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Australians need to be better educated about the developing world's reality

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 11 September 2003


Australia should spend more foreign aid at home. We should build up an informed climate of support for foreign aid.

Most developed countries are now giving the lowest level of aid since aid records began about four decades ago. Most countries are a long way from the United Nations target of giving 0.7 per cent of their GNP per year (which have they all committed themselves to doing).

This criticism includes Australia. As Australia has got richer, so it has got meaner. But, then, so have most other developed countries.

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The exception to the appalling record on foreign aid comes from the Scandinavian countries. They are meeting - and even exceeding - the UN foreign-aid target. There is the lesson here for Australia. The Scandinavian countries provide the world's highest level of foreign aid (on a per GNP basis) and have had over three decades of providing development education in schools on Third World matters. There is far less controversy in those countries as to why foreign aid is provided. It is just something that gets done. There is an air of community expectation that the aid will be provided.

The lesson from the Scandinavian schools is clear: development education should be done throughout all levels of schooling. This should be proper education - and not just the glossy public relations material that AusAid produces.

Therefore, attention needs to be given to the creation of development education material and courses to run throughout all years at Australian schools. The courses should also be examinable and so not just be seen as an optional extra. This should be done via the co-operation of the Commonwealth and State/Territory departments of education.

Second, education is vital but not sufficient. You do not think your way through to a new way living - you live your way through to a new way of thinking. Ideally, there should be a scheme to enable all young Australians to see something of the developing world. This will broaden their horizons and help them put Australian issues in context. (For example, they could see that the Indian or Indonesian leaders, for example, could serve as the Australian Prime Minister on their days off for a bit of light relief).

Such a person would be "ruined for life". This is a phrase from Fr Joe Henriot SJ, a Jesuit priest from the US, who has worked on development issues throughout his career. Henriot means that a person who has lived in a developing country returns to their own country less tolerant of the trivia that dominates so much of the affairs in a developed country. You may be "ruined" as a potential mindless consumer but you are enriched by what you have experienced on how hard life is for most people. A person is less likely to moan about not having the latest CD or running shoes if they have been with people who treasure what few possessions they have.

This scheme would require some form of Commonwealth travel fund. Rotary and other service clubs already have some trips and so they could tap into this fund if required. Other organisations could be created specifically to cater for this scheme. The intention should be, via a variety of organizations, to have Australian teenagers spend at least three months overseas in some form of "exposure" trip before they left school.

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Third, adult education is also very important. I suggest that the government create a central fund to which non-governmental organisations (Rotary, religious bodies, aid organizations etc) and for-profit companies could make application for them to carry out their own community education programmes on why Australia should become a good international citizen. NGOs and companies are far more innovative than government bureaucrats at producing informative material.

To conclude, there is a need for a bottom-up approach to generating increased public support for Australia to meet its UN foreign-aid target. Instead of elite policy-makers and academics just talking among themselves, there needs to be a campaign to involve ordinary Australians. If they are not involved, then there will be recurrences of the "politics of anger", with people resentful of Australian money going overseas.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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