Anger filled with hope

OPINION | John Beckett
Sunday 19 April 2015

In the week before Christmas last year the Abbott government announced the largest ever cuts to Australia’s aid program.

These cuts, on top of successive cuts in previous years by the Rudd and Gillard governments, will take Australian aid to its lowest ever recorded levels as a proportion of Australia’s national income.

One week after that announcement, the first phase of the Micah Challenge campaign came to a close and I finished my role as National Director. For 10 years we have mobilised the church to call on our political leaders to increase Australia’s aid. I faced the hard reality that in that announcement the government was cutting our aid program to levels lower than when I started. This was not the way I dreamed of finishing!John Beckett and Rob Oakeshott_Voices for Justice 2012

At a time when Australia’s economy is growing, when our debt is sixth lowest among all developed countries and when we are wealthier than we have ever been, we are also less generous than we have ever been.

We currently spend just over 1% of our federal government budget on aid. When you compare aid to our total national income, the percentages are even more striking. These cuts will plunge our contribution to aid and development to about 21 cents in every $100 of national income or 0.21%.

I need to acknowledge that managing a national budget is a difficult thing to do. Nonetheless, I am shocked at the lack of moral vision and leadership these decisions represent. I am appalled that our leaders can’t find the money to balance our books from new sources of revenue or from the 99% of our budget that we spend on ourselves – instead opting to rip money out of the 1% that we currently spend overseas to help some of the world’s most promising people forge better lives for themselves and their families.

“I‘m concerned that when we need to tighten our purse strings, our first thought is to take from those who need it most”

Decisions like this are not just about finances. Decisions like this require us to ask deeper questions about our national identity. We claim to be (and aspire to be) a nation of the “fair go”, people who stand by those who are struggling. However there is a disconnect between who we say we are as Australians and what these decisions say about our priorities.

We aspire to be generous and selfless, but our actions demonstrate an underlying selfishness.

The political argument to justify cuts like this is that we must look after our own interests first before we can afford to help others, but I’m concerned for what effect that message will have if it continues to be part of our national narrative. I‘m concerned that when we need to tighten our purse strings, our first thought is to take from those who need it most.

I humbly suggest that if we don’t want that for our own communities and nation, then we shouldn’t act that way toward the poorest and most vulnerable people in our world.

Of course, this is not true of all Australians. Through my time at Micah Challenge, I’ve been privileged at times to see Australia and Australians at our best. I’ve seen mums offering to go without increases to maternity pay if it meant we could maintain our promises to the poor. I’ve seen people on low incomes offering to go without benefits, or to pay more taxes, if it meant we could support individuals in other nations get basic healthcare and education.

Despite the anger I feel about these aid cuts, I’ve had the opportunity in recent months to reflect more broadly on the Micah Challenge campaign. And as I look at the broader picture, I leave confident and hopeful for the future.

The source of this hope ultimately lies in the reality that we follow a God who has promised that all things will be made new. I see this hope reflected on the ground in the many amazing individuals who are committed to pursuing justice, mercy and humility, both outside the political arena and within it.

“I’m filled with hope because of the way the church in this country has switched on to advocacy”

In particular, I’m filled with hope because of the way the church in this country has switched on to advocacy. I’m humbled that Micah Challenge has been able to be part of that movement of God’s Spirit.

How do we evaluate the success of Micah Challenge’s campaigning over the last 10 years? It’s difficult to measure success in campaigning at the best of times. There are so many things you can’t control.

In Australia, despite the cuts from both major parties, there has been approximately $11 billion extra directed to aid from our federal budget over the last decade than what would have happened if the status quo was maintained. And yet, Micah Challenge has always tried to help its supporters see that while policy is important, it’s just the surface. Real change happens in the deeper places like social structures and in the hearts and minds of people.

Once you scratch the surface and look a little deeper, it becomes evident that the landscape has changed in a number of ways.

At a global level, the last decade has seen the most significant progress in the fight against poverty. Compared with 20 years ago, the proportion of people living below the absolute poverty line of $1.25 a day has halved, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday from preventable diseases has halved and the number of women dying in pregnancy or childbirth has almost halved. While there are regional discrepancies, the global picture is overwhelmingly positive. At the same time, the capacity among communities and churches in the developing world to raise their own voices for change in their contexts has grown.

In the political arena, Micah Challenge has been blessed with significant opportunities to speak to political leadership, and to influence party policies and the public conversation without compromising our Christian identity. A key vehicle for this has been Micah Challenge’s national lobbying event, Voices for Justice, which is now widely recognised as one of the premier advocacy events in the country.

In the churches we have seen a shift in the church in Australia to embrace justice as an integral expression of discipleship. And Micah Challenge has enjoyed phenomenal buy-in from across the denominational spectrum, thereby creating a space where Christians can come together and speak together with a collective voice.

“Christians must continue to be an unchanging voice for the poor and marginalised in these changing times”

I’m thankful to God for these achievements and I leave Micah Challenge with great hope for the future. Policies and parties are constantly changing, and yet Christians must continue to be an unchanging voice for the poor and marginalised in these changing times. The proper response to setbacks is not disillusionment, but rather perseverance and courage. As followers of Jesus, we commit our lives to seeking justice. Regardless of the results, we seek to be faithful.

On behalf of Micah Challenge I say thank you to the church in Australia for walking alongside us over these past 10 years. I hope that we have pointed you to Jesus. I hope that in following Jesus’ call to serve and stand alongside the poorest in our world, your own life and faith has been enriched.

For a decade, Micah Challenge has helped Christians and churches hold governments around the world to account for their promises to halve world poverty by 2015. In Australia, Micah Challenge has empowered Christians to advocate for a generous and effective aid program, as well as call for stronger action on climate change and multinational tax dodging which have greatest impact on the world’s poorest and more vulnerable communities.

Later this year Micah Challenge will re-launch as a new Christian advocacy coalition, with a new brand and a refreshed vision, but with the same central commitment of empowering Christians to advocate with and for the world’s poorest people.

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