The recent 2020-21 Federal Budget contained welcome COVID-19 support for the Pacific and Timor Leste, but Oxfam Australia says Australia’s foreign aid commitments must go much wider to help stem devastating impacts on countries and regions that were already struggling before the coronavirus pandemic.
Australia’s support for the Pacific was also undermined the Budget’s focus on building gas projects, a “betrayal” of a region whose existence depends on serious action being taken against climate change, writes Anthea Spinks, Oxfam Australia’s Programs Director.
Anthea Spinks writes
As Melburnians like myself start to take our first tentative steps out of lockdown, all Australians are raising their heads above the parapet to assess the economic and social damage of the COVID-19 crisis in our communities.
Like millions of others around the world, we’re also beginning to discuss the way out, while in other parts of the globe, people are preparing for another wave of restrictions to be imposed on their freedom.
However, for the many millions of people who started this crisis already in crisis — perhaps living in poverty or a conflict zone — the road to recovery is not straightforward, with what seem like insurmountable obstacles blocking the way.
The Federal Government has made it clear that Australians should expect our own recovery to take many years. So, how can we give hope to poorer nations that have already lost significant development gains this year?
The needs in these developing nations are astronomical. The United Nations is asking donors for USD $10.3 billion (AU$14.6 billion) to respond to the COVID-19 crisis alone, and that figure will likely grow in coming months as the damage this pandemic has wrought becomes clearer.
And this crisis has taught us just how interconnected our global health, wealth and wellbeing are.
“Ever-shrinking aid budget”
That’s why it was heartening to see the Federal Government’s announcement of an almost $305 million two-year fund to support the economic recovery of our Pacific neighbours and Timor Leste in this year’s Budget.
While it’s still not clear how these funds will be allocated, this was an acknowledgement of the fact that this crisis is not over for Australians until it is over for everybody.
But aid agencies like Oxfam, working hard to respond to unprecedented needs across the globe, know that this isn’t enough.
We believe the Government must acknowledge that the impacts of this crisis will leave their mark for decades to come by permanently increasing our ever-shrinking aid budget, which this year fell for the seventh consecutive year to $4.04 billion from a high of $5.7 billion in 2013-2014.
In order to contribute our fair share as a good global citizen, we have asked the Government to contribute an additional $2 billion over four years in Official Development Assistance to help fund an effective response to the ongoing impacts of the coronavirus crisis.
And there must also be recognition of the massive needs in places like Yemen – which was already the epicentre of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. We cannot ignore this suffering. We cannot relinquish our responsibility to support those most in need around our planet simply because they don’t live in our region.
We’ve just seen alarming reductions in support for people living under some of the most challenging circumstances in the world, in places like Afghanistan – where funding has been slashed by more than a third – and Africa and the Middle East, which has seen a 50 per cent funding cut.
Women to be particularly hit hard
Oxfam has estimated an additional half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by the impacts of this pandemic, including almost 240 million people in East Asia and the Pacific, and close to 130 million people in South Asia. These impacts will last years, if not decades.
The pandemic has also exacerbated existing inequalities within communities. Women are among the hardest hit economically, as they are more likely to be in precarious and informal work, and also make up 70 per cent of the world’s health workers. What’s more, women’s unpaid care burden has grown.
An Oxfam survey across five countries found more than half of the women reported spending more hours on tasks such as cooking, washing, cleaning and caring for children and family members since the pandemic began. Forty-two percent of women surveyed in Nairobi’s informal settlements said they were unable to do their usual paid work because of increased care commitments.
Investment in the long-term economic recovery of South and West Asia – and in protracted crises like Yemen – could deepen the global partnerships that are essential to Australia’s own recovery, security, influence and prosperity.
Ironically, our Government’s commitment to support the Pacific out of this crisis was severely undermined by an investment of $53 million to support gas projects. The declaration of gas, a fossil fuel, as central to our recovery from COVID-19 is a betrayal of Australians and our Pacific neighbours, whose existence depends on us taking serious action against climate change.
Oxfam and other aid agencies have worked closely with our partners at the Department of Foreign Affairs to ensure that we could pivot our work in developing countries quickly to respond to the more immediate threat of COVID-19.
This was a much-needed stop-gap measure, not a solution to the long-term implications of the pandemic. So while we know we all need to adjust to a new COVID normal, it’s important that we rebuild the systems, activities and outcomes that focus on the long-term needs, not just the immediate prevention and response activities that have dominated this year.
Otherwise, we will see further steps back for the most vulnerable, including women. The people and infrastructure we had in place in these countries, mostly through partner organisations, meant we could quickly adjust our priorities to lifesaving measures. This demonstrated the huge strategic value in maintaining strong connections in these communities.
With growing global uncertainty as a result of COVID-19, we need stronger strategic relationships now more than ever, and greater, long-term permanent investment in the development budget would have seen Australia recognised as a practical partner of choice that sets us apart from other powers, in the region and beyond.
Croakey readers can donate to Oxfam’s Coronavirus Appeal here.