By Paul Dobbyn
CARITAS Australia chief executive officer Paul O’Callaghan is inspired by the testimony of Aceh tsunami survivor Faridah, but fears hopeful stories will become rarer if Federal Government cuts to foreign aid continue.
He is also concerned that the ongoing budget cuts will undo decades of good will built up by Australia, which has contributed to stability and progress amongst our developing neighbours.
Faridah was among those helped by Caritas in the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami which killed nearly 168,000 people in the Aceh region.
After narrowly surviving the disaster with her three children and losing family members including her husband, she went on to become a community leader.
Mr O’Callaghan heard Faridah’s story last month at the 10th Anniversary Tsunami Remembrance Event hosted by Caritas Sri Lanka in Colombo.
The event was attended by various bishops from throughout the region as well as senior managers of the Caritas Internationalis network.
“This courageous Muslim woman, now in her late 30s, told how she had been able to cling to a palm tree with her three children when an enormous wave came through,” he said.
“However, she lost her husband, parents and other family members in the tragedy.
“Faridah told how, through the support of Caritas, she went on to become a community leader not only to her people but to other fishing villages impacted by the disaster.
“She told us: ‘People of Caritas, you gave me hope.’”
Mr O’Callaghan said Faridah’s story was typical of many told at the remembrance event.
The Australian Government’s “savage cuts” to the foreign aid budget would jeopardise the ability of agencies such as Caritas Australia to make a difference in the lives of such people, he said.
Treasurer Joe Hockey in December’s Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook announced cuts of a further $3.7 billion from the aid budget.
This brought cuts to the aid budget last year to more than $11 billion.
“The tragedy of this latest decision is that it’s the first time in 60 years that any Australian government has retreated to the Fortress Australia mentality,” Mr O’Callaghan said.
“Reaching right back as far as Sir Robert Menzies, both sides of politics agreed having a foreign aid program promoted peace, prosperity and security in our region.
“We need to remember that 18 countries immediately around us are developing countries.
“The irony is one in five Australian households privately donate to foreign aid programs.
“Following the 2004 tsunami, our private citizens donated some $350 million to Indonesia.
“Australians are not a miserly totally self-centred people – we have a history of compassion and interest in helping our less fortunate neighbours.
“So what we have now is a government that doesn’t really represent the values of most Australians.”
“This government is about to announce a cut in company taxation and is committed to a four per cent increase in its own spending, but has decided to take 20 per cent of the foreign aid budget.
“It is a very disproportionate response.”
Mr O’Callaghan called on all Catholics and concerned citizens to help change the government’s attitude to foreign aid spending.
“Petition state and federal MPs to think more about where we as a country want to go with this,” he said.
“The Catholic community has the potential to convince the rest of Australia that foreign aid is not just an optional area but something we ought to be doing as a matter of course.”