The Prime Minister’s office announced several new funding commitments today, in the lead up to her speech in the main plenary of the Rio+20 summit.
Speaking at the Women Leader’s Forum this morning, the Prime Minister announced Australia would provide $500,000 over two years to support the role of women in building and restoring peace in the Asia-Pacific region. Later she announced $97 million for the Civil Society Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, and a further $50 million to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program.
The funding commitments followed last night’s surprise press conference where Ban Ki-moon appointed Prime Minister Gillard as co-chair of a body designed to inject urgency into the process of meeting the Millenium Development Goals by the 2015 deadline.
Australian aid advocates are calling it an opportunity for the Prime Minister to redeem herself by reversing her recent decision to delay promised increases to Australia’s foreign aid budget by one year.
“We welcome the Prime Minister’s new appointment but if the Australian Government is serious about meeting the Millenium Development Goals it needs to reinstate and then ramp up foreign aid,” said the CEO if the Oaktree Foundation Viv Benjamin.
“International cooperation breaks down when countries break their promises to those who need it most, so Australia must honour the aid commitments we previously made.”
Next year, aid spending will remain at 0.35 per cent of Australia’s national income, well below the 0.38 per cent forecast in last year’s budget papers and far short of the 0.7 per cent target that the world’s governments have repeatedly pledged, and failed, to meet since 1970. In practical terms, the delay means that Australia’s aid budget will be reduced by $2.9 billion over the next four years.
The Prime Minister also announced $33 million to help developing countries in the Asia‑Pacific sustainably manage their oceans, fisheries and coasts: $25 million to help Pacific Island countries address illegal fishing and minimise the destruction of marine ecosystems, and $8 million for the Coral Triangle Initiative to help countries in our region sustainably manage marine and coastal resources. A further $15 million was pledged towards Korea’s Global Green Growth Institute, to support developing countries with access to expert decision-making through a think tank on sustainable development.
But young Australians at the conference are calling on the Prime Minister to show her commitment to environmental education at home.
Last year the Federal Government cut all funding to the highly successful Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative (AUSSI). The AUSSI program, which had so far reached 30% of all Australian schools, linked the curriculum to the community by helping schools run practical waste, water, energy and biodiversity programs.
“At only the tiny cost of $3 per student and the meagre overall investment of $3 million this year, plus $10 million a year until 2015, AUSSI could reach every single school in the country,” said Ellen Sandell, National Director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
Don Henry, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, joined a group of young Australians (full disclosure: I was one of them) to present the Prime Minister with a petition and photobook in support of re-instating funding to the program.
Meanwhile, another group of young people and civil society representatives staged a walkout of the conference hall this afternoon, symbolically handing their accreditation badges back to officials on the way out.
“Twenty years ago Rio was the scene of valid and earnest hope, but by this point it’s mostly sham and charade,” said 350.org founder Bill McKibben. “We’re losing the fight for the planet badly and nothing in this mealy-mouthed text will do a thing to turn that around.”
I spoke to one young professional half an hour before the walkout, who was tossing up whether to join them. Looking every inch the respectable young businessperson in a neat-pressed suit, 23-year old Everett Hoffman sat in the food court and told me how disillusioned he’d become with the negotiations. In Boston he works to develop urban composting, and he’s in Rio representing a U.N. initiative called United Religions.
“I’m stuck with this dilemma,” he tells me. “Being a young professional here representing a UN organisation with responsibilities toward that organisation, I feel like I should stay. But every single one of my moral fibres is telling me to walk out.”
If I choose to leave, I’ll have to deal with a lot of repercussions…but I want to walk out,” he said. “I don’t believe that they’re representing our interests. I don’t believe they’re representing the interests of the people.”
I later learnt that Everett decided to join the walkout.