Aid groups were elated when billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates asked Australia to honor its aid commitments, as the government revealed a new $80 million pledge to eradicate polio worldwide.
“I hope you Aussies are proud of yourselves — because I am,” the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation co-chairman said in a blog published by The Australian newspaper to commemorate his visit to Canberra on Tuesday.
Gates hailed Australia’s emerging status as a “leader in development,” having steadily scaled up its foreign aid budget despite other donors reducing their spending after the global financial crisis hit.
Earlier this month, the Australian government announced a 2013-2014 foreign aid budget of AU$5.7 billion ($5.49 billion), composing 0.37 percent of the country’s gross national income. This marks a AU$513.4 million increase from last year’s budget, which fell at 0.35 percent of GNI. Much to the development community’s dismay, however, Australia deferred for the second year in a row its commitment to raise aid spending to 0.5 percent of GNI until 2017-2018.
“I hope Australia will reach that target as quickly as possible, and that you’ll continue to focus your spending on programs that fight poverty overseas […] Because Australia is increasingly seen as a leader in development, your investments serve as an example and an inspiration to other donors,” Gates added.
The Microsoft founder and world’s richest man met with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Tuesday. He lobbied for more official development assistance from the government and a boost in support for the eradication of polio in the three remaining countries where it is endemic: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. The Gates Foundation will share AU$1.73 billion to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative from 2013-2018.
Gillard responded with a promise to provide AU$80 million from 2015-2018 to GPEI, following a AU$50 million commitment by the government in 2011-2014.
Aid groups approve
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative welcomed the new pledge from Australia.
“After the game-changing contribution of the Australian government to polio eradication in 2011 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, this new announcement seals the critical role of Australia in completing this historic initiative and giving the gift of a polio-free world to all future generations,” GPEI spokeswoman Sona Bari told Devex.
The Rotary International in Australia, a member of GPEI, was also pleased. Regional spokesman Philip Archer said in a statement sent to Devex that amplified support from countries like Australia will help end polio, now standing at 99.9 percent elimination.
Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, sees an opportunity in the new funding.
“The case of the near-eradication of polio is a great success story in the role vaccines can play in saving lives. It is now time for the world to finish the job and eradicate polio. It is excellent to see Australia playing a role in this,” he told Devex.
Purcell hopes that Gates’ visit will refocus the attention of Australian political leaders towards reaching the 0.5 percent GNI target.
“We encourage Australia’s political leaders to listen to Bill Gates’ message that Australian aid is making a big difference and should continue to be increased,” echoed Helen Szoke, chief executive of Oxfam Australia.
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