Where’s the Gender-osity? Women lose as the federal government reduces the aid budget to record lows

Action Tank blog post header.png

A fall-out from the Federal budget that is not on every Australian’s radar is the staggering cuts to the international aid program. In today’s piece, Stacey Batterham (@s_batt) of the Oaktree Foundation (@OaktreeAU) argues that a commitment to promoting gender equality via the Australian aid program is undermined by the dearth of funding available to programs that make a critical difference to women and their families.

Cuts upon cuts despite economic growth

Not too long ago, Treasurer Scott Morrison handed down the 2018-19 federal budget. What you might not have heard during his speech is that this budget is set to see overseas development assistance fall to its lowest ever level – to 0.19 per cent Gross National Income (GNI) by 2021. This is well below the target formula of 0.7% of GNI and a staggering 10 times lower than the 10% figure that most Australians think is reasonable.

This latest blow to Australia’s aid program comes after successive, record-breaking cuts in the name of austerity. The overall aid budget has decreased by 30 per cent over the past five years under the Coalition Government. During the same period of time, government spending had increased by 10 per cent. This most recent shift will cement Australia as one of the least generous nations in the world, ranking 19 out of 29 countries that give aid and well below the average of 3.1% (see Figure 1). The reduction in funding has resulted in crucial cuts to programming and damaged the capacity of Australia’s aid program to advance gender equality globally.

Figure 1: Australian OECD ranking in aid budget as a per cent of GNI.  Source: ODA .

Figure 1: Australian OECD ranking in aid budget as a per cent of GNI. Source: ODA.

Global challenges for gender equity

Gender equality remains on ongoing challenge in a development context. Women continue to experience economic inequality, political exclusion and increased rates of violence. Women encounter unique challenges in the workforce. They are more likely to be in vulnerable or low paid employment. They undertake the majority of unpaid caring leave, and globally in the formal sector women are paid 60 to 75 per cent of men’s wages.

In addition women are chronically underrepresented in political spaces. As of 2016 only 22.8 per cent of all national parliaments were filled by women. This is despite evidence suggesting a causal relationship between women in parliament and an increase in delivery of essential services such as childcare and clean drinking water.

Globally women continue to experience increased rates of physical, sexual and psychological violence. 35 per cent of women globally have experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Women and girls represent 71 per cent of victims of human trafficking, with the majority of these women experiencing sexual violence.

Australia’s commitment to women

Gender inclusive development is considered to be a key pillar of Australia’s aid program, and reflects best practice. In 2016, Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop introduced the gender equality and empowerment strategy. At the launch of the strategy in 2016, the Minister was quoted as saying, ‘We all know that women’s empowerment, educating women, addressing women’s health issues, women’s economic issues, addressing domestic violence, these are all fundamental to sustainable economic growth, to prosperity, to ending poverty and ensuring that there’s peace and stability.’

The gender equality and empowerment strategy is unique in the context of Australia’s approach to overseas development assistance. While it functions as a thematic investment area alongside targeted interventions to improve effective governance, infrastructure, education and health as well as other areas, it is also a cross-cutting priority. The strategy aimed to see 80 per cent of Australia’s aid programming across all thematic areas effectively address gender inequality.

Investing in women and girls with the overseas aid budget leverages impact, but overall cuts to Australia's aid budget means many won't have access to programs and services.  Photo credit: The Oaktree Foundation . 

Investing in women and girls with the overseas aid budget leverages impact, but overall cuts to Australia's aid budget means many won't have access to programs and services. Photo credit: The Oaktree Foundation

And yet - budget cuts hit women hard

Despite their successful efforts to increase the percentage of aid programming where increasing gender equality is a principle or significant objective, the dwindling nature of Australia’s overall aid budget has undermined Australia’s commitment to global gender equality (see Figure 2). Reports released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade measuring the performance of Australia’s aid program show that as of 2016-17, 8 per cent of aid investment had gender equality as a principle objective, while 54 per cent listed gender as a significant objective. While this represents an increase of previous years, due to the repeated cuts to aid funding, investment in gender programming actually fell by $370 million between 2014-15 and 2016-17.

Figure 2: Foreign aid levels 1960-2016. Source:    The Conversation   .

Figure 2: Foreign aid levels 1960-2016. Source: The Conversation.

Looking forward, it’s hard to be optimistic regarding the government’s ability to fulfil their commitment of advancing global gender equality. As our overseas development assistance continues to fall, the government will have increasingly meagre funds to invest in gender empowerment projects. There were many positive initiatives unveiled in the forthcoming 2018-19 aid budget: funding to Papua New Guinea will increase by 10 per cent; the new Pacific Labor Scheme will assist with labour mobility; and there is a $55 million investment in the Gender Equality Fund.

These initiatives, however, come at a cost as the government continues to shift funds allocated to overseas development assistance. 2018-19 will see a 20 per cent decrease in funding for health, water and sanitation; there are further funding reductions to sub-Saharan Africa following a 70 percent reduction to the region in 2014; and there will be a 10 per cent decrease in funding to Indonesia and Cambodia (see here for more details).

The government’s commitment to gender equality and improving the lives of women is laudable. However, more would be done for women if funding were raised to the average OECD amount of 3.1 per cent GNI. The gains for women if Australia actually hit the U.N. target of 0.7 per cent – as the U.K. recently did, and enshrined this commitment into law – could fund real, lasting change. Women benefit from a range of community programs, including those that support education, health, clean water, sanitation, community mobilization, and human rights. Cutting the aid budget is de facto cutting programs that can improve the quality of life for women who are often in desperate situations.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.