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Foreign aid cuts a health disaster for many

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As a final-year medical student, I am the first person to admit that I’ve been very fortunate so far in life.

Most of these blessings are facets of our rich, first-world society – free, high-quality health care and cheap tertiary education, not to mention the basics that I take for granted every day like somewhere to live, food and clean water.

Sometimes, though, it can become easy to forget two things. Firstly, I did nothing to deserve these blessings. Secondly, billions of people around the world are less privileged than I am. For these reasons, I am thoroughly disappointed in the $1 billion cuts to foreign aid announced in the recent Federal Budget.

Under the previous Labor government, Australia had a bipartisan commitment to contribute 0.5 per cent of its Gross National Income (GNI) to foreign aid, though this was delayed several times.

Little did we know at the time that the 0.38 per cent of GNI level reached at the time Labor left office would be the peak.

Since then, a succession of major Budget cuts by the Coalition Government have driven to our foreign aid contribution down to the point where we are now only giving 0.22 per cent of our GNI.

These cuts fly in the face of the 0.7 per cent of GNI commitment Australia agreed to at the UN in 1970, and which has been repeatedly reaffirmed ever since.

Meanwhile, our counterparts in the UK have recently passed a Bill legally ensuring that they will continue to give at least 0.7 per cent of GNI as aid.

Doctors and medical students alike should be unequivocally outraged.

Our profession is one in which we are privileged to have the opportunity to help people each and every day.

In medical school, we are taught that it is essential to be an advocate for our patients, especially those who have no voice. We must apply this principle to the people of the developing world and fight for effective altruism.

The recipients of Australia’s development assistance have no real means by which to communicate their needs with our government, but doctors can take up this mantle. Of course, various advocacy groups are already doing this. However, it is clear that current efforts are inadequate.

We need to face the facts – these aid cuts will equate to lives lost. Real people with families will die. Australia’s foreign aid provides vital health services in developing countries, as well as emergency assistance to other countries when disasters strike, such as the recent earthquakes in Nepal.

If Australia, one of the most economically developed countries in the world, refuses to provide these funds to countries in our region, who will?

We tend to forget it, but giving aid also benefits us.

Along with the obvious advantages of diplomatic relations associated with generous aid, Australia should leverage its expertise as a leader in tropical diseases to fight the epidemic of tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea, or else the consequences might spread to our shores. Instead of diverting our aid money to offshore detention programmes for refugees, we should invest in developing countries to alleviate poverty and assist displaced people whose lives have been torn apart.

It is the responsibility of doctors to advocate for not only the health outcomes of Australian citizens, but those individuals without the good fortune to be born within our sunny borders. Foreign aid is an essential component of Australia’s contribution to global health and wellbeing, and must be consolidated rather than compromised.

Nicky Betts is a final year medical student at the University of Western Sydney, and Vice-Chair External of AMSA Global Health.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]