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Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Page: 5350

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (13:40): Today, the lives of more than 12 million people, including 2.23 million children, are being threatened as they face starvation and malnutrition in the Horn of Africa. Drought, unrest and a refugee and humanitarian crisis ravage Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda and, perhaps most heavily, Somalia. This crisis is the 21st century's first famine of this scale. It is the most severe food security challenge in Africa for over 20 years. This famine has come about because of the worst drought in the region in 60 years. There are no crops and little livestock left. The UN estimates that 3.7 million people are in crisis in Somalia alone. Women and children are walking for up to four weeks to the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya. They arrive with severely malnourished children, and many do not survive.

I am pleased that the Australian federal government is providing more than $80 million in humanitarian assistance through various aid suppliers in the region, including $77 million to United Nations agencies like the High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program, $5 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross and $6.2 million through Australian non-government organisations. Taken together, Australia's contribution makes us the fourth largest donor in response to this crisis, and this contribution goes towards providing food and support directly to people in the affected areas. Australia has responded strongly and quickly to expand on its existing aid program in the area.

But, to put this crisis into perspective, the United Nations estimates that the total humanitarian requirement for crisis is in the realm of $2.5 billion, the shortfall for which still stands at about $600 million, assuming all donations pledged are followed through with. The alternative, of course, is too grim to countenance. Already 2.23 million children are suffering from acute malnutri­tion. A failure to adequately respond would condemn hundreds of thousands of children to death, millions more to indefinite displacement. And, after the crisis, what then?

If we do not work to address situations such as that facing the Horn of Africa, we will find ourselves facing the same crisis in years to come. Acute needs must be addressed now—we must provide nutrition, water, sanitation and medical support. We must also address chronic needs and help these people to help themselves—providing seed and stock and giving people the opportunity to support themselves. But we must also examine the root causes of such disasters. How did this happen and how did it get so bad? We must, as an international community, strengthen and expand our disaster response. We must examine how we can reduce the risk of such events happening again.

We know this is not the only tragedy in recent times. Just last year, the world stopped as shocking images from the devastating floods in Pakistan appeared on our TV screens and in our newspapers. While it may not be a focus of the media today, the reality is that that situation is also still grim. Every single day, thousands of people are struggling to survive in Pakistan. They struggle to support their families and to re-establish their livelihoods. Good work is happening and some 350,000 homes have been rebuilt, but 825,000 families still remain without permanent shelter in Pakistan.

In recent weeks, I had the opportunity to meet with the Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, Andrew Hewett, and their Tasmanian state organiser, Clancy Moore, to learn a little bit more about their new GROW campaign. Oxfam, as senators would know, is an international organisation dedicated to fighting against extreme poverty and injustice. Oxfam Australia has programs in almost 20 countries worldwide. Their most recent campaign, GROW, focuses on issues associated with global food security, food price volatility, land rights for producers and both limiting and mitigating the effects of climate change. This campaign is a statement of vision in response to these issues, one that prioritises small-scale producers and redresses the inequities of agricultural resourcing both between nations and within a country where women farmers are often denied access to agricultural aids such as seed varieties or fertilisers. It seeks to improve global governance around food security and the link between aid and social justice.

Oxfam also observes, like the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, that the world can and does produce enough food to feed everyone. But up to 30 per cent of that food is wasted worldwide. Thirty per cent of food is wasted worldwide. Much of it would otherwise be exported to generate income and encourage sustainable and expanded farming opportunities. Here in Australia, $5.2 billion worth of food is wasted each year. The amount of wasted food within our own country at this point in time is unconscionable when there is a crisis in the Horn of Africa with so many children suffering from starvation and malnutrition.

Here in Australia, food could go to supporting people who suffer relative disadvantage in our own community. I believe it is worth mentioning organisations that are trying to turn this around, like Second Bite and Foodbank. Second Bite in Tasmania operates to redirect that food destined for the rubbish bin to people in need—food that is of good quality and edible.

Part of the solution is understanding what the actual problem is. Programs like Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden—which is now active in three schools in my home state of Tasmania, including Moonah Primary School, which I know quite well—equips students with the knowledge of growing, harvesting and cooking produce right from the source. It is just these principles which we should be aspiring to enable those overseas struggling to feed their families to employ. It is just this logic that should sit behind the goals of our humanitarian aid.

But if the link between food security and domestic education is apparent, it should also be clear that food security is related more generally to issues of development. It is no surprise that institutions primarily concerned with development and community building, like the World Bank—to whose president, Robert Zoellick, Australia last week played host—are part of global efforts to improve access to adequate food. When the price of food skyrocketed in 2008, it was the poorest and least developed nations which were most affected and most in need of the World Bank's emergency Global Food Crisis Response Program, to which Australia contributed $50 million.

Food security, health, poverty reduction and development all go hand in hand. A cursory glance at the Millennium Development Goals, the benchmarks for development to which Australia subscribed in 2000, bears this out. Each of these goals depends on the kind of health that can only be achieved with decent nutrition; equally, they recognise that creating sustainable food resources requires a sustainable environment and sustainable communities.

The MDGs should not be just abstract, aspirational goals. Eleven years ago, we committed to actually reaching those goals. Yes, considerable progress has been made to achieve the outcomes and the benchmarks set by the Millennium Development Goals. The first target, relating to halving extreme poverty and hunger, is on track to be met, even if that target is less than the true original goal of eradicating the worst poverty. But others, such as those relating to maternal health and child mortality, will not be met. We should not console ourselves with the notion that the MDGs are ambitious and that falling short is not ideal but is acceptable. It is certainly not. Ten thousand fewer children dying every day should not console us when that represents only a 28 per cent reduction in infant mortality. When 69 million children are still denied primary education, we cannot become complacent. Such figures should spark us into action and stir us to redouble our efforts.

Australia plays an important part in this. Our aid program is considerable; there is no doubt about that. Our aid workers achieve great results, and the aid effectiveness review recently received by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the government is an indication of the care we take with delivering a high standard, not just a high volume, of humanitarian and development activity. We have committed to 0.7 per cent of our gross national income being directed towards supporting our friends and partners overseas, a financial investment in a safer, fairer, more constructive international community.

Since Labor came to power, we have been building our overseas assistance towards 0.5 per cent of GNI directed at the best, most genuine of individual projects. We have reversed the decline of overseas assistance we witnessed under the previous coalition government, although I do acknowledge that the core need for aid and assistance and the importance of the Millennium Development Goals is recognised by both sides of the political divide today. However, the government has a long lag of catch-up to meet our aspirational target as a result of the Howard legacy of 11 years of decline and neglect.

I know that it is important that support is maintained for reaching our target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. I want to acknowledge the advocacy of a number of community organisations who go about doing just that, who are helping to ensure that is the case, especially non-government organisations like the United Nations Association, United Nations Youth Australia, the Micah Global Foundation, the Oaktree Foundation, RESULTS International and the other partners of the Make Poverty History campaign, who continue their terrific work.

I return to Oxfam, who both locally—I know from meeting the band of volunteers who drive its agenda from International House in Hobart—and in the work they do internationally make a tremendous contribution to civil society and to our humanitarian efforts, helping some of the poorest people on the globe. I again commend the GROW initiative and I support Australia's continued effort in the alleviation of the terrible situation of famine on the Horn of Africa and beyond. It is together in this place that we can all recognise that more needs to be done, that Australia is doing its part to address this terrible tragedy of starvation, the first such tragedy in the 21st century. I commend all of those non-government organisations that go about their work each day to ensure that those suffering most are kept alive and that their lives are improved in the face of such a devastating famine and in the face of malnutrition of children in the Horn of Africa.