I felt despondent when the Government made the deepest cuts to aid in our history. I had just started as TEAR’s Advocacy Coordinator and a big part of my role is to advocate for aid. You could say it was a daunting start.
My shock at the $11 billion cuts was compounded as I learnt the true depths of people’s perceptions and misunderstandings around aid. The most chilling of these findings were polling results that revealed that 64% of Australians supported the Government’s decision to cut aid, when considering allocation of spending across different areas. That’s across the political spectrum with hardly any variation between people who vote Greens, Labor, Liberal and National. I also learnt that our perception of what we give is vastly different to reality. For example, 44% of people think the Government invests too much in aid; however, most people who say this significantly overestimate how much we do actually invest. Aid expenditure is actually less than 1%1, but many think it is 5% or more of the Federal Budget.
Moving the rock: Until we move our social norms and values (the rock), our political policies (the balloons) can only move a short distance.
It appears then, that the Government’s decision to cut aid has a foundation in popular opinion, but that opinion is based on a misperception of how much we give. So would Australians continue to support cuts to the aid budget if they knew its actual size? Or how effective it is in saving lives? Or how much other countries give? Enabling Australians to make more informed decisions about the Government’s aid spending seems to be the clear way forward before there can be a change of public opinion. And for the minority of us who already support a generous aid budget, how can we harness our efforts to leverage change? That’s where the Campaign for Australian Aid comes in.
I have learnt a lot about the Campaign for Australian Aid, which at the time of the cuts was about to launch, and has rapidly moved into action. The way the Campaign was formed and funded takes a similar journey to that of my shock and realisations. The Campaign is the outworking of the Make Poverty History and Micah coalitions, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The sector united to take action to shift the hearts and minds of Australians because aid misconceptions and cuts would severely hurt the poor.
Sometimes, it just takes a spark to get the conversations going in our local communities.
The strategy for the Campaign draws on the latest research and successful case studies internationally on how to shift debates, activate altruistic values and harness people power. It prioritises key and marginal electorates, mobilising, skilling and resourcing grassroots groups. This is coordinated across the country, and it encourages me when I think of our faithful TEAR Groups who have been visiting their politicians for years, but who may feel their efforts get lost.
Sometimes, it just takes a spark to get the conversations going in our local communities. We know that at least some people care about Australian aid, but many of them lack the confidence to speak out. That’s why the Campaign is investing in people, so they can talk – in churches, footy clubs, BBQs and craft groups – and rally support. One of our most successful initiatives so far has been TEAR's flower-making craftivism activity. It’s got groups together to chat while they crochet, knit and sew flowers, which are then sent to politicians. Not only are these an opportunity to talk about the successes of our aid program, but they’re a way to include our politicians in our discussions.
As I’ve immersed myself in the aid area, I’ve found myself answering tough questions to those who support cuts. This means tackling the following common misconceptions:
Myth #1: Charity starts at home
Charity can start at home but shouldn’t end there. I care deeply about lots of issues but believe all people bear the image of God. We are wealthy enough to support poor Australians, and do our part to support poor communities internationally. We can be proud that last year our aid efforts helped over one million children into school.
Myth #2: We can’t afford it
As a Christian, I seek God’s priorities to love my neighbour. I don’t worship economic growth. My nation’s budget is a set of priorities. I believe we can do better than balancing our books on the backs of the world’s poorest. We can remember we are one of the richest nations in the world. So why are our aid levels at the lowest level since records began?
Myth #3: We shouldn’t borrow money to give overseas
Borrowing to fund government spending is something all governments do worldwide. It is only one source of revenue, with other options including closing tax loopholes or tax breaks for big business. It doesn’t make sense to single out just aid and say that it should not be funded the same way as all other things the Government spends on. Why should aid to the poor be ranked lower than other budget items such as industry support or the diesel fuel rebate? We also have one of the lowest debt levels in the world.
I have the privilege of representing TEAR in the coalitions and Campaign for Australian Aid. At the moment I’m busy gathering and training people who are interested in the grassroots campaign, especially the marginal electorate of Deakin (in Melbourne’s east). We have interest from local community members, TEAR Groups, churches and our Ambassadors who are starting to influence locally through events, MP meetings, local champions or media, joined up with Campaign HQ.
So what’s different about the Campaign for Australian Aid?
How is the Campaign different to efforts around aid in the past? To answer that question I want to share a metaphor with you, from Daniel Hunter’s Strategy and Soul. Picture a balloon tied to a rock. Now imagine yourself giving it a push one way and then the other. No matter how hard you push, the balloon will only ever move so far because it is tied to the rock. If we are seeking to affect lasting social change we need to stop batting the balloon and move the rock. And what is the rock? The rock is our social norms and activated social values. Our politicians need permission from the wider community in order to step up with action on the things we care about.
I like to think of the campaign for Australian Aid as “moving the rock” in action. Short-term wins, such as the aid promises in the lead-up to the 2007 election, were like swatting a balloon, and were easy to reverse. We want to build for lasting change. When we activate social values in the wider Australian public (like fair go, generosity and decency) we grow a movement and pressure politicians. When we re-frame more and better aid not as a burden on us to “foreigners”, but as removing obstacles so that people just like us can thrive and reach their potential, we are reminded of our shared human experience, no matter where we are born. This way, aid is something we do as Australians, as one way we play our part in making our world a better and fairer place. As a Christian it is about drawing on the language of loving our neighbour, being all made in the image of God, and encouraging the Church in seeking out God’s tomorrow.
Jo Knight is TEAR Australia’s National Advocacy Coordinator. Jo is passionate about creating so- cial change, acting on injustice, and loves using her skills and leadership to make a difference. At TEAR Jo focuses on empowering people to be agents of change through resourcing and providing contexts to take action on aid and climate change.
Jo will be speaking at SURRENDER 16. Find out more about SURRENDER 16 & our program.
This post originally appeared on TEAR Australia's blog www.fortomorrow.org.au