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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 26746

Ms VAMVAKINOU (1:22 PM) —Despite rising poverty levels in Australia, extreme life-threatening hunger is almost invisible here. We rarely encounter it face to face. However, global problems of hunger and malnutrition are actually getting worse, not better. Roughly 10 million people die each year due to hunger and malnutrition. The vast majority of these victims are women and children. Tragically, in the next five minutes alone, 62 children will die from hunger and malnutrition. Fortunately there are many valuable organisations, such as the United Nations World Food Program, working towards alleviating this tragic situation. Established in 1963, the World Food Program is the United Nations' front-line agency in the fight against global hunger, feeding over 72 million people in 82 countries every year, and providing millions more with much-needed education and infrastructure.

Labor supports and wholeheartedly congratulates the government for its financial support of such a worthy organisation. I would also like to congratulate the member for McPherson for introducing this motion and giving us the opportunity to speak about the world food bank in the parliament today. However, despite the government's recognition that the World Food Program's mission and mandate are strongly relevant to Australia's overall humanitarian objectives, and despite the member for McPherson's recognition that the World Food Program remains the most effective way of alleviating world poverty, fighting AIDS, promoting education and building political stability, the government's overall financial support of this program and associated humanitarian agencies has decreased.

The government's recent announcement to withdraw from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a partner organisation of the world food bank and the only development bank with a specific charter to alleviate rural poverty in developing countries through agricultural development, is a good example of this. Such withdrawal is extraordinary, given the government's vocal support for poverty alleviation and agricultural development. It is extraordinary, given that all other OECD nations have significantly increased their contributions to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, with the US boosting its funding of the fund by 50 per cent.

It would seem that much of the government's talk on the value of humanitarian aid is in danger of being merely rhetoric. Even more extraordinary is the government's lack of adequate assistance in the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Responding to these politically induced crises, which have left millions without essential food and infrastructure, has increased the demands on the World Food Program's limited budget by some 20 per cent. Australia's financial contribution to the World Food Program's Iraq reconstruction fund has not increased by this same proportion.

The extent of the Howard government's minimal commitment to the humanitarian and economic reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan was apparent at the international donors' conferences following both conflicts. Seventy governments attended the conferences, each represented by ministers and senior government members. The Australian government, in contrast, sent only low-level and junior representation. This lack of high-level representation is reflected in the dimensions of its financial contribution to economic reconstruction. If the government is serious about humanitarian aid, and truly values the role played by the UN, it has to be consistent in its approach to aid and to the United Nations. Lip-service will not save lives, and will only diminish our international reputation as good citizens and good neighbours.

It is imperative that the government reprioritises humanitarian aid and the value of the United Nations. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for it to do so. It is not too late to contribute more funds to the World Food Program or reverse our withdrawal from the International Fund for Agricultural Development. If the government is serious about liberating the people of Iraq it must increase its support of the reconstruction effort.

Labor recognises that it is both our moral responsibility and in our national interests to provide greater financial support to the WFP, and specifically to the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. We recognise that alleviating hunger and poverty is the most effective way of fostering stability, education and health in poverty-stricken nations. In this era of international political volatility, promoting stability in such nations is of more importance than ever. Indeed, it is a matter of national and international security, and our best weapon in the war against terror. Filling the stomachs and educating the minds of African or Middle Eastern children is our best weapon against recruitment by terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda, who use poverty and seeming Western arrogance and nonchalance as a major recruiter. The terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, Bali and now Madrid are a chilling indication of what can happen when prosperous nations ignore the plight of the world's disadvantaged and marginalised people. It is in fact our moral responsibility as a stable and prosperous nation to look after those countries that are less fortunate. (Time expired)