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The largest refugee camp in the world, located in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, was host to Australian politicians last week as they embarked on a tour to observe first-hand how Australia’s aid program is changing the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. 

The non-partisan tour was intended to showcase the importance of continuing Australia’s aid funding in Bangladesh. 

Politicians from both the Liberal and Labor parties — including Tasmanian Senator Wendy Askew, Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally, Gold Coast Liberal MP Angie Bell, Labor MP Anne Aly and Labor MP Josh Wilson — visited several programs addressing issues like access to education, sanitation, health, and gender equality.  

Save the Children Australia’s CEO Paul Ronalds, who led the tour, said he hopes the trip will be eye-opening. 

"The Bangladeshi Government is committed to eliminating poverty and Australia is supporting this effort by investing over $70 million AUD in development assistance,” Ronalds told Global Citizen. “We have found, with the generous support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that these learning tours can have a prolific and life-long impact on how politicians view Australian aid."

Ronalds added: "This is the ninth learning tour we’ve facilitated and we think it is an incredibly useful tool in ensuring decision-makers value Australian aid now and well into the future."  ​​​​

After visiting a women’s microfinance program in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, Keneally said Australia’s influence was clear.

"They say that women hold up half the sky, they say if you change a woman's future, you change her family's future, and that's what we're seeing here today,” she told SBS. “I think Australia has to recognise our responsibility as a first world country to contribute to our region, to lift people out of poverty, and ask ourselves as a country what more we can do to transform the lives of some of the most poor people in the world.”

The tour comes during a time when Australia’s aid program is under heavy review. 

In December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the nation’s $4 billion a year aid program would be reexamined under a new review — with a particular emphasis on which countries receive aid, how much they collect and which projects obtain funding. 

According to Australia’s Minister for International Development Alex Hawke, the review should see “economic infrastructure and connectivity” emphasised in the nation’s aid program. 

Humanitarian charities, however, claim that while projects like new infrastructure developments are valuable, they do not have the same influence as providing adequate education or healthcare when it comes to lifting people out of extreme poverty. 

Currently, around .21% of Australia’s gross national income is spent on aid — a fall in real terms of 27% since 2013. 

The Pacific, predominantly Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu, receive the largest chunk of the budget, at $1.4 billion AUD, followed by $1 billion for Southeast and East Asia. South and West Asia, including Bangladesh, take home the third largest share, at $266.2 million

For Bell, it is now clear that every cent counts. 

"It’s a small investment for us that is far-reaching, wide-reaching and changing the lives of Bangladeshi people,” she told SBS. 

Submissions for Australia’s current aid review will close on Feb. 14. All Australians have been encouraged to submit.


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