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Country of the fair-go drags its heels on reducing world poverty

We're the lucky country - it's about time we let that luck rub off on others. Australians are stingy. Do you believe it? Well, when it comes to international aid, among the world's 23 richest countries, we come in a lowly 13th when aid is measured as a percentage of our income.

Built on the principle of the fair go, the notion of Australians failing to support the underdog may be difficult for many of us to comprehend. Don't we always dig deep when our mates are in need? Yet today Australia is giving just 35¢ in every $100 we earn as a nation.

Although there is a bipartisan commitment to increase our aid spending, cabinet murmurings suggest the government, in its desire to achieve a budget surplus, is preparing to cut our limited commitment even further.

In 2000, then-prime minister John Howard joined 188 other world leaders to commit to the Millennium Development Goals, a 15-year global plan to tackle poverty. As part of this commitment, privileged countries like ours recognised we needed to increase our aid spending to 70¢ for every $100 earned.

Twelve years later, Australia has reached just half that amount. Britain, which has had an infinitely more challenging time through the global financial crisis, has ring-fenced its aid program and legislated that by 2015, it will be be giving double what Australia now gives.

Yet 75 per cent of the world's poorest people live in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood. As a lucky country with a tradition of a ''fair go'', we have always cherished the principle of helping out those in need. But the case for building on the achievements we are making through our aid program goes well beyond our ethics, to national security, economic prosperity and nation building.

There is no doubt that aid is saving millions of lives. UNICEF research shows in 1990, 36,000 children were dying every day from poverty. Just 20 years later we have reduced this number by 14,000 deaths a day. With Increased funding and the improved effectiveness of aid, we are on the right track to bring this number of poverty-related deaths close to zero.

Simple interventions make a massive difference. The miracle food ''Plumpy'nut'' can bring a severely malnourished child back to health in a month at a cost of less than $50. Insecticide-treated bed nets are drastically reducing the number of deaths from malaria. Immunisation from polio costs 15¢ and may free a child and his or her family from its tortuous burden for life. Improved water and sanitation have prevented millions of deaths by diarrhoea, dysentery and water-borne diseases.

The tragedy of cutting aid now is that the momentum would be threatened. Effective, sustainable development takes years to foster in a community and in a country.

Our aid also delivers a lasting dividend to Australia. We may be an island nation but we are not immune to the world's ills. As swine flu demonstrated, a disease outbreak in Mexico one day can close schools in our suburbs the next. By building resilience within foreign communities, aid protects us against the impact of disease, instability and violence that incubates amid the very worst poverty.

Aid also fosters economic growth. Australia earns an estimated $130 billion in export dollars from countries that receive our aid. And recent natural disasters in Australia have given us a front-row seat to the devastation and suffering that we too often see beamed into our lounge rooms from across the world.

As a rich nation, and one that avoided the worst of the financial crisis, Australia has the capacity to help at home and beyond. We must not let our compassion end at our borders, and our elected leaders need to demonstrate this generosity of spirit.

Despite economic challenges, escalating unemployment and the terrible toll of the recent flooding and London riots, Britain has maintained its commitment to aid. Australia can and should do the same. Meeting these commitments bolsters the security, economic stability and international standing of our country and region. Fifty cents of every $100 we earn is a small price to pay for a world where every child has the chance to achieve their full potential.

Australia can ill afford to deliver a budget surplus on the backs of the world's poorest people.

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the centre for applied philosophy and public ethics at the University of Melbourne. He donates 25 per cent of his salary to UNICEF and Oxfam. Norman Gillespie is the chief executive of UNICEF Australia.