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Speech to Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) 2019 Conference

We are gathered today on stolen land. This land always was and always will be aboriginal land.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Bedegal people, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

As we face the intimately linked crises of climate collapse and rampant capitalism, we must work for a world that is free from injustice, a world where the well-being of people isn’t predicated on endless, unsustainable planet killing economic growth, a world where building a just and decent life for all is possible. To do that, we must be devoted to working alongside First Nations people in their fight for justice, for treaties and for self-determination. 

It’s a real privilege to be here with all of you today. Thank you for all the incredible work you do in making this world a better place for all of us. 

We have just heard from Mr. Sopoaga who has long been a climate champion in the Pacific and has been instrumental in putting issues faced by people in places like Tuvalu front and centre of the international debate on climate action. That is a brave and bold move. If we have any hope of addressing the climate emergency, we’ve all got to be brave and bold.    

So today, I want us to reimagine foreign aid – not simply as charity but as an issue of global justice. Not as a way to further our own national ambitions, but as a way to right historic wrongs. Not as a way to further our greedy trade interests, but as a way to build communities in parts of the world that have been left destitute. 

Australian aid budget

In recent times, Australian aid has shrunk by dramatic proportions. Spending on aid has fallen to a historic low under the Coalition. They have slashed the aid budget by $11.8 billion in six years, leaving just around 0.2 per cent of our Gross National Income for international development. 

That is a far cry from the United Nations target of 0.7% of our GNI.

I know how your work gets harder with every cut in the aid budget.

Australia has an obligation to contribute to a just and equitable world by working with communities in the Global South to promote human rights, environmental protection, health, education and climate justice.

Australia has an obligation, particularly as a wealthy country and given its colonial past, to encourage positive and equitable change in the social, economic and environmental justice in the Global South.

But the quantity of aid isn’t the only question. What is the point of a ten billion dollar aid program if it just feathers the nests of private companies? Transformative change does require resources, but most importantly, it requires the courage to set new rules. 

Global injustice and power imbalance

So when I ask you to reimagine aid as something greater than charity I mean that we tackle the underlying root causes of inequality and the imbalance of power by recognising, first of all, that we live in a fundamentally unjust world.

A world where the Global North has long had a colonial and extractive relationship with the Global South.

A world where inequality between people living in different parts of the globe is one of the most urgent emergencies facing humanity.

A world in which where you are born decides more of what your life will be like than any other circumstance, ability or potential. Millions of children’s futures are stolen from them the moment they are born – as our passports, nationalities and places of birth determine our futures.

A world where many international conflicts and humanitarian disasters owe their genesis to arbitrary lines on the map drawn by colonialists in London, Paris or Washington. 

This is a grave injustice, but we must remember that inequality is not a natural phenomenon. Poverty is not an accident. I am inspired by the words of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, “Poverty is not written in the stars; underdevelopment is not one of God's mysterious designs”.

So it is time to abandon old assumptions, see clearly the gravity of what we are facing and rethink the way we look at aid and international development.  

Poverty in the Global South is the result of colonisation and the ongoing legacy of colonialism through the continued extraction of resources and the grossly unfair neoliberal trade and debt systems.

In parts of the world, colonialism has merely reformed into extractive and exploitative global corporations. Arundhati Roy has called these “the economic outposts of Empire”. 

Let’s take for example Guinea. The small nation in West Africa is rich with mineral wealth, boasting perhaps the largest bauxite reserves in the world, yet its people live in extreme poverty and have reaped no benefit of these riches, as Western corporations have negotiated so-called “contracts” that funnel all the wealth to them. Some of these corporations have been investigated in Western countries for bribery to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Bribery that has stolen so many futures.

Or take India where research by the economist Utsa Patnaik from Columbia University, that draws upon nearly two centuries of detailed data on tax and trade, concludes that Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from the sub-continent during the period 1765 to 1938. To put that in perspective, it is 17 times more than the total annual gross domestic product of the United Kingdom today. In Australian terms, that is 34 times the size of the total Australian economy. 

This extraction of wealth is not just a historic problem, but an ongoing one. 

A report by the US-based Global Financial Integrity and the Centre for Applied Research at the Norwegian School of Economics published some shocking numbers on this flight of capital, finding that poor countries are - in fact - still net creditors to the rich countries in the Global North. 

The majority of tax havens in the world are controlled by Western countries, where trillions of dollars of stolen money from the Global South have ended up. These are actively protected by systems in place precisely to keep the money there. 

These systems have played a vital role in enabling corruption that has undermined democracy and human rights. We know illegal capital flight wouldn’t be possible without these tax havens - after all, where would you hide the money if there was nowhere for it to disappear to? 

I can’t even bear to think of the social costs of this. 

This is money that should have been used to provide education, build hospitals, improve gender equity and provide resilience to climate change. Or in other words, provide the future, dignity and opportunity that everyone deserves. 

On the one hand, we undermine these countries and communities by extracting wealth and on top of all this, aid budgets are also under attack. 

Although aid makes up about 1% of our budget, it has accounted for 25% of all budget cuts announced by the Government since 2013. 

So to be realistic about the aid project is to be realistic about the global picture of inequality and the power imbalance that exists in our world. 

Too often, our aid programs have been used to subsidise Australian business. Particularly in the last few years we have seen business come to the forefront of the aid program, at the expense of genuine partnership with recipient communities, and with little accountability and transparency.

There is no aid without partnership. Australian aid programs must recognise the strengths, capabilities and knowledge of partner countries and communities. The delivery of aid should also be a decolonising process and it is shallow if it’s not. 

Many of you here know that communities are very easily able to identify the problems that they face by themselves. Our role is working with them to remove barriers to their own self-determination. 

And in doing so, we must also commit to Australian aid projects recognising the rights of Indigenous communities to free, prior and informed consent as recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Too often, Indigenous communities are overlooked in the delivery of aid and this cannot continue. 

Climate crisis and aid

The climate emergency, in particular, looms large in the landscape of global inequality. Given Australia’s dirty hands in producing climate changing emissions, we have a special responsibility to do everything we can for climate justice. The longer we wait, the greater the loss of life and the greater the threat to our world as we know it. 

We are witnesses to an intergenerational theft that will deprive future generations the opportunity to make a dignified life. We are witnesses to a global theft of epic proportions where countries least responsible for the climate crisis are amongst the worst affected. 

The reality is that coal is the biggest contributor to climate change. And Australia is the biggest exporter of coal. 

Our neighbours in the Pacific islands have water lapping at their doorsteps. They have been calling on Australia to wean off our addiction to fossil fuels, but our big political parties are firmly in the pockets of big coal, oil and gas. Climate breakdown is an existential threat to our neighbours and must be front and centre of our foreign aid program. 

Those who contributed least to the climate emergency we face, are often the hardest hit by rising sea levels, extreme weather events and environmental damage. 

In Pakistan, where I grew up, two entire villages were swept away by melting glaciers last year. It is also forecast as one of the countries to be the hardest hit.

I know that women and girls have to travel further and further to collect water and fuel, forgoing study and wages just for basic survival. 

Leaders from these countries have been pleading with the big polluters in the Global North – like us – to make a change, to stop this mantra of unlimited economic expansion at the heart of which is a callous disregard for our environment and climate.

Australia must provide climate reparations to affected countries and communities, commensurate with its historical and ongoing contribution to the problem. Our aid programs must recognise the unique challenges faced by women and girls in this climate emergency. 

Our aid programs must support women’s leadership and decision-making in all aspects of climate crisis including mitigation, adaptation, and resilience-building, with a focus on addressing the particular needs and challenges facing women and girls.


The Climate injustice gap between the global north and south has become a chasm which will drive a further wedge between those who can afford to adapt to the destruction of the world and those who are left to bear the brunt of a climate melt down.

Australia must show responsibility and shore up aid commensurate with our historic and ongoing contribution to the climate crisis. We must genuinely collaborate with communities as equal partners, through the promotion of local ownership, participation and delivery of aid programs.

Australia must look beyond its borders, not as a nation hungry for resources and cheap goods, not as a nation suspicious or fearful of others and not as an ally of a war machine but as a friend of people who are fighting oppression, marginalisation and injustices wherever they may be. 

We must become a strong proponent of democracy and human rights everywhere, not just where it is politically expedient. 

As Angela Davis says, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time”.

Thank you. 


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