Vanuatu disaster exposes limits of Australian internationalism

Australian has moved swiftly to fly relief aid and personnel to Vanuatu but has been less responsive to Pacific Islanders’ pleas to act on climate change. AAP/Dave Hunt

Australian aid to Vanuatu will be welcome, but the impact of Cyclone Pam also illustrates the limits of Australia’s commitment to the most vulnerable.

On Tuesday, Australia announced an increase in aid to Vanuatu in response to the devastation the island nation has suffered. After initially committing A$5 million to assist disaster relief by United Nations and non-government organisations, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that Australia would send additional medical staff and search and rescue personnel.

Given the scale of the cyclone damage, the initial $5 million is unlikely to go very far. The amounts being donated may increase as the full effects of the cyclone are realised and as the scale of contributions from the private sector and other states becomes clearer.

Giving from a shrunken aid budget

It is appropriate for Australia to help with disaster management in a poor country in its neighbourhood, especially with a disaster of this magnitude. This assistance will certainly be welcome. But, in important ways, the disaster also exposes the limits of Australian internationalism.

First, Australia’s disaster relief package masks the gutting of our aid program. While Australia’s leaders express concern for the people of Vanuatu, the welfare of poor states is a commitment from which Australia is walking away.

In its first budget, the Abbott government announced a $7.6 billion cut to Australian aid over five years. This was the largest single saving announced in that budget.

This action clearly paints a poor picture of our concern for vulnerable outsiders. But it also undermines the capacity of those in impoverished states to adapt to disasters. This is particularly the case in the Pacific, where the vulnerability of island nations to cyclones is a product of geography, rising sea levels and under-development.

Pleas on climate change ignored

Second, Australia’s domestic inaction on climate change – despite increasingly urgent warnings from Pacific island nations – exposes a lack of concern for the well-being of the most vulnerable. Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale was quick to link Cyclone Pam to climate change, and he has a point. The scientific community has consistently identified an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as cyclones as a likely effect of climate change.

We cannot say with certainty that this was an event caused by climate change. But we can say with confidence that this type of event will be both more likely and more severe in a climate-changed world, however unpopular such a position may be with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. This reality compels all states to consider the ways in which they can significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – a consideration Australia is simply not taking seriously.

No-one can reasonably make the case that concerted Australian action on climate change will be enough to prevent climate change or its effects. But Australia is not doing its fair share to reduce emissions, and its inaction makes a significant global agreement more difficult. As a wealthy nation with among the highest per capita emissions in the world, Australia has a particular obligation to provide leadership and to help significantly reduce global emissions.

Third, and more directly, our approach to global efforts to build adaptive capacity to climate change in developing states also undermines our internationalist credentials. Australia surprised many by announcing a commitment of $200 million to the UN’s Green Climate Fund in Lima in late 2014. This fund aims to finance climate adaptation measures in the developing world.

At best, Australia’s commitment is a promising start. But it is a long way short of Australia’s fair share, and a long way short of action by other states. The fund’s ultimate target is $200 billion by 2020.

Viewed in this light, Australia’s belated commitment is simply insufficient.

Aid isn’t charity

Australia’s aid to Vanuatu in the wake of this disaster will be a welcome and important contribution to the rebuilding efforts. This form of aid is important and, at times, a tragic necessity.

But aid should ultimately be focused on the task of helping poor states and societies to develop. This in turn will help provide them with the resources to “weather the storm”: to limit the damage wrought by natural disasters and recover more quickly.

Australian aid is not a charity. It is an obligation that is internationally codified and morally compelled by our wealth. This aid should be focused on long-term poverty reduction rather than high-profile disaster relief, however necessary (or popular) such measures may be.

Australia needs to focus urgently on capacity-building in impoverished states, which will help such states in the region manage disaster. And, as a nation, Australia needs to do its fair share to limit the risk of such disasters in the future.