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Australia is redirecting hundreds of millions in foreign aid funding to support the urgent health and humanitarian needs of the Pacific and Southeast Asia amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne and International Development Minister Alex Hawke released the Partnerships for Recovery plan on Friday, which explained $280 million AUD will pivot to support regional health security, economic recovery and stability, with a key focus on the Pacific, Timor-Leste and Indonesia. 

Payne said the scale of the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and therefore requires an unprecedented response. 

"This is an unprecedented pivot of our development program,” Payne said in a media release. “In partnership with our neighbours, we are responding directly to their essential needs during this pandemic.”

The new plan, which is anticipated to run across two years, will also tackle gender-based violence and climate change and stems from fears the virus could inundate inadequate health systems, produce political instability and thrust millions of already vulnerable individuals into unemployment and poverty.

Australia's humanitarian sector has predominantly applauded the aid shake-up. 

Mat Tinkler, the deputy CEO of Australia’s largest children’s aid agency, Save the Children, told the Canberra Times Australia’s decision to highlight the Indo-Pacific region was ideal. Tinkler, however, stressed that Australia has a limited $4 billion foreign aid budget, and, as a result, the redirection will “inevitably” see funds withdrawn from other programs.

"Our neighbours need our support to withstand the health and economic shock the global pandemic has unleashed," he said. "But the Australian aid budget is not a magic pudding so any redirection will inevitably hit others hard.”

According to the Guardian, much of the redirected funds have been diverted from Australian-aid funded scholarship and volunteer programs — which are currently on pause due to coronavirus lockdowns. 

Marc Purcell, CEO of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), echoed Tinkler’s comments.

"We welcome the government’s leadership and strategic clarity on how it will use Australia’s development cooperation program and whole-of-government resources to tackle COVID-19 and protect vulnerable people,” he said in a media release. “This is a once-in-a-century threat to health and livelihoods. The government’s ambition to become the Indo-Pacific partner of choice in this crisis is the right one.”

Like Tinkler, Purcell also criticised the government for drawing from the existing aid budget. 

Purcell said new ACFID polling showed 72% of Australians backed increasing financial support so the poorest countries can respond appropriately to the crisis. Drawing from the poll, Purcell announced ACFID was now calling on the government to inject $2 billion in new humanitarian funding into the aid budget.

"It is very clear that Australians think we should share our expertise and increase our financial support to end COVID-19 beyond our shores,” Purcell said. “New investments in the development program would not only assist the most vulnerable but will help accelerate the safe resumption of tourism and trade and catalyse the regional and global recovery.”


Defeat Poverty

Australia’s Foreign Aid Budget Redirected to Help the Asia-Pacific Respond to COVID-19

By Madeleine Keck