Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, in his hand down of the 2021 Australian Federal Budget last night, revealed the nation’s international development budget for 2021-22 would be $4.33 billion — a decrease of $14 million from the year prior.
While a two-year package of tens of millions was committed to help India through its COVID-19 crisis, and the promise that 10,000 Australian-made COVID-19 vaccines will be sent to our most vulnerable neighbours each week, no other money has been committed for a regional pandemic response.
This is in stark contrast to last year, where over $300 million was pledged to help the Pacific and Timor-Leste.
In many ways, how the Australian Aid budget is dispersed has remained consistent.
The pool for key programs like the Humanitarian and COVID-19 Response Fund, United Nations and Disaster Risk Reduction, Preparedness and Response Initiative has remained the same as last year, while the International Committee of the Red Cross and World Food Programme had increases of $5 million and $8 million, respectively.
Funding to address gender inequality through a health, sanitation and education lens received small decreases.
Australian aid spending per country has likewise been steady, with only Papua New Guinea receiving an almost $12 million decrease. Overall, countries in the Pacific, Australia’s closest neighbours, have taken the lion's share of international aid, otherwise known as overseas development assistance.
BREAKING NEWS — The 2021 Federal Budget has revealed Australia's international development spend will be $4.33B for 2021-22 — around the same as last year. We are pleased that 🇦🇺 will continue to support our region through #COVID19, but more must be done! #auspol@JoshFrydenbergpic.twitter.com/au8RSDiyve— Global Citizen Australia (@GlblCtznAU) May 11, 2021
In response to the budget, Marc Purcell, the CEO of the Australian Council for International Development – the nation’s peak body for international development NGOs — said he would have liked to see new funding committed to health initiatives like the ACT-Accelerator.
The initiative is currently working to get COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines to everyone, everywhere, but is facing a multi-billion dollar funding gap.
“The Australian Government did the right thing by front-loading its immediate regional response to COVID-19. But despite COVID-19 deaths rising alarmingly across the Asia-Pacific, Australian development assistance is now declining,” Purcell said in a media release. “The situation is fast evolving, but our budget response is not. Beyond the two-year package for India, there are no new, additional investments in this budget for tackling the pandemic.”
Professor Brendan Crabb, the chair of Pacific Friends of Global Health, echoed Purcell’s comments.
"The pandemic is so far from over. In fact, it is the worst it’s been, so I can’t fathom why the government would fail to build upon its initial response when the need is greater than ever,” he said in a statement, before explaining that aid is vital for Australia’s security. “When our neighbours are vulnerable, so are we. A strong, financial investment from Australia is strategic as much as it is simply the right thing to do. It is vital to protect the health, stability and security of the Indo-Pacific and necessary to speed up an end to the pandemic. This isn’t over for anyone until it’s over for everyone.”
Global Citizen’s Australian Country Director Sarah Meredith likewise said that this was not the time for the government to slow its support and investment in aid as the region grapples with COVID-19 and a raft of development challenges.
"As we look to create recovery plans from the pandemic and kick-start global efforts to get back on track with meeting the Global Goals, countries like Australia need to step up and show leadership as one of the world’s richest and abundant nations,” she said. “Even a small increase will have an extraordinary ripple effect across our region and also be a critical step in turning around the trajectory for those living in extreme poverty in our region.”
Beyond the aid budget, the aged care sector, businesses, taxpayers and women were winners, with hundreds of millions committed to addressing domestic and family violence, $47 million for depression services for new mums and increased breast and cervical cancer screenings.