Doctors call on the PM to increase Australian international aid budget

The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, MP

Prime Minister

Parliament House



19th April 2016


Dear Prime Minister,

The Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) shares the very serious concerns of many Australians that our country’s overseas development aid is dropping to its lowest ever level.  There has been sustained and severe criticism of the spending cuts from the major aid organisations that see the direct impacts of the withdrawal of funding.   As an organisation that promotes the use of human, financial and technical resources for human well-being, MAPW also deplores the reduction in our country’s aid program. We regard the cutting of aid as an unacceptable undermining of the real security needs of millions of people.

The cuts in overseas aid that were announced two years ago in the 2014 budget were disproportionately severe compared to all other sectors of government spending.  In December of that year, then Treasurer Joe Hockey acknowledged that aid was the hardest hit in the mid-year fiscal budget, and it was being used to "offset" defence and national security commitments of $1.3 billion.  The cuts, which are continuing each year until 2017-18, will see Australia’s foreign aid relative to income fall to the lowest levels ever in our 40-plus years of formal overseas aid.

The government’s failure in December 2015, in the mid-year budget update, to reverse the drastic cuts to Australian aid reinforced a mean-spirited approach to some of the world’s poorest people.  MAPW strongly urges the Australian government to reverse the cuts in the 2016 budget.

The reductions in our aid budget occur while our expenditures on war and its preparation continue to increase.   The 2016 Defence White Paper indicated that an additional $29.9 billion would be provided to Australia’s military over the next 10 years, and that our spending on war and its preparation will increase to 2% GDP.

This increase was announced despite the White Paper’s recognition of the fact that “there is no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future”.   When we are told that Australia can no longer afford to give even the very modest levels of overseas aid that previously were in place, and that we must instead increase our war-fighting capacity against an enemy that does not exist, Australia’s priorities appear aggressive and militaristic.  They suggest a misplaced faith in armed force to bring us “security” and a disregard for overseas aid’s capacity to enhance goodwill between peoples and nations, which is in the interests of everyone except those who profit from warfare.

In 2010 the World Bank produced a Policy Research Working Paper, “In Aid We Trust: Hearts and Minds and the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005”[1].  The paper noted the importance to US foreign policy (and we could extend that to Australian foreign policy) of winning “hearts and minds” in the Muslim world and the increasing recognition of bilateral aid as a vehicle with which to achieve this.  It reported that, four years after the 2005 earthquake, humanitarian assistance by foreigners and foreign organisations had left a lasting imprint on population attitudes. The writers stated that “The results provide a compelling case that trust in foreigners is malleable, responds to humanitarian actions by foreigners and is not a deep-rooted function of local preferences”.  The fact that people remember who provided help when they needed it should hardly surprise us.

MAPW believes that Australia’s security would be far better served by focussing on those factors that improve human wellbeing for our neighbours and beyond.  Australians cannot be secure unless our neighbours and others also feel secure.  The 2016 Defence White Paper’s call for the ADF’s fighting capacity to be “regionally superior”, with all the economic cost that entails, overlooks the fact that  other nations will seek military superiority also, setting up the conditions for regional arms races which will be in no-one’s interests.  Least of all will they be in the interests of the millions of people who will continue to lack basic human needs as military budgets rise and our aid budget falls.

A far greater budgetary emphasis on foreign aid and less emphasis on Australia as a fighting nation is not simply a matter of acting responsibly towards some of the poorest people on earth. Even if one accepts the very limited notion of “security” as guarding against the threat of external attack (whether by a nation-state or non-state actors), there is little doubt that Australians would be more secure if we went to war less often.  We are more at risk from terrorism as a result of our nation’s military actions in the Middle East, commencing with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the formation of ISIS in its wake. 

MAPW notes two of the most outstanding and short-sighted casualties of our slashed aid budget:

·         Australian aid to the Middle East 

In an act of unparalleled irony, in September 2014 the then Prime Minister Abbott called for further military intervention in Iraq on behalf of the suffering civilian population of that country. This occurred just months after the government ceased all humanitarian aid to the country.  Then in 2015, aid cuts of 82% to the Middle East and North Africa were announced. This is the part of the world that Australia helped to grossly destabilise, as an unintended – but predicted – consequence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq in which Australia took part. 

To reduce aid to the very people whose lives and security have been destroyed by that invasion and its aftermath lacks any sense of moral responsibility. 

 If our goal is to improve human well-being, then the approximately $750 million we are reported to be spending on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East in the current year would almost certainly be far more effectively spent in increasing rather than slashing our aid budget to those regions. Supporting reputable aid agencies is a key component to improve social and political stability in these regions.


·       Climate change mitigation

In addition to Australia’s grossly inadequate response, as a heavy carbon emitter, to the need to drastically reduce carbon emissions, our contributions to adaptation and mitigation efforts are also far short of what is required. 


The injustice of climate change is well recognised, as a problem created largely by wealthy countries, but whose effects are felt disproportionately by poorer countries. Also well recognised is the fact that climate change is a major security risk, with the likelihood of huge movements of people whose land is either underwater or no longer productive. However Australia’s moral responsibility to help mitigate the problem is ignored in our current and future aid budgets. 


At the COP21 Climate Change summit in Paris in December 2015 you pledged an amount of A$1 billion over the next five years for climate change mitigation, but this was to be drawn from our existing aid program. In other words, our assistance to help mitigate the impacts of climate change will be at the expense of aid elsewhere. This is deceptive and shameful.

Australia can do far better.  Our aid budget stands in stark contrast to that of other nations.  The UK, for example, in 2013, reached the OECD's 0.7% of GNI target, and it has since passed a bill enshrining this 0.7% commitment into law.  

MAPW calls for Australia to restore our development aid budget, not only to the pre-2014 levels, but to the target set by the UN for developed countries of 0.7% GDP.  This could be readily achieved by reducing the proposed massive increases in our military budget.

If Australia’s goal in its dealings overseas genuinely is to provide humanitarian assistance, then foreign aid needs to be a priority. It is time Australia placed greater reliance on real humanitarian initiatives and the fostering of goodwill instead of frequently, and often ill-advisedly, going to war to “keep us secure”. Ongoing cuts reducing our aid to 0.21% of GDP represent Australia shirking its international responsibilities, when compared with other first world nations. Please consider significantly increasing foreign aid funding allocations in the forthcoming budget.

Yours sincerely,


Dr Margaret Beavis  MBBS FRACGP MPH


MAPW – health professionals promoting peace


[1] Policy Research Working Paper 5440.  The World Bank Development Research Group.  Human Development and Public Services Team. October 2010