The Federal Budget was handed down last night in Canberra, indicating the government’s agenda, policies and priorities for the next financial year. Each year, this sparks an important debate for Christians about foreign aid and the role of Australia in helping those in need. Here’s what you need to know about this important issue.

Last nights’ budget announced that in 2017–18, Australia will provide $3.9 billion in Official Development Assistance (ODA—a fancy way of saying aid!). This is a slight increase (in line with inflation) on last year, and it will rise again to $4.01 billion in 2018-2019.

However, the Official Development Assistance is to be frozen for two years from 2019-20, effectively cutting $303.3 million out of the projected foreign aid budget.

This was another hard knock for the International Developmental and NGO sector, who have been lobbying the federal government to increase foreign aid spending for several years.

Australia’s foreign aid represents around 0.22 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To put this in perspective, defence represents around two per cent of GDP, welfare is 35 per cent, and health is around 16 per cent.

What’s happened in the last few years?

Five years ago, a bipartisan agreement between the Labor and Coalition parties, outlined a commitment to increase the foreign aid contribution to 0.5 per cent of Australia’s gross national income.

But unfortunately, this agreement has never seen fruition, with cuts being implemented since 2013.

Back in the early 2000’s, the foreign aid budget was rising steadily, from $2.2 billion in 2004, peaking at $5.7 billion in 2013 under the Gillard government.

In financial year 2014, however, it was cut back to $5 billion. Since coming to power in late 2013, the Coalition has reduced spending on aid each year. The biggest cuts were in the last two budgets, 2015-16 and 2016-17, where aid was reduced by 20.2 per cent and 7.4 per cent respectively.

Many Christians feel frustrated by this, especially when you compare Australia’s performance in this area on the world stage.

The United Nations’ target is for each country to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income on foreign aid. In 2016, the United Kingdom had met this target for the previous four years. Germany met the target for the first time last year, joining countries such as Sweden, Luxembourg, Turkey, Denmark and Norway.

Australia has been slipping further down the list of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, and in 2016 fell below the average GNI contribution. It’s clear that we can and should improve in this area.

It’s good to be reminded that aid is never a ‘silver bullet’ for lifting a nation out of poverty. Nor does this attitude pay service to the nations and communities whom we are advocating for.

But neither should we fall into the trap of believing we must look after our ‘own backyard first’. If we think like that, it’s inevitable that we’ll never get to the point where we feel we ‘have enough and can now help others’. Foreign aid in the Indo-pacific also helps produce stability in our region; it helps and strengthens our own ‘backyard’.

So, who does Australia’s Foreign Aid help?

Australian’s spending has always focused in the Indo-pacific region. In fact, it accounts for about 90 per cent of Australia's foreign aid commitments. Here’s a snapshot of some of the other commitments made this year:

  • A new three-year $100 million commitment will support the humanitarian needs of the people of Iraq and stabilise those areas newly liberated from ISIS
  • $55 million to the Gender Equality Fund, including $5.4 million for the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative.
  • $141 million to the Solomon Islands to promote peace, justice, and inclusion.
  • $399.7 million for the humanitarian and protracted crises.
  • $5.9 million for the Latin and Caribbean region.
  • $26.1 million for the African East Coast.

What should our response be?

It’s hard to reconcile this small percentage of spend on foreign aid when you look at the current state of our world: the East African Drought, refugee crisis, the humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq, the list goes on. The need is overwhelming—people are broken, hungry, misplaced, and in great distress.

Many voices scream and point at the government’s lacks of compassion, saying they are turning their back on the world. This may hold some truth, but this response only sees the issue through a political paradigm.

We all have a responsibility to lobby our elected representatives for what we believe to be good and true, and to hold them accountable for their actions. But what about our spiritual responsibility as Christians?

We are amiss if we think our job for the poor is ‘done’ by criticising the government.

We must never abdicate the role of the Church to the government.

The mandate to look after the orphan and the widow was given first to the Church and believers.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

The government is an institution full of imperfect people in power, trying to protect, serve, and govern for the majority—it will never live up to our expectations.

But in the midst of this tension, we have a role to play in compelling the government towards the good it can and must do.

The government can’t bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, only the Church can do that.

But we can humbly and strongly remind elected leaders of the vulnerable, the poor and we can act on behalf of those who can’t act for themselves. Jesus was never afraid to speak out truth, even when it offended; but he also showed grace for every person he encountered; the public servant, the leader, the orphan. The challenge always before us is to follow his perfect dichotomy of truth and grace (John 1:17).

The Church is the only institution ordained by God Himself— His body and His bride, ordained to bring the good news of Jesus, to be a haven for the lost and broken and to serve as an outpost for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Compassion has and always will work with the local church in the most impoverished communities to bring the hope of Jesus to children and their families. Because the Church is the light on the hill, not a policy, a budget or a government.

Let’s pray for our government, lobby strongly where needed, and get on with the job we’ve been ordained and empowered by God to do.

Words by Rebekah Wilesmith

Sources: Australian Aid Budget Summary 2017-18, Portfolio Budget Statements 2017-18 Budget Related Paper No. 1.9 Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio, Huffington Post, Lowy Institute, Eternity News, Aid budget and statistical information.

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