Australia ‘must meet Millennium Development Goals at home’

As Australia portrays itself as a champion of the world’s disadvantaged, critics point to the plight of its own Indigenous people.


This is Part Two of a two-part series. (Click here for Part One)

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

UN’s Millennium Development Goals, due to run out in just under three years, are an initiative designed to help the world’s poorest people.

As co-chair of a United Nations MDG Advocacy Group, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is supposed to be helping to ensure the goals’ success.

But there are critics of Australia’s performance on the MDGs.

And there are those who say Australia shouldn’t be portraying itself as a champion of the world’s disadvantaged when it has a poor record of looking after its own disadvantaged – notably its Indigenous people.

Back in 2000, 189 members of the United Nations, including Australia, committed to changing the world over the next 15 years through the Millennium Development Goals.

With that time nearly up, attention is already turning to what will come next.

The aid group, Save the Children, is promoting a new set of goals that it claims would ensure the elimination of world poverty forever.

Lynne Benson, from Save the Children, says as co-chair of the MDG Advocacy Group, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is in a strong position to be influencing the post-2015 goals.

“So we would just be advocating for Julia Gillard to use her position with the UN to really push for and advocate for the acceptance and support for the proposed goals that Save the Children is suggesting. It’s important that allof the world gets behind a shared agenda to help the less fortunate people of the world. The existing Millennium Development Goals have been partially achieved, and we need now to take it further.”

At a UN meeting back in September, Prime Minister Gillard acknowledged that attention was turning to the post-2015 world.

But she said she was focusing on what can be done to achieve the current MDGs, before 2015.

“We need to sharpen our focus on things that can be achieved in that remaining period of time, that there are things that can actually be achieved quite quickly, we can sharpen our focus geographically but we can also sharpen our focus on those things that can be achieved quite quickly. A lot of the discussion here at the UN is inevitably going to start to focus on the goals that will be set beyond 2015; the world needs to get this done, and we can’t just put to one side the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals because we’ve become so intrigued about what lies beyond. So whatever goals lie beyond they are built on the strongest possible platform.”

The eighth and final Millennium Development Goal promotes closer relationships between the developed and developing world.

It also asks nations to dedicate 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income to aid programs in poorer countries.

According to OECD statistics, in 2011 Australia devoted 0.34 per cent of its GNI to supporting this goal.

Archie Law, from the humanitarian organisation, ActionAid, says it seems that Australia will fail to comply with the MDG requirement.

“Australia made a commitment that it was going to provide 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2015 to support the Millennium Development Goals. This is then revised down to 0.5 per cent, in monetary terms. It just looks like that isn’t going to happen. I think Australia’s been an enthusiastic supporter with its words but not with its wallet.”

Thulsi Narayanasamy is the campaign co-ordinator for the monitoring group, AID/WATCH.

She says that Australia’s aid commitments are motivated more by self-interest than by trying to achieve the MDGs.

“There are quite a number of questionable items which fall under the remit of the aid budget which are not working towards the eradication of poverty or the MDGs at all, and instead they’re actually working to further Australia’s national and private interests which inflate the aid budget. Big businesses have hijacked the aid budget and we see the aid boomerang leave Australia to go overseas only to end up in the back pocket of rich Australian companies who benefit by being contracted to work overseas anyway.”

Thulsi Narayanasamy argues that Australia could easily increase its overseas aid, while still looking after its domestic problems.

But she says too often, federal governments have shown they’re prepared to squeeze the aid budget to fund programs in Australia.

“And there’s quite a long history of us doing this in Australia. Recently Bob Carr actually announced money would be going towards the detention of asylum seekers, again another far cry from poverty eradication and the goals that were created in 2000. We already don’t have a good record in terms of how much we’re spending on aid, and I think these cuts do reflect badly on us as a country.”

Most of the MDGs set targets for developing countries to achieve, like lowering infant mortality rates, and increasing the number of children getting a primary education.

Except for the target level of GNI for official development assistance, Australia and other developed countries aren’t measured for compliance with the MDGs.

Critics say this leads to incorrect assumptions that all citizens of developed countries must be enjoying high living standards.

Anthony Zwi is a professor of global health and development at the University of New South Wales.

He argues that in Australia’s case, the way the MDGs are assessed is hiding the true situation of its Indigenous people.

“Clearly within a country like Australia there are huge disparities and inequalities, and segments of the population – notably the indigenous population – have much poorer health outcomes and life expectancies than non-indigenous Australians. There certainly is an argument that the issues that have received focus through the Millennium Development Goals are as applicable within countries that are developed and have impoverished minorities and indigenous populations.”

Michael Mansell is the Legal Director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

He argues that a wealthy country like Australia should easily meet international development standards – but it’s failing to do so under the existing MDGs.

“Whenever the international community sets standards that countries should apply, they’re the sorts of standards that countries like Australia should easily be able to cope with. Australia is not complying with its own domestic standards and certainly is not complying with international standards.”

Jack de Groot, from the Catholic aid organisation, Caritas Australia, agrees.

He believes Australia must guarantee the goals are achieved not just in developing countries, but closer to home.

“Australia needs to make sure that those who live in extreme poverty in Australia are meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Australia face extraordinary challenges particularly those questions of health and education and access to those fundamental rights so that they can live a life free of poverty.”

The Melbourne-based Lowitja Institute researches the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Chair of the Institute, Professor Ian Anderson, agrees that Australia and other countries with Indigenous disadvantage aren’t being held to account by the MDGs.

But he points out that governments can be sensitive about the plight of their Indigenous people being raised internationally.

“There is sort of a view on the global stage that nations like Canada, New Zealand and Australia don’t have issues of social disadvantage and that they are relatively wealthy nations. There’s been some reluctance for some nation states to actually open up issues of internal equity and indigenous issues and social disadvantage within their borders and their political jurisdiction.”

The United Nations has started meetings to discuss what should replace the MDGs after they expire at the end of 2015.

Archie Law from ActionAid thinks there are many areas the next generation of global goals could improve upon, some directly applicable to Australia.

“I think when it comes to a post-2015 agenda it’s time to really look at some of the issues that weren’t addressed in the MDGs as they are now: there’s no mention of human rights, there’s no universal goal for all so whereas you say indigenous Australians are counted in the new framework, where do they participate?

Ian Anderson from the Lowitja Institute agrees that Australia should have goals tailored to its unique characteristics.

“I think what we need here are a set of goals and strategies that really address indigenous people being a small minority in a relatively wealthy country in which we globally have political access to the resources needed to make a difference, but we have entrenched social disadvantage that needs to be addressed in a way that might be different than, say in Africa or South America.”

While some supporters may be enthused by Prime Minister Gillard being co-chair of the MDG advocacy group, Aboriginal leaders like Michael Mansell would like to see her focus more on the situation of Australia’s Indigenous people.

Whether or not a new set of international development goals is established, he doesn’t believe much will change for Indigenous Australians without support from the top.

“You can’t point to a Prime Minister in the last 15 years or more that has said look “Aborigines and their situation should be the highest priority for this country”, and until you get a Prime Minister who’s prepared to do that the situation of Aboriginal people cannot improve, because all of the resources and the ability to bring about change is not in the hands of Aboriginal people, it is in the hands of the politicians and Prime Ministers.”