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Australia's aid program - seeing is believing

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Over the past year, Australia’s foreign aid policy has been called into question. With numerous natural disasters at home to contend with, a few have argued that we should re-direct some of our foreign aid into our own backyard. There has been debate about the misappropriation of funds by corrupt governments, the use of private contractors to deliver aid, and the real value of aid in terms of what it can sustainably deliver.

But while such arguments may have some merit, the truth is that the vast majority of Australian aid is cost effective, and there are checks and balances to ensure that it reaches those who need it most. Australia’s aid program is scrutinised regularly, ensuring lessons learned are applied to strengthen and continuously improve the program.

Australia is, and will remain, a wealthy country. Australians get medical care when they need it, have access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation, and our children have the opportunity to go to school. We have the 13th largest economy in the world, and given that our population ranks only 50th in the world, that makes us a very wealthy country indeed. As a wealthy country, we have a moral obligation to help those living in other parts of the world who are disabled by extreme poverty, corruption and injustice. A small amount of foreign aid can mean the difference for many people between life and death, being needlessly blind and able to see, having fresh water or dying from cholera, or having opportunities in life and having none.

Despite constituting only fractionally more than 1 per cent of Australia’s overall federal budget, Australia’s aid program has made a huge impact in the developing world. It has wiped out polio from the Pacific and seen more than 1.5 million children immunised against measles and polio in Papua New Guinea.

Our water supply and sanitation programs are providing clean water for more than half a million people in Africa. In the past year, Australian eye-care organisations have restored sight by providing glasses to thousands of people, performed countless eye operations so that adults and children are no longer blind, and enhanced the capacity of many countries to look after their own health needs in years to come.

A recent report by World Vision showed that Australia’s aid program has had a huge impact on the lives of many in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. The report, Effective Aid: Helping Millions notes that the ten countries that receive the most aid from Australia have all experienced dramatic reductions in the number of people who live in poverty. And by poverty, it doesn’t mean people who can’t afford a cup of coffee at their local cafe - it means the back breaking, soul destroying, gut wrenching poverty beyond the imagining of most people in the developed world.

But providing aid to the world’s poor is not just a moral imperative, it is in Australia’s best interests too. A strong aid program makes our region and the world a safer place by providing opportunity and stability in neighbouring countries and creating goodwill between governments and people. It creates trade opportunities for Australian businesses by stimulating economic growth in poorer countries who cannot hope to achieve this on their own, and it also enhances our ability to pursue our own political and diplomatic interests.

Another argument is that Australia simply does aid well – and one of the things we do particularly well is eye health. Australian organisations, following the leadership of such icons as Professor Fred Hollows, have a long history of improving eye health in developing countries. Since 2010, in partnership with the Australian Government, Vision 2020 Australia’s Global Consortium (a collaboration of nine Australian eye health organisations) has been providing eye health services in the Asia Pacific and has demonstrated that when it comes to aid, partnership is the way to go. The Global Consortium’s work includes eye care and surgeries, training for health professionals, and the development of eye care resources and infrastructure.

The Global Consortium is already on its way to achieving its goal. In its first year in Cambodia, a country attempting to rise from a grim recent history, over 38,000 eye examinations were carried out and over 7600 sight restoring surgeries took place. Many of these services have been made possible by the launch of a new eye hospital, and enhanced by training that has been provided to over 700 eye health professionals. In the Solomon Islands, nearly 1000 people received glasses to improve their vision, while in Papua New Guinea eye health centres have been established throughout the country, providing low cost eye care where previously it was virtually impossible to access or afford.

This may just seem like a whole lot of figures, but these programs have literally transformed people’s lives. Men and women who were once blinded by cataracts and other eye diseases are not only able to see again, they can work – enabling them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Children who once struggled to see can now go to school, thanks to a simple eye screening test and new glasses.

So, how can we as nation, with the ability to provide this assistance at relatively low cost, deny people living in poverty the ability to see?

Both sides of politics have committed to continuing to increase Australia’s aid budget to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015. This move will ensure that the world’s poor continue to receive the help they need and bring Australia’s contribution to foreign aid in line with other developed nations - a move which I wholeheartedly support.

ENDS

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