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Where Your Treasure Is: Christian Concern, Public Policy and the Aid Budget

Thursday, 26 April 2012  | Ben Thurley

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be."

As others have noted, budgets are moral documents. To be sure they are political documents, and represent the outcome of a drawn-out, and sometimes bitter, process of contest and compromise. But they also reflect deep-rooted convictions and beliefs about what is necessary, what is good, what is worthy of investment. The budget is the Government's commitment of the people's resources to projects aimed at bringing about the common good.

In 2007, from Opposition, the Australian Labor Party made a historic commitment to increase Official Development Assistance (ODA) to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2015–16. This commitment was affirmed when Labor took office in 2007, and reaffirmed in 2010. It has become Coalition policy as well – so it is a bipartisan commitment.

As a step towards meeting the long-standing international aid target of 0.7% GNI, it has been warmly welcomed by campaigners and citizens – particularly youth and church constituencies mobilised by Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge.

Australians are among the world’s most generous private contributors to aid. Australians as individuals gave around $1 billion to aid NGOs in 2010. However, this private generosity is not yet matched by Australia’s official Government performance. Our official development assistance is currently 0.35% GNI, which is just 35 cents for every $100 of national wealth, which makes us 13th of 23 developed country donors in 2011.

But concerns have been raised about whether the Government will meet this commitment on time and in full. The Government has a stated commitment to increase aid to 0.5% GNI by 2015 but it also has a commitment to bring the budget into surplus this year. Some commentators have seen these pledges as being in conflict with each other. The argument goes that when the Government is finding cuts to create a surplus, it won’t spare the aid program. This might be done by cutting or freezing aid spending in this year’s budget, and putting the target to reach 0.5% back by three to five years. 

Practically, politically, and morally – though – it’s neither necessary nor wise to cut the aid budget.  

At a time when Australia’s economic performance and debt-to-GDP ratio is the envy of the developed world, Australia has the capacity to make this investment – which contributes to health, opportunity and security in our region and beyond – and still bring the budget into surplus. Under tougher budgetary constraints, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, affirmed the British Government’s commitment to increase Official Development Assistance to 0.7% GNI by 2015 and stated that he was proud that Britain, “will not balance its books on the back of the poorest.” The Australian Government should proudly make the same claim in the 2012–13 budget. 

There would also be political costs to any delay or backtracking on the commitment. Delaying the 0.5% increase would mean that meeting the target becomes the responsibility not of this Parliament, nor the next, but the one after that. Given that the pledge was made in 2006, this delay would be unacceptable to most of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have supported it.  

Finally, conservative estimates are that Australia’s aid program currently saves the lives of an estimated 300,000 people each year and provides basic education for almost one million children as well as contributing to improvements in areas such as economic governance, agriculture and infrastructure. So the cost of delay will be measured in preventable deaths, poorer health and education outcomes, as well as lost opportunities in infrastructure development and increased resilience for poor communities.  

Lifting aid to 0.5% of GNI would allow Australia to save the lives of an additional 500,000 people each year and provide basic education for another 700,000 children. Increasing the aid program is not simple, but nor is it impossible. By making judicious use of partner country systems, and by investing in high-capacity non-government organisations, as well as highly-effective international funds and programs we can be confident that our aid money is being well-spent for highest impact.

For example, the Government has made saving lives one of five strategic goals for Australia’s aid programs. This has yet to translate into a level of funding that reflects the absolute importance of this goal. In fact, spending on health (including the critical area of water and sanitation) actually went backwards in the 2011-12 budget. If Australia boosted spending on community health workers, strengthening the health systems of partner countries, and spent more through powerful international partnerships and alliances such as the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, we would contribute to the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives. 

For Christians, concern about the aid budget is not simply a matter of idealism but a more fundamental matter of loving our neighbour as ourselves and of loving – with all our heart, mind, soul and resources – the God who has given himself fully, in love for the world. It's no surprise that the constant demand in Scripture that God makes of all governments and authorities is to do justice and to "defend the rights of the poor and needy". Justice, it seems, is what love looks like in public.

In short, meeting the commitment to increase ODA to 0.5% GNI is affordable and achievable. It would contribute to life-saving outcomes. It is the right thing to do.

Ben Thurley is Political Engagement Coordinator at Micah Challenge and lives in Sydney, having recently returned from several years working in Nepal.



Ian Packer (Ethos)
April 20, 2012, 3:04PM
GetUp is running an advocacy campaign - why not sign the petition.

Andrew Kulikovsky
May 4, 2012, 9:22AM
Ben and Ian,

Why is it the Australian govt's responsibility to help the poor, here or abroad? What is the Biblical basis for this?

Ben, you're article makes only a passing reference to 2 scriptures: (1) Matt 22:37-39; and (2) Micah 6:8.

Re Matt. 22:37-39, those verses make it clear that our responsibility to love our neighbour is a personal responsibility. Christians will be judged according to how they personally treated their neighbour, and in particular, those in need (Matt 25:31-46). Thus, lobbying government to increase foreign aid is not a fulfilment of our Christian responsibility—it is a complete abdication of it!

Guys if you are serious about helping the poor then pull your wallet out of your pockets and YOU give YOUR money instead of demanding the govt give other people's money...

Re Mic 6:8, Ben, that passage is a prophetic oracle directed at the nation as a whole not its government (which was a monarchy).

You also appear to assume that "doing justice" = economic redistribution. Mic 6:8 does not support that view. In that verse, the Hebrew word for justice is mispat. It refers to judgments in legal proceedings. It has nothing at all to do with economic redistribution or any other form of social justice.

In fact, one of the strongest refutations of the equating of justice and material redistribution can be found in the words of Jesus Himself. In Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42, Jesus points out that the religious leaders routinely gave away a tenth of their produce, yet He chastises them because they “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulnes.” If material redistribution to the poor is ‘doing justice’ then why does Jesus chastise them for neglecting justice? In fact, Jesus does not stop there. He proceeds to condemn them in the harshest possible terms. Despite their self-righteous superiority, beneath their veneer of piousness they were really hypocrites, fools and blind guides. They were greedy, self-indulgent and wicked, had hearts like tombs, and were like snakes and vipers (Matt 23, Luke 11:38-52).

Thus, I think you are doing eisegesis here, Ben. You appear to be reading Karl Marx's ideas into the Biblical text.
Sarah McIntyre
May 10, 2012, 10:50AM
Hi Andrew

It sounds like you’re operating from an assumption that church & state should exist in separation, hence you believe Christians should fund aid not our government.
However as members of government and also Christians what opportunity do we have to speak into the decisions made by our government? My growing assumption is that church and state exist in tension. Therefore in an arena of multiple voices, values, opinion, it is important to hear others and also share one's own.
So thank you for sharing yours and may I respectfully disagree. From a public theology perspective Ben has not entered into a biblical exegetical but rather a public discussion in which he offers a Christian response, hence he has not cited the biblical passages he has made reference too. This makes Christian values public, accessible and understandable to those whom would not have read Matthew and Micah.
With regards to justice one can also understand the word in a Hebrew and Greek Context to mean rightness, to be, make right, the right to equity, a verdict, a sentence, a right or privilege. I like the definition of 'justice' given by “Paul Marshall: Justice is: right relationships among all things in the created order of things.”
If this is true for you and I in Australia, what does it mean and look like for the poorest of the poor?
Therefore as a Christian living in Australia I will 1) Live my life in a way that responds to the needs of the poor 2) Give my money to the poor 3) Ask my affluent nation to include the poorest of the poor in its budget, at least 0.5%.
Karl Marx wrote about the nature of theology & how he believed it could be improved, and campaigned for socialism. So yes like Karl Marx, Ben is taking biblical values and relating them to issues of State, this I believe has a distinctive difference to taking matters of State and reading it into the biblical text.

June 5, 2012, 3:03PM
Sorry for being so slow to respond. I forgot that my post was being reprinted here:

Thanks all for the thoughtful responses. And thanks to Sarah for your spirited defence of my post. I think you've said it better than I could have myself, but to reiterate, I don't see any necessary opposition between personal responses of generous giving and advocating for government action. It doesn't seem to be an either/or.

And, surely, my Scripturally-derived valuing of defence of the rights of the poor and marginalised should inform my political engagement as well as my own charitable giving.

Andrew, I'm also not convinced by the rather too easy opposition you set up between "my money" and (via the Government) "other people's money."

When I give *my* money (though this is rather to prejudge the question of how much claim God and the poor have on my determination of what is "mine") this is not simply a matter of private disposal of my completely unencumbered resources, but also a reflection of the formation and discernment that should be part of being a member of Christ's body.

And when I ask the Government to give, that is *my* money (since I am a citizen) as much as it is anyone else's – and, I suggest, given the nature of the world in which we live, that others beyond our borders also have a claim to our concern and support. People are free to argue otherwise, but to suggest that it is illegitimate for a Christian to call on the Government to promote certain kinds of goods and/or restrain certain kinds of wrongs is a recipe for an unhealthy and unrealistic political disengagement.

Finally, it's true that I didn't intend to do any particular exegesis in my article, but I would suggest that any hermeneutic we want to apply needs to wrestle with the fact that we cannot read as subjects in a monarchic theocracy (or any of the other variations of Israel's political experience) nor as subjected people subsumed in an empire. So there will be limits to what the Bible can *directly* tell me about how to engage in civic politics in a liberal democracy. That is why I think references (found everywhere in Scripture) to a public justice that "defends the rights of the poor and needy", and ensure adequate resources for the livelihood and flourishing of all are relevant.

Grace and peace.


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