Foreign Aid and Australia’s Disappearing Generosity


“Those who trust in their riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.” (Proverbs 11:28)

““Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;  in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be.” (Psalm 39:6)

 

The Age yesterday reported that not only is Australia’s Foreign Aid on the decline, Australians in general are giving less to charitable causes.

  • In 1994 Australia was ranked 9th on the international league table of overseas aid donors (measured by the share of gross national income devoted to overseas development assistance). In 2018, we have dropped to 17th.
  • In 1994, Australia gave 34 cents for every $100 of national income to foreign aid (0.34%). In 2018, the contribution is now 22 cents for every $100 (0.22%).
  • Foreign Aid spending has decreased in the ministry of 7 of our last 10 Foreign Ministers.
  • “Even on the current budget numbers Australia’s aid spending is expected to slump to just 0.20 per cent of gross national income by 2021.”

According to the research raised by Matt Wade,

“The National Australia Bank’s Charitable Giving Index, which tracks donations made through online channels, shows giving to “humanitarian service” organisations like World Vision, Red Cross and Oxfam has declined as a share of all charitable giving over the past three years. In 2015 the humanitarian services sector received 35 per cent of all donations but that had fallen to 32 per cent by last year. The average donation to the sector was also down.

That fall came despite a plethora of international humanitarian crises…the public response in Australia was strangely muted.”

Depending on which research one uses, somewhere between 65-80% of Australians contribute to charitable causes, both within the country and to NGO’s. Again depending on which study we rely on, per capita contributions equate to between $200-300 per annum, which works out to be approximately 0.25-0.3% of the median household income in Australia.

I have three theories as to why we are seeing this trajectory:

  1. Foreign Aid doesn’t win votes. I’m sure it is a factor for Christians and for some conscientious Australians from other backgrounds, but the reality is, Foreign Aid is not a political game changer.
  2. Most Australians base their charitable giving from their disposable income, rather than regularly setting aside an amount from the total income. We are spontaneous givers, not planned givers.
  3. Uncertain times create caution, and thus a reluctance to give money to various causes. There are certainly many geo-political tensions in the world today, and these may well mute our responses. There are also domestic economic issues that again call into question what we feel able to contribute beyond our own immediate concerns. Then again, is this not always the case? Are there not always socio-economic question marks and pressures? When has there ever been an ideal time to given generously to those without? And as Matt Wade exclaimed, Australia today has never been more rich, and yet we are moving from modest giving to miserly.

 

It is easy to stand in the public gallery and shout out advice to Governments. But perhaps we should be aiming the megaphone at ourselves. Whether we like it or not, Governments are, at least in liberal democracies, a mirror of the dominant society. Government policies to a very great extent reflect the attitudes and priorities of the general community. Is it of coincidence that the slide in Foreign Aid is tracking at a similar level to the average charitable giving by Australians?

Before we tear down the Government for another moral failing, there are several important caveats and consideration.

First, the social and economic priorities of a Government should depend, at least in part, on what one believes the responsibility of Government to be. I think we make a lot of assumptions about the role of Government. Our list of expectations seems to be growing, and the end result is that we are creating bigger Governments, and I’m not so sure that that is particularly healthy for our society. Have we become too reliant on Governments? For example, once a upon a time, a family would care for their own elderly parents and for their own young children, but now, do we too readily call upon the State to assist?

How Government spends money, largely reflects the values and the priorities of voters. The relationship is even more complex, for there are times when we want Government to do the kinds of things we should be doing ourselves. We wish to alleviate ourselves of responsibility by loading governments with even more.

Second, the priorities of a government should primarily focus on its own people, and yet we also belong to a global community, so surely it is right for us to share some of our bounty with communities across the world who are struggling at this time? If the shoe was on the other foot, would we not hope that someone would see our plight and have compassion on us?

Third, if we want our government to change perhaps we need to start with ourselves. If we are serious about changing Foreign Aid to levels that a more akin to those in 1996, what will we voluntarily give up? Are we willing to ask for a cut in sport or in the arts? What about infrastructure, Defence, social services, and a thousand other areas of expenditure? Does not the very definition of generosity imply a cost and sacrifice? What are we prepared to give up?

What does it mean to love our neighbour as ourselves? This is a principle taught by Jesus Christ, although I realise Christianity has nothing worth saying in the public square and we should never permit Christian values to influence public policy; perish the thought!

Thankfully it was a journalist from a progressive newspaper that reported this story. Can you imagine if a Christian minister had suggested that Australians are becoming less generous and more like Scrooge incarnate? The response would be unsurprising,

“here’s another example of judgmentalism and moral condescension from our Churches.”

Perhaps this 20 year trend is more revealing than we want it to be. Is it because our personal wealth has diminished over the years? No, the opposite is true. Is it because there are greater economic uncertainties today than 20 years ago? Again, the answer is no. Is it because there are fewer global opportunities to assist the poor and disadvantaged? Global poverty is thankfully in decline, but there is never a shortage of need. Is there perhaps a connection between society’s move away from Christianity and our decreasing generosity toward those in need? I don’t know of any research that has examined such a hypothesis,  but I would not be surprised if it were so. Juxtaposed to declining charitable giving across Australia, evidence suggests that Christians continue to give many times more than the national average.

 

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According to NCLS research (a national survey across Christian denominations, which involved 10,000s of participants), 66%  of church attenders give regularly, with 20% of attendees regularly giving over 10% of their income. It is important to note that these figures only include financial contributions to the local church, and does not include all the charitable giving beyond. It should also be pointed out that these financial contributions are not tax deductible.

The question is, why is the gap between general Australia and Christian Australia so great? I’m sure that some Christians give out of a sense of obligation (although they should not), and others give because of a dubious understanding of Divine blessing (ie the prosperity Gospel). But those two reasons cannot explain the giving that continues in evangelical Churches across the country.

So what is the reason?

My hypothesis is a simple one, and it comes from the Bible: Grace changes peoples’ hearts.

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

This is not to say that people from other religions and with no religion cannot also show generosity with their finances, but the difference between the average Australian and the practicing Christian is staggering. Please don’t mistake my point, in no way am I talking up Christians, rather I am talking up Jesus Christ.

When one has come to experience the sacrificial love of God in Christ Jesus, and how the Lord of the universe gave up everything, even his life on the cross, this good news changes you inside and it reorients the way you view your income and the way you look at other people. I’m not suggesting that Christians are better people; Christians are ordinary citizens who face the same financial responsibilities as other Aussies. I am however proposing that there is a difference, and that difference turns on belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The extraordinary gift of forgiveness that is found in Jesus, not only frees people to give generously but installs a joy in giving to others.

If Australians are concerned about Foreign Aid and the downward direction of our generosity, we need to look beyond Government and to our own hearts. What kind of people do we want to be? What type of nation do we wish to be? I am reminded of what Jesus once said, ‘you can try and gain the whole world and yet forfeit your soul. Where is the gain in that?’ (Mark 8:36)

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