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Record low foreign aid budget means ‘preventable deaths won’t be prevented’

Church leaders call on Australia to urgently raise the amount we are spending on development assistance

Twelve church leaders from the across the spectrum of churches have written to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urging the government to significantly lift the foreign aid budget as a key indicator of a more compassionate foreign policy that is not solely caught up with our national interest.

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“Hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths won’t be prevented unless Australia’s aid programme is lifted,” said Ben Thurley, national coordinator of Micah Challenge, who coordinated the letter as a submission to the government’s foreign policy white paper, the first comprehensive review of Australia’s international relations for 13 years.

“…the continued cutting in foreign aid is having a significant impact.” – Keith Jobberns

In the first statement by such a wide group of church leaders on a diverse range of foreign policy issues, the signatories called on the government to take “concrete steps” to increase overseas aid towards the internationally agreed target 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI), which has already been met by countries including Britain.

The leaders from the Adventist, Anglican, Apostolic, Baptist, Catholic, Chinese Methodist, Congregational, Church of Christ, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Salvation Army and Uniting churches also pressed for: more urgent domestic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, greater support of regional communities affected by natural disasters and climate change and more active support of the needs of refugees.

“Jesus’ call to love our neighbours as ourselves reminds us that a concern for the needs and rights of others must not be an afterthought.”

Since 2013, when the Coalition walked away from a bilateral commitment to lift aid spending to 0.5 per cent of GNI, the government has cut development assistance to a record low of 0.22 per cent of GNI.

“The aid budget has actually had massive cuts over the last few years, and every time it happens children will die because they’re not being immunised, they’re not having access to food programmes, they’ll be missing out on education,” said Janet Woodlock, federal coordinator of Churches of Christ.

Keith Jobberns, national chair of Australian Baptist Ministries, said millions of people living in poverty had been affected by the cuts, which in just one year, 2015-16, led to the cancellation or reduction of many programmes, including primary education in Bangladesh, HIV prevention in Indonesia, prevention of avoidable blindness in Pakistan, and the provision of safe drinking water and decent sanitation in Vietnam.

“The cuts in the budget are going to have a profound impact at the village level … the continued cutting in foreign aid is having a significant impact, particularly in the lives of women and children in some of our nearest neighbours, particularly in the Pacific region,” he said.

The main thrust of the submission, Thurley said, argued “for a foreign policy that isn’t solely driven by a very narrow definitions of the national interest but looks at the way we engage on climate change, looks at the way we engage on refugees and looks at the way we support our neighbours to become economically self-sufficient – and obviously our aid programme is a key indicator of Australia’s generosity.”

“Jesus’ call to love our neighbours as ourselves reminds us that a concern for the needs and rights of others must not be an afterthought nor the accidental by-product of a unilateral pursuit of self-interest. Rather, that we must apply the same concern for the rights and interests of others that we apply to our own,” the letter read.

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