2010 was a potentially critical year in the campaign to eradicate extreme poverty. It represented a last chance for the global community to seriously re-evaluate its effort to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. As such it was a final opportunity for the Australia Government to match its anti-poverty rhetoric with real action, by giving our fair share of effective aid to the world’s poorest countries.
Serious efforts were made to convince Australia’s leaders that it was time for them to step up to the plate. Development agencies, community organisations and faith groups mobilised an estimated 10,000 people to meet directly with their politicians on this issue in 2010. At least three major mass mobilisations took place in Canberra and Melbourne, with a combined media audience of over 10 million.
It was to little effect, however. At the major UN Millennium Development Goal Summit on September 21st, Australia made a few small commitments in regards to money that had already been promised. Ultimately, our leaders failed to contribute what they knew was necessary to achieve the Goals. In this respect our Foreign Minister and Prime Minister merely paid lip service to the notion that Australia continues to strive for the Goals to be achieved by the 2015 deadline.
The failure of the Australian anti-poverty movement to change government policy has potentially profound implications. I believe there are at least three major ones.
First, we must broaden the national coalition of groups (NGOs, businesses, unions, churches and other community groups) that constitute the backbone of the anti-poverty movement.
The Make Poverty History campaign is driven by a group of over 80 organisations, yet only five or at most ten actively invest resources into campaigning. In terms of demographics, the active participants are limited to university students and ‘soccer moms’, as Bono once put it. These groups are necessary but not sufficient to achieve real change. The latent potential we must tap into are the millions of individual Australians and the tens of thousands of community groups that take regular direct action to help poor communities – the 1 million people who sponsor a child, the hundreds of Rotary groups that support grassroots projects, the thousands of churches that fund mission work. These people conceive of an individual responsibility, but not a collective responsibility, to address of poverty. In 2011, we can reach out to these groups by telling their individual stories of heroism on the national stage, and then engaging the whole community in a conversation that convinces them that extreme poverty is a political concern, not just an individual one.
Second, we must develop a much clearer case for poverty reduction based on imperatives that do not rely on compassion or altruism.
I can think of at least two good alternatives. First, the national security argument for development assistance is becoming stronger and stronger. Clearly Australia’s biggest security threats in our region come from non-state actors and non-traditional sources. State failure in the Solomon Islands, weak governance in the Philippines and high levels of violence and social breakdown in Papua New Guinea are all spilling over and affecting Australian interests. The war in Afghanistan has demonstrated that development efforts are seen to be an equal partner in the conduct of defence policy. Second, the population argument for poverty reduction is poorly understood but potentially very potent. It’s clear to most Australians that a rapidly increasing global population means higher levels of immigration. What is less well known is that poverty reduction, particularly for women, is unequivocally the best form of population control. If communicated well, this is potentially a powerful reason to invest more heavily in poverty reduction in countries like Timor-Leste, with the highest natural population growth rate in the world.
Third, we must crystallise and forcefully advocate for pro-development policies that go beyond aid.
The reality is that the Government is focused in the short term on achieving its 0.5% GNI target, and its debt reduction agenda makes increasing any public spending difficult. The reconstruction burden of the Queensland floods make this even more of a problem. Beyond aid, there are a number of policy areas in which Australia can have a huge impact on poverty. For example, development economists agree that greater labour mobility is the intervention that could have the single greatest impact on poverty, bigger than aid or trade interventions. However in Australia, we have a Pacific Guest Workers Pilot Scheme that has utterly failed. This must urgently be rectified and scaled up. Furthermore, there are measures that could be put in place to improve the overall “policy coherence” of Australian government policy in regards to poverty reduction. For example, a key issue is that the poorest countries are always in a position of weakness when it comes to the bargaining process that accompanies policymaking. Their interests are never strongly advocated. Asking the Government to appoint parliamentary representatives for each of our nearest and poorest neighbours such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea could change this, meaning that important decisions on natural resource exploitation, climate change policy and trade agreements would be more in the interests of the poor.
All three of these suggestions for the anti-poverty movement involve breaking with how we do things, which is always difficult. And by no means am I suggesting that we should abandon the core tenets of our movement, in particular the moral claim on the government to be a more generous nation.
What I am saying is that if we want change in 2011 and the years ahead, we have to change the way we do things. The shocking injustice the keeps 1.4 billion people trapped in extreme poverty demands that we do.