal to reduce avoidable blindness by 25 per cent by 2019. A goal that is unlikely to be achieved in our region without Australia’s continued support and leadership.

While the actions of government are disheartening, I am encouraged and inspired by the commitment of the Vision 2020 Australia member agencies who continue to work tirelessly to strengthen global eye health and vision care. There is still a strong willingness to collaborate and find innovative ways to deliver effective programs in our region and other parts of the world. 

Australians will most likely head to the polls next year to elect our next Federal government. The election provides an opportunity to increase public support for foreign aid and development. There’s a great campaign underway called ‘Campaign for Australian Aid’. It seeks to speak to all Australians about the incredible difference Australian aid has made in the lives of people across our region and the world and calls on us all to stand up for this life-changing work.

Getting the narrative right is vital - it certainly has made a huge difference in the UK - let’s hope this campaign can achieve the real sea change that’s needed in Australia.

The disappointment that the Australian aid sector is feeling will eventually pass, but the impact of the Australian Government’s budget cuts will continue for much longer.

Australia has a strong history of leadership delivering effective eye health programs in the Asia Pacific region. I can only hope that Australia’s hard won place in the world isn’t undermined by the Government’s significant and unprecedented cuts to the aid program. 

This blog was originally published on theInternational Agency for the Prevention of Blindness website.

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About the Author

CEO Jennifer Gersbeck in a cafe

Jennifer Gersbeck

Jennifer Gersbeck is Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy at The Fred Hollows Foundation, and previously CEO of Vision 2020 Australia. Jennifer has been involved in a wide range of social marketing campaigns aimed at raising awareness, changing behaviour and influencing key decision makers. Jennifer has qualifications in Political Science and Business Marketing, is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and has worked extensively in the health and community services sector. Read more by this author →

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