9 October 2017


Earlier this year on a visit to Myanmar, I saw first-hand the positive impact Australia’s international development program has in helping improve the quality of life for so many people in our region.

Unfortunately, that good work has been undermined by the $55 million cut from health programs in Myanmar alone as a result of the massive cuts to Australia’s international development program under the Liberals. A cut of this size to the health budget in Australia would be damaging. In a nation as poor as Myanmar, it can have devastating consequences.

That’s just one small example of the task we face as a consequence of the international development budget being burdened with 21 per cent of the cuts made as part of the infamous 2014 budget.

The unprecedented loss of bipartisanship in this area is disappointing for supporters of constructive internationalism, diminishes our reputation in our region, and is devastating for those who relied on it.

By contrast, the decision by Theresa May’s Conservative government to enshrine in legislation Britain’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid — three times Australia’s level — shows this doesn’t have to be a progressive-conservative issue.

Looking ahead, we face a fiscal and political challenge, as well as a policy challenge — what priorities should guide Australia’s international assistance programs?

Health, as an investment priority within the international development program, fell from 17 per cent in 2011-12 to just more than 13 per cent in the current budget, which has now been cut by $11.3 billion. Sound health policy should be better integrated throughout Australia’s international development program.

Economic development is hindered by poor health outcomes. In the development context, investment in quality health systems not only improves individual wellbeing but it can have positive impacts on the community in terms of prosperity and stability.

Our region faces diverse and complex health challenges, including those posed by HIV/AIDS and TB, and chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Adding to this complexity is the threat of pandemics and infectious disease arising from climate change.

In addressing these complex health challenges, we must consider aid effectiveness and the mechanisms of delivery that best leverage Australia’s investment — whether through global funds, international research institutes, partnerships with NGOs, on-theground grants or in direct bilateral partnership with governments.

The new Regional Health Security Fund partnership may go some way towards repairing Australia’s ability to leverage additional sources of support and funding for development programs. But so far, 12 months after the fund was announced, the only thing of substance it has produced has been a Regional Health Security ambassador.

To be effective the fund must have as its core objective the improved health of people in our region; address the communicable health challenges in a disciplined, effective way; balance Australia’s health security needs with the health priorities determined by our neighbours; provide the support that meets the health needs and capacity of the people we are seeking to help; have autonomy to respond to health emergencies in partnership with recipient countries; be consistent in its funding and reporting structures for research; and provide opportunities of shared learning for both Australian and recipient country research and health workforces.

As we develop our response to the health challenges of our region, Labor will work to deliver a program that best matches Australia’s ability to make the biggest impact on health outcomes and meets the health needs determined by our region.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Monday, 9 October 2017.