Alain is five years old. He is just beginning school. Like every kid, it is both a big adventure but one marked with mixed feelings about leaving home for so long and being no longer free to play with his younger siblings.
On the way to school he passes near a small building whose purpose it is to house the two child protection officers who hear and deal with complaints that arise in his refugee camp community. He of course has no idea what that entails, nor to what the badge attached to the wall, 'Donated by the Australian Government', refers.
Alain is one of around 11,000 people living in this particular camp in the south of Zimbabwe. More than half of these are children. It seems an unlikely location to talk of the freeze on funding for Australian foreign aid announced in the budget, but it is in places like these, unseen and therefore unknown by the Australian population, that the effects are often felt.
Alain is lucky: the camp where he lives has good education. Worldwide however, only 50 per cent of children in forced migrant situations will attend primary school, 22 per cent secondary and a paltry 1 per cent any institution of higher learning. It is not accurately known how many school aged children in forced migrant situations are missing out, but it is estimated to be in the order of 25 million.
That is equivalent to almost the entire population of Australia.
Research now tells us that these uneducated children are more likely to become the foot soldiers of violent ideologies that hold the promise of giving their lives meaning. They are more likely to be depressed or chemically dependent, and are almost certain to remain poor. But this is the negative view of looking at it: imagine, for a minute, what 25 million people could contribute to the human community if they had the chance.
I had two encounters with Australian overseas aid while working in southern Africa. There was a small grants program overseen by the Australian embassy under which presumably the child protection facility was built. I approached them but was told that they did not do any personnel costs or administration or project support — only the project itself. The American equivalent was much more expansive and allowed, for instance, someone to follow up to see whether the facility is indeed useful.
My second was to try to elicit, under a volunteer program, the services of a skilled professional for a year to help us to build our capacity in a particular area of the operation. The program has a good reputation. When the two representatives came to our office, however, I was told that the suburb in which our office was sited was not good, but nevertheless, 'we don't do refugees — it is not a priority area'.
"To get the 25 million forced migrant children currently not being educated into school, US$4.3 billion is needed. In an ever more precarious, changing and interconnected world, this would be a most wise investment."
On the first point, we had done our homework and had had the UN agencies' security consultant assess a number of potential sites for our office. The current location came up trumps on risk of vehicular crime and overall street and risk-of-home-invasion safety. The second is likewise hard to fathom: 65.3 million forced migrants currently, the highest on record, and yet the issue is not a priority, especially nearer the source of the areas which generate refugee flows? Presumably the Australian government would laud and support efforts to prevent people making for wealthier countries? Sadly, it seems, on this evidence at least, not.
Australia's freeze on overseas aid at AUD$3.9 billion per annum is part of a trend in western governments, led by the current US president who has slashed such funding, shifting much of it to the military. It is also a theme since the present Coalition government came to power in 2013, with $11.3 billion slashed since then. It's a continued punch in the guts for soft power approaches to resolve some of the world's more difficult issues, and makes the operations of some of the essential UN agencies such as UNHCR and UNICEF, funded under such programs, more precarious. The implications of this simply do not bear entertainment.
Globally less than 2 per cent of humanitarian funding goes to education. Right now, to get the 25 million forced migrant children of the world currently not being educated into school, an estimated US$4.3 billion is needed. It's not a lot. In an ever more precarious, changing and interconnected world, this, I suggest, would be a most wise investment.
One may say that the government's actions represent a softly, softly approach, measured and prudent and in line with community expectations. But well directed aid unfortunately rarely lies within 'community expectations', simply because its actions and effects are mostly unseen. I can attest that well directed and supported foreign aid, particularly in education, which is a facet of a development (not primarily emergency) response, builds lives, and gives people the chance at life they seek. In the long term it builds solid links between nations and gives the Alains of this world the ability to contribute positively to the community in which they eventually find themselves. Not only he, but we, deserve at least that.
Australian Jesuit David Holdcroft is currently conducting a strategic review of post-secondary education in forced migrant settings for the global Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). David worked for seven years as director of JRS operations in Southern Africa.