A Rohingya refugee climbs a muddy hill to collect water in Balhukali camp, Bangladesh. (Supplied: Oxfam/Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville)
I stepped under the flap into the tiny, sand-floored tent cut into the hill side of Bangladesh. It was oppressively hot and dusty inside.
A couple of women immediately moved to get stools for myself and a Bangladeshi colleague; it would not be hospitable if we had to sit on the floor, they explained.
They also offered us water, but we politely declined knowing how scarce and precious it was in the camps.
The Rohingya women then began to tell us stories of what they had experienced when they fled violence across the border in Myanmar. Stories of being raped, or seeing family members raped or killed, before fleeing for their lives.
As one woman Fatima* started to speak, she immediately burst into tears, the weight of the trauma she was carrying too much to bare.
And yet, even as the women shared their horrific experiences, they also tried to fan us to ensure we weren’t struggling with the oppressive heat.
The generosity of people in the most dire of circumstances has always astounded and deeply moved me.
I’ve had deeply poor Syrian refugees in Jordan, in threadbare rooms with no furniture, insist on making me tea; their cultural hospitality insists on it because it is the right thing to do.
I’ve met a mother, Mary*, in South Sudan, who had been forced to flee her home because of war, had lost everything and was living on a swamp island just out of a famine zone, give me sweet potatoes from the garden Oxfam helped her grow, to say thank you for the support.
Being confronted with this selfless generosity, even in the toughest of circumstances, is among the most challenging and emotional situations I find myself in.
The thread that ties these stories together is Australian aid. In all three countries — Bangladesh, South Sudan and Jordan — Oxfam receives Australian aid funding to support these people in need of assistance.
In all three cases I saw that Australian aid really is changing lives and offering people hope for the future.
We’re slipping down the donor list
But there have recently been reports that further cuts to Australia’s aid budget are being considered, while it is already at historic lows.
In global rankings of foreign aid, released overnight by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we have seen Australia fall further behind other wealthy nations, from 17th to 19th, even though we are the 13th largest economy. It’s the third year in a row that we’ve seen a drop.
The level of our generosity is well below the average of other major donors such as the United Kingdom and proportionately less than countries with a lower GDP than our own — including Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand.
As the world grapples with extreme poverty, rising inequality and multiple humanitarian crises, it is unconscionable that the Government could be considering further eroding a critical lifeline to the world’s poorest people. They need our support to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change.
Australia’s foreign policy white paper released late last year also recognised that government action is needed to promote a stable, prosperous region and encourage sustainable development.
It’s important we don’t forget that a number of countries that were former recipients of Australian aid are now some of our biggest trading partners, including China and Malaysia. And China has gone on to become a major donor of foreign aid itself.
And historically, development aid has had notable successes, including a global vaccination campaign that virtually eradicated polio, and the mass distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa, which halved the mortality rate from malaria and saved the lives of millions of children.
We can help overseas and at home
It’s also important to note that it’s not an either/or situation — Australia is a wealthy country and has the funding to support both a more generous aid program and our own people. After all, Australian aid currently makes up less than 1 per cent of all budget spending.
We are a nation of kind and compassionate people, happy to lend a hand to those in need.
We see ourselves as part of a global community and we care about tackling poverty here in Australia and globally; we’ve always been able to do both. Individually we donate over $1 billion a year to Australian aid NGOs.
Our aid budget needs to be rebuilt to represent this.
Australia needs a generous and stable aid program that leaves no one behind, bolsters the capacity and responsibility of countries to provide for all their people, and helps to build resilience in an increasingly risky world.
We need to keep supporting vulnerable people with Australian aid, because not only is it the right thing to do, but it is no less than they would do for us were we in the same circumstances.
Helen Szoke is the chief executive of Oxfam Australia.
*Names changed to protect their identities