I’ve never been very fond of billboards. I don’t appreciate having advertisers with clear vested interests offering me unsolicited life advice as I walk down the street. I don’t like the fact that the majority of spaces of public art in our city are offered to the highest bidder to sell their products. I’m not that keen at the moment on having Clive Palmer’s Trump impersonation leering down at me every time I turn a corner.
Still, it’s rare that a billboard affects me so strongly that I swear out loud to no one in particular as I ride home. Yet that’s what I did the other night. It was one of those rotating digital billboards, and one of the things it shows are selected messages people send to the billboard company. And on this occasion the sign flashed up asking “Why only give our farmers $12K to help but send more than $2billion overseas in aid?”
Now I should say here that I absolutely support drought relief payments to farmers. I grew up in rural Australia during the famous “Millenium Drought”, so I have some understanding of how droughts affect farmers in a way they have no power over. I still travel often to rural areas so have been following this drought over the last couple of years. At the start of this year for my radio show I interviewed climate scientist Andrew King about the drought. So at first I was glad that over the last month the concerns of rural Australia were finally making national news. Unfortunately, since then the commentary has taken a turn for the worse.
See, I also take quite an interest in foreign aid. Growing up through the era of the alter-globalisation and Make Povery History movements; a big part of my political education was learning about global poverty – its effects and its causes. My first political activism was volunteering for an overseas development organisation. This has been of enduring influence for me – my choice to live simply and sustainably is partly motivated by an awareness of the limited resources we have to go around the world’s population; and that knowledge helps keep in perspective whatever difficulties I personally face – that very useful three word slogan “first world problems”.
It has been with a disconsolate heart that I have watched Australia’s foreign aid budget reduced every year since the election of Tony Abbott in 2013. The United Nations in 1970 passed a resolution that developed economies would aim to to pay 0.7% of gross domestic product in overseas aid. Today half a dozen countries have lived up to that promise. Australia’s contribution got as high as 0.47% in 1974, but has now declined to its lowest ever point at 0.22%.
There are many reasons to pay foreign aid – in your own interests as a tool of foreign policy (which has been the main defence the coalition government has offered this month), as a way of healing some of the ravages of colonisation (eg. Africa’s economic wealth was systematically carried out of the continent for centuries), and as a simple acknowledgement that though many people are born into poverty, no one deserves to be.
I can’t imagine how anyone with a passing knowledge of how much money is thrown around unnecessarily by various government departments, how much massive companies avoid paying tax while collecting government subsidies, and how tiny our foreign aid budget is in the context of the world’s needs; could complain about our overseas aid as an economic wrong.
Part of the reason people do may be that they have no idea of what our aid budget actually is (one study found Australians on average believe it is 17 times higher than it is in reality). But I think really, the response we have seen comes down to a pretty simple emotional response – the recipients of foreign aid (many of whom, of course, are farmers affected by drought in other places) are people seemingly different from us, who we never come into contact with. They are the perfect scapegoat for any problem – one that doesn’t force us to confront our own actions or those of people around us.
So at least in popular discourse, discussion about the drought rarely mentions what water security measures could be put in place. It rarely mentions the unlimited water licences given to mining companies while farmers count every drop. Or for that matter, how New Hope Coal’s massive expansion at Acland was ruled out by the land court on water security grounds yet they are now appealing with the apparent support of the government. Or the possibility that burning fossil fuels may have some responsibility for this drought and could lead to more extreme weather events in the future. No mention that right now in East Africa, droughts mean that 22 million people (including 9 million children) are not getting their basic nutritional needs met.
Natural human response it may be to want to lay the blame elsewhere, but it is alarming the way it has risen so strongly in our current context. In the last few years it seems like sentiments of racial division are rising. Dissatisfactions about immigration played a role in the election wins of Donald Trump and Brexit. Far-right anti-immigration groups are increasingly visible online and even in parliaments. In Australia we’ve seen refugees consistently dehumanised for years, leaving them demoralised and trapped on pacific island prisons. This year we’ve had sensationalised media reports of African gangs, and in the last month we’ve had an overtly anti-immigration op-ed from Andrew Bolt published in national newspapers, and former Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles supportively interviewing a neo-nazi on a national news program. All of these things have real life effects on real life people. Effects every bit as serious as what is being faced currently by farmers; but effects we don’t necessarily notice because these are people who are not like us.
Many Australians will generously dig into their pockets to support farmers affected by the drought. I applaud them for it, and I’ve given money too. But we can support those around us without having to draw boundaries between who is in and who is out. Uniting people encourages more helping one another by seeing the commonalities between us all. Divisions are likely to only exacerbate problems. On seeing that billboard the other night I took the only moral response I could – I went home and gave money to an overseas development organisation. Because I will never allow anyone, even for a second, to convince me that someone’s worthiness is based on where they come from or whether they are like us.