Cuts to Australia’s aid budget impacts women

Under the Coalition Government, Australia’s International Aid budget has suffered unprecedented cuts, and is on target to soon fall to its lowest level on record – a fact few people are aware of. Additionally, since AusAID was merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 2013, aid is now directly and intentionally tied to Australia’s economic partnerships abroad. The gendered nature of poverty means the budget cuts and shift in focus are likely to unequally disadvantage women and their children.  Today’s Scorecard analyses the gendered benefits and risks reflected in Australia’s aid budget.

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Alice Ridge, Australian Council for International Development (ACFID)

Topic: International Aid

Sub-topic: Gender Equality

The importance of including gendered analysis in aid and development work is well established, and international agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals – which were signed by 193 nations, including Australia, at the UN in September 2015 – recognise that achieving gender equality is crucial to ending poverty.

Not only are women more likely to live in poverty, their experience of poverty is also different to that of men. Women tend to have less access to work and economic opportunities – often working in informal sectors where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Around the world, women are consistently paid less than men for the same work, and spend four times as long on unpaid household and caring work. One in three women globally experience gender-based violence, with rates as high as two in three in some Pacific nations.

Australia’s aid program has a strong commitment to gender equality, but significant cuts in recent years undermine Australia’s capacity to implement this commitment. This piece looks at how the Australian Government is implementing its commitment to gender equality through the aid program, and explores the differentiated impact of cuts to aid on men and women.

The aid program’s commitment to gender equality

‘Gender equality and empowering women and girls’ is one of 6 ‘investment priorities’ under the Government’s aid policy framework, which guides spending across the aid program. Unlike the other investment priority areas which are sector-focused, gender is considered both a stand-alone sector and a cross-cutting priority for the aid program. This makes measuring progress more difficult, however there are a number of ways to assess what the aid program is doing on gender equality.

From DFAT’s annual Performance of Australian Aid reports, we know that around half of the aid budget goes to programs which have gender as a significant objective. These could be across a range of sectors, such as education programs that aims to get girls into school, health programs focused on maternal health, or programs increasing access to justice for women experiencing violence. A further 5% goes to programs specifically aiming to advance gender equality, many of which come under the umbrella of the Gender Equality Fund. One best-practice example is the 10-year Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development program, which supports women’s participation in political, economic and social life, and to fulfil Pacific-led development objectives.

The aid program also has a benchmark that “80% of investments, regardless of their objectives, will effectively address gender issues in their implementation.” This target captures all projects, whether or not they name gender equality as an objective. Progress against this target is measured through annual self-assessment of programs, and from the most recent figures available (for FY2014-15) currently stands at 78%.

Of course, self-assessment processes are notoriously subjective, and the commitment to “apply gender equality considerations across the full range of funding mechanisms” – while generally a welcome step – can create perverse incentives to overestimate performance. Still, the Government has made a strong commitment to gender equality through the aid program and should be commended.

Cuts to the aid budget impact women

Unfortunately, no matter how strong the commitment to gender equality, the deep cuts to Australia’s aid budget in recent years means that Australia is inevitably doing less to end poverty and further gender equality around the world. Repeated cuts to the aid budget have brought it to its lowest ever level. Despite international commitments by developed countries to give 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) to aid, Australia currently gives just 0.23%. This is compared to the UK which has met the target of 0.7%.

These cuts have real consequences for women in developing countries. Australia’s aid to Africa was slashed by 70% in the infamous 2014 budget, with critical programs that aimed to empower local women forced to close down.

Even in a country like Papua New Guinea, which has been comparatively spared through the past few rounds of budget cuts, shifting priorities have seen Australian aid programs move away from service delivery in areas like health – where the PNG government has been criticised for its poor delivery of services. This is despite the fact that the rate of maternal mortality in PNG is one of the highest in the world and estimates of the unmet need for family planning vary between 27% and 44%. Scaling back Australia’s support for these vital women’s health services have real detrimental impacts for women.

Looking forward

There are positive signs for gender and aid, with strong tri-partisan commitment to gender equality as a priority for the aid budget. The recently established Gender Equality Fund was one of few programs to receive an increase in funding (of $5m to $55m) in the latest federal budget, and the Government recently announced a new Gender Action Platform, for accredited NGOs to scale up good practice or trial new, innovative approaches to gender equality.

While these announcements come as welcome progress, they are cold comfort to the women who have lost access to life-saving programs as a result of cuts to Australia’s aid budget. ACFID has called for the Government to start the process of rebuilding the aid budget, with the ultimate goal of fulfilling our commitment to 0.7% of GNI. If Australia is to be a world leader on gender and development, we need to see more funding directed to programs focussed on empowering women and girls, more funding for women’s rights organisations, and efforts across all of Australia’s international engagement harnessed for gender equality.

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen