By Paul Dobbyn
CARITAS Australia chief executive officer Paul O’Callaghan has called on the Federal Government to reverse its foreign aid cutbacks and live up to Australia’s “fantastic bipartisan tradition as an active contributor beyond our immediate region”.
After launching Project Compassion in Brisbane on March 4, Mr O’Callaghan contrasted the generosity of Australians with the Federal Government’s stance.
“The Federal Government has scaled back Australia’s official aid program significantly and virtually excluded countries outside our immediate neighbourhood, such as Africa, which has great need,” he said.
“Yet there are several million Australians who regularly donate to one or other of the aid agencies.
“They don’t care what the shock-jock radio announcers say … they just do it because they believe that we, as a community, should play a constructive role in addressing poverty.”
Mr O’Callaghan used the example of the generosity of supporters of Project Compassion.
“Here in Brisbane alone we raised about $1.3 million last year,” he said.
“That was in addition to money donated to support victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
“Catholics alone around the country donated $6 million to that cause.”
The Federal Government announced in January it would cut the foreign aid budget by more than $650 million this financial year.
The cuts reduce funding for programs in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and South and West Asia.
They also decrease Government support for non-government organisations like Caritas Australia.
Mr O’Callaghan, who took over as Caritas Australia head last December, gave another reason why the Government should not cut its overseas aid programs.
His argument was based on a recent visit to areas in the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.
“Some Australians say that taxpayers should not have to support overseas aid and development programs at all; we should just deal with issues at home,” he said.
“But my visit to the Philippines about three weeks ago reminded me why Australia, as one of the richest countries in the world, should not retreat or scale back its overseas aid program.
“Australia has had a fantastic and bipartisan tradition of constructive engagement on the international stage.
“Australia chaired the first ever United Nations General Assembly.
“We have participated in 53 peace-keeping missions and led many initiatives to promote peace, such as by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in Rhodesia and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to end apartheid in South Africa.”
Mr O’Callaghan said the government was scaling back Australia’s official aid program at a time when 230 Australian mining companies were expanding their investments in Africa.
“We already have more than 700 Australian mining projects there and rapid growth in two-way trade,” he said. “Given Australia’s proud history as a very active contributor beyond our immediate region, our expanding commercial ties with Africa and the evidence from donors that they don’t want Australia to narrow its aid program to a small number of countries in our immediate region, I hope that this Federal Government will return to our long-term pattern before long.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said “the Government is committed to investing aid in the sustainable development of our close neighbours”.
“Our aim is to lift the living standards of the most vulnerable people in our region through aid for trade, better health and education outcomes, empowering women and girls and leveraging private sector involvement.
“Under the Abbott Government aid spending will be tied to measurable outcomes.
“Rigorous benchmarks will be introduced to ensure integrity in the Australian aid program and to give Australian taxpayers greater confidence in its effectiveness.”