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The Australian Government has raised Australia’s international aid spending by announcing a one-time COVID-19 recovery package for the Pacific and Timor-Leste, which will sit alongside the $4 billion committed to the official overseas development budget for 2020-2021.

Australia’s 2020-2021 Federal Budget, announced Tuesday, revealed the nation’s foreign aid spending will technically be cut by $44 million in the next year — but because of the added $304.7 million in COVID-19 funding — which “looks and feels” just like aid, development organisations say Australia will in effect spend more in international development. 

Aid spending as a proportion of Australia’s gross national income remains the same as in recent years, at 0.21%. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the COVID-19 package will support Australia's closest neighbours over two years.

"It will help address the economic and social costs of the pandemic in the Pacific and Timor-Leste, helping to underpin our region's stability and economic recovery," Payne said, according to ABC.

CEO of the Australian Council for International Development Marc Purcell commented that, while further information is required to comprehend why the government has kept the COVID-19 package separate, it seems Canberra doesn’t want to be criticised for increasing aid amid Australia’s first recession in nearly 30 years. 

"We welcome the more ambitious path the government has set out,” Purcell said in a statement. “We are looking to the government to continue on this path, lock-in these temporary increases and expand our development cooperation in Asia as part of the [next] budget.”

Tuesday’s announcement also revealed overall aid budget boosts for a handful of Pacific nations. 

Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Nauru Tonga and Kiribati will all have their Australian aid injections increased, while Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands will hold onto their titles as the two largest Australian aid recipients.

Overall aid to the Pacific will increase from $1.38 billion in 2019/20 to $1.44 billion in 2020-2021.

Programs focusing on gender equality and water and sanitation likewise received aid increases, with the Gender Equality Fund allocated a further $10 million, while the amount dedicated to tackling water, sanitation and hygiene issues among the world’s poorest nearly doubled — from $17 million to $31.8 million. 

Experts have raised concerns, however, over the fact that some essential programs have been cut, as has funding to almost all other geographic regions.

Aid to South and West Asia has been cut by $72 million, with aid to Pakistan slashed by a heafty 66%. Funding to the Middle East and North Africa, and aid to sub-Saharan Africa, recorded a similar fate, with cuts of 61% and 48%, respectively.

Particularly concerning is an apparent 25% reduction in disability-inclusive funding.

"The scale of this crisis requires a permanent and long-term increase in funding for Australia’s aid and development response,” Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Lyn Morgain said in a media release. “Without it, countries in our region and around the world won’t be able to get back on their feet, recent development gains will be lost and poverty and inequality will deepen.” 

Tuesday’s aid budget comes amid the worst health crisis in a century, and a year that required a lot from Australian aid.

Since March, Australia has committed $300 million in aid funding to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a critical health partnership that works to ensure the world’s most vulnerable people receive life-saving immunisations. Australia has also already pledged hundreds of millions to the global COVID-19 response — including over $200 million to the COVAX Facility, an initiative that will ensure the equitable distribution of future COVID-19 vaccines.


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