This month the world is learning about the ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa, where about 12 million people have been hit by the worst drought in almost 60 years. Australia has pledged more than $11 million in aid. It's heart-wrenching to see malnourished children in refugee camps in Kenya with tubes in their noses to feed them because their hungry mothers cannot.
Closer to home, more than 34,000 women and more than 400,000 children under five die annually in the Asia Pacific region. These women die due to causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth, while children are lost to largely preventable conditions such as malnutrition or poor neonatal care.
The Greens have long argued that Australia can tackle this by spending more of its foreign aid budget on health. Presently, 16 per cent of Australia's aid heads into health projects, compared with 30 per cent spent by Canada and 34 per cent by Ireland. Australia can afford to lift this, especially given our resources boom.
In the 2011-12 budget Australia will distribute $4.8 billion in aid, rising to about $8-9 billion in 2015-16. Despite that jump, Australia will still be allocating only 0.5 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on aid.
Australia needs to lift its foreign aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GNI, because that's one of the UN'S Millennium Development Goals Australia agreed to last decade. We're running out of time because those goals expire in less than four years.
Foreign aid is often targeted by people who say we should look after Australians first. We recall the Coalition tried earlier this year to have the government shave money earmarked for Indonesian schools. They quietened down when it was pointed out the $500 million was promised by the former Howard government. The Gillard government stood firm.
Britain has also resisted calls to trim its foreign aid spending, which is exempt from the coalition government's major cutbacks to reduce the deficits of the former Labour government. In 2010 the UK government allocated 0.56 per cent of its GNI to foreign aid, up from 0.51 per cent the year before.
Rich countries like Australia can afford to help their poorer residents, as well as their poor neighbouring nations, especially in the fields of child and maternal health. A Papua New Guinean woman is 50 times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than her Australian sister. We must push that figure down. PNG is the largest recipient of Australian aid, so we need to ensure we increase the training of medical and nursing staff and midwives, as well as improving access to and education about family planning and maternal health services.
Australia is backing a global goal on increasing childhood vaccinations in developing countries. This alliance on vaccines and immunisation targets 240 million children to prevent another 4 million deaths - that's roughly the population of Melbourne - by 2015.
Let's not waste the time we have left before the Millennium Development Goals expire in four years. Hundreds of thousands of lives in our immediate region depend on it.
First published in The National Times on July 19, 2011