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Australia's 'fair share' of humanitarian aid

 

In our election analysis series, Rebecca Barber outlines the costs, strategies and approaches required for Australia to do their ‘fair share’ of global humanitarian assistance.


 

There’s not been a lot of attention to foreign policy in the election coverage this year, and the question of Australia’s humanitarian aid has barely rated a mention. What has (rightly) taken centre stage is climate change, now ranked by most Australians as the greatest threat to Australia’s national interests, according to The Guardian. This is a welcome shift, but what’s not been given the attention it deserves is the threat this poses to millions of people living in disaster-prone countries that don’t have the resources to cope.   

Disasters caused by natural hazards affect around 870 million people a year.  Climate-related disasters (droughts, floods etc) account for more than 90 percent of these disasters, and affect the greatest number of people. With climate change, these numbers will increase, as will the cost required to respond. 

Paralleling the rising cost of natural disasters is the increasing human cost of conflict. Conflicts have become more numerous, more violent and more protracted, and are displacing an unprecedented number of people from their homes. 

The amount of funding required to meet the needs of people caught up in humanitarian crises is already at an all-time high – at $21.9 billion in 2019. Humanitarian aid is also at a record high, but it’s not keeping pace with demand. As of the end of last year, the coverage rate for humanitarian response plans in crisis-affected countries was around 50 percent. 

Australia has committed to increasing humanitarian to more than $500 million a year. This is welcome, but it doesn’t equate to Australia’s ‘fair share’.  Analysis by Oxfam in 2017 found that Australia’s ‘fair share’ of global humanitarian assistance was $572.9 million; and this should be the target for whichever party finds itself in government next week.

The incoming Australian Government should also be mindful of the various ways that Australia can enhance the effectiveness of its humanitarian aid without spending any more money. Many of these were outlined in the 2018 review of Australia’s humanitarian aid by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee. One suggestion to note in that review was that Australia increase coherence between its humanitarian aid and development cooperation by ‘joining up policy work on protracted crises with fragility policy and peacekeeping’, and ‘addressing the root causes of potential humanitarian crises … to help build coherence in the overall approach to fragile and crisis-affected situations’.

“The incoming Australian Government should commit to increasing its humanitarian aid in line with the strength of its economy and global humanitarian needs.”

“The incoming Australian Government should commit to increasing its humanitarian aid in line with the strength of its economy and global humanitarian needs.”

Humanitarian crises have many, inter-related causes: poor governance, under-development, lack of respect for human rights and impunity for violations, among many others. DFAT’s humanitarian division cannot by itself address these causes, and indeed its investments can be undermined if other aspects of Australia’s foreign policy engagement serve inadvertently to fuel conflicts.

Australia’s Humanitarian Strategy recognizes the need for Australia’s humanitarian engagement to align with other aspects of government policy, but such alignment is not always apparent. Australia provides humanitarian assistance to Yemen, for example, while at the same time supplying arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is responsible for most of the civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict. Similarly, Australia provides humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, while simultaneously supporting the Myanmar military whose brutality they have fled. And perhaps most schizophrenically of all, Australia supports farmers and small business in the Palestinian Territories to become more economically competitive, while simultaneously supporting a policy environment that makes this competitiveness almost impossible. 

“Australia’s Humanitarian Strategy recognizes the need for Australia’s humanitarian engagement to align with other aspects of government policy, but such alignment is not always apparent. Australia provides humanitarian assistance to Yemen, for example, while at the same time supplying arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is responsible for most of the civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict.”

Many other governments use whole of government approaches to crises. The Canadian Government has a whole-of-government strategy for the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh, for example, while the UK has a series of cross-governmental strategies for whole-of-government engagement in conflict-affected countries. The Australian Government should do the same, adopting whole-of-government strategies for humanitarian crises – at least within our region – so as to ensure that the various components of Australia’s foreign engagement do not work against each other.

The Australian Government has made impressive commitments to humanitarian aid and has a reputation and track record as a principled humanitarian donor. The challenge for whichever party forms government next week will be to build upon this foundation and maximise the efficiency, effectiveness and coherence of Australia’s engagement in humanitarian crises. Like climate policy, it’s a challenge Australia cannot afford to under-estimate.


Rebecca Barber is an Associate Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies in Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Studies. Her research spans a range of areas including humanitarian assistance, disaster management, international human rights and humanitarian law, and international peace and security law. Most recently she has been focusing on global governance for the maintenance of international peace and security.