A key objective of Australia’s aid to Pakistan has been assisting women and girls with a focus on education, increased access to quality reproductive health and gender-based anti-violence services.
Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in Asia and was placed 150 out of 178 nations on the most recent United Nations Human Development Index, which ranks countries according to health, education and income.
Australia’s overall foreign aid budget has been slashed by 27 per cent in real terms since 2013 and now makes up just 0.82 per cent of federal government spending, an all-time low.
Despite those cuts, the Morrison government has pledged an Australian“step-up” in the Pacific and aid spending in that region was lifted to a record $1.4 billion in 2019-20. The policy shift came amid fears of growing Chinese influence on Australia’s doorstep.
Professor Stephen Howes, an expert on Australia’s aid program at the Australian National University, said it was a “national embarrassment” that aid was being funnelled to the Pacific at the expense of effective development programs in Pakistan.
“No one could plausibly claim the need in the Pacific is greater than the need in Pakistan,” he said.
Last financial year Australia’s aid to Pakistan provided food and cash transfers to over two million poor people affected by drought and internal displacement. It supported a further 1.2 million people in disadvantaged regions, helping them to gain access to justice, public services and business grants.
The government’s decision to end bilateral aid to Pakistan is a marked shift from its priorities in 2015, when an official aid investment plan said Australia has “strong interests” in Pakistan because of its size and strategic position in the South Asia region.
The Morrison government’s aid budget summary released in April said “gender disparities are stark” in Pakistan and noted that “nine in 10 Pakistani women experience violence in their lifetime, among the world’s highest rates of gender-based violence.”
Pakistan will continue to receive a small amount of Australian aid through “regionally and globally funded programs” such as scholarships to study at Australian universities.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australia “will continue to work with Pakistan on areas of shared interest, including through trade and investment, community links, defence cooperation, human rights and gender equality, and regional security.”
While government to government aid will cease, Pakistan will continue to receive some Australian humanitarian and “regional” funding such as scholarships for study in Australia. This will total approximately $13.5 million in 2020-21.
Tim Costello, executive director of aid advocacy group Micah Australia, said the Morrison government was abandoning Pakistan.
“We support the Pacific step-up but that should not come at the cost of aid to Pakistan,” he said. “Apart from lacking any humanitarian heart it is foolish in security terms.”
Australia’s bilateral development assistance to Pakistan peaked at $70 million in 2009 when the Rudd government was in office.
Pakistan’s neighbour Nepal has also been hit by cuts to Australia’s aid. Bilateral assistance to Nepal will be 42 per cent lower in 2019-20 than the previous year.
Matt Wade is a senior economics writer at The Sydney Morning Herald.