Why 40 Christian women leaders united to tell MPs to give more

Melissa Lipsett is acting CEO of Baptist World Aid Australia and she was part of a large group of Christian women leaders who yesterday lobbied our politicians in Canberra for greater generosity towards the world’s poor. Melissa explains why the privelege of Australia must lead to greater responsibility for those who have less than we do.

Last week I got my COVID-19 shot. It wasn’t a fun 30 hours in the aftermath, but it wasn’t that that surprised me. Rather, it was that in my hour spent in the vaccination cenre, there was only one other 50-something woman getting hers. Seven brilliant and engaging staff (that I could count) but only two customers. I was shocked! Where is everyone? We have the absolute privilege of being able to access the vaccine but apparently Aussies are, at best, being slow to respond, and at worst, recalcitrant.

I want to understand and respect personal conviction but, in this regard, I just don’t think it’s enough reason to hang back. Why? Simply because with privilege comes responsibility – and access to the vaccine and world-class health care during a global pandemic is an absolute privilege.

I work in international aid and development. I have colleagues and friends (loved ones!) across the world – most in low to middle income countries. They are all vulnerable. Many have contracted COVID, some have died. Those they serve have been struck in multiple ways – the loss of livelihoods and education; little or no access to health care, let alone hospital treatment; being pushed to the brink of starvation or death. Women and girls are at greater risk of violence, and of being married off early. Those with disabilities are unable to access critical health information or assistance.

This pandemic has reversed the decline of extreme poverty experienced during the past two decades. This was to be the decade it was eliminated altogether. It won’t be.

In fact, the knock-on effects of COVID are likely to be felt for decades to come among the most vulnerable and marginalised – among the poorest of the poor. Most of these countries have very little or no access to vaccines; less than 0.3 per cent of shots have gone into the arms of those who live in the poorest countries on the planet. They have little of no prospect of a vaccination or indeed any relief from COVID anytime soon. This likely will be the case for many years. And many more people will lose their sources of income (local markets, labouring, supply chains and the like).

More will die – some from COVID but others likely from starvation. Yes, starvation. Famine is a very real prospect in dozens of countries across Africa and the Middle East. It is estimated that 34 million people are on the brink of this right now. Half of them are children; about 10,000 additional children are dying each month.

Also, decades of conflict in these regions – when overlayed by the COVID crisis – are taking a very heavy toll indeed.

I think Aussies understand the need to care for our nearest neighbours in this way …

So, privilege and responsibility are issues which are weighing heavily on my mind. Both individually and collectively. That’s why I went to Canberra this week with Micah Australia and about 40 other women leaders from across the Christian landscape. Women of all ages (so many smart young women!), from almost every denomination in the country – Salvos, Anglican, Uniting Church, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, Baptist and more. They came from churches and faith-based aid and development organisations, to advocate to our politicians of every persuasion about the importance of stepping up and contributing to our world as a nation.

We applauded what Australia has already done in supplying vaccines to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, but the job is a long way from done and we must continue to do and contribute more.

It’s not just the right thing to do ethically and morally, it also makes good economic and strategic sense. It’s actually in our own interest so, if that needs to be the basis of our motivation, let it be so.

I think Aussies understand the need to care for our nearest neighbours in this way – in my own organisation, Baptist World Aid Australia, we were blown away by the response to an appeal to help us keep three remote Baptist hospitals open by supplying PPE. But it seems we’re more reticent to stretch out our help globally.

Many of those we spoke to this week in the halls of Parliament House didn’t even know about the desperate hunger crisis facing much of Africa and the Middle East. It’s not something we read about in the local press. So, in addition to more COVID aid for our neighbours, we called for $150 million in immediate famine prevention and relief.

I have a sense, though, that our call may have fallen on distracted (deaf?) ears – I hope not! I remember the 2011 hunger crisis across the Horn of Africa – and how hundreds of thousands died before the world took sufficient notice and acted …

Importantly, the delegation of women united in their call for a permanent increase to the international aid budget. Strangely, we were told that the Right thinks the church doesn’t care about the decline in our aid budget. Hearing that about my own Christian mob grieves me deeply – surely it isn’t true?

It is my deepest prayer that Australia and Australians, of faith and of none, step up to do all we can to make a better world for all.

As women from across the entire church landscape, we pledged our church’s and people’s support if the Government will take need and generosity seriously. Currently, Australia is ranked just 21st – between Italy and Slovenia – in the global generosity stakes, among the world’s wealthiest nations measured as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI). We have fallen from 14th.

Surely, we can do better than this. Surely, we are better than this! So, we asked for the base aid budget to be set at $4.5 billion. That sounds like a lot, but is actually tiny – around 20 cents for every $100 dollars of GNI.

Privilege and responsibility always come hand in hand. We might have shut our borders and have the incredibly good fortune to be hunkering down in this island nation but, surely, if nothing else, the pandemic has served to convince us that the world is very small, and we are very connected. It is beholden on us all to go and get our shot, be generous and kind, and call our local member to ask the same of Australia.

I was proud to stand with Micah Australia and women Christian leaders yesterday to declare that to whom much has been given, much is expected. It is my deepest prayer that Australia and Australians, of faith and of none, step up to do all we can to make a better world for all.

Reverend Melissa Lipsett is Acting CEO, Baptist World Aid Australia.

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