Australia’s aid funding to health programs across the Pacific region has been slashed in the past five years, even as Pacific nations have battled health crises, including a devastating measles outbreak, polio and drug-resistant tuberculosis.
Overall aid spending on the Pacific region has increased, with the region getting an extra $214m in foreign aid in the 2019-20 aid budget compared with 2014-15.
But new figures, released in response to Labor questions in Senate estimates, show the Australian government has slashed budgets of some programs, including health, in favour of more spending on infrastructure.
Health funding was cut in the Cook Islands by 75%, Fiji by 22%, in the Solomon Islands by 13% and in Samoa, which has been devastated by a measles outbreak that claimed the lives of more than 80 people, by 36%.
The government has made much of its redirection of aid spending towards the Pacific region, at the expense of other regions, as part of its “Pacific step-up”, which includes $3bn in infrastructure funding.
Labor’s spokesman on international development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said health had been neglected despite that emphasis.
“The cuts to Australian assistance on health have also hit our Pacific neighbours particularly hard, despite the government’s claims of a Pacific step-up.
“Cutting health assistance to Samoa by 36% in the aftermath of its tragic measles epidemic raises questions about whether the Morrison government is genuinely responding to the needs of Australia’s Pacific friends.”
The chief executive of the Australian Council for International Development, Marc Purcell, said Australia had traditionally been a leader on preventive health, but “this leadership has been lost” as Australia has reduced its aid health spending by a third since 2014-15.
“Given the low resilience of the region against infectious diseases, the recent spread of measles in Samoa and the threat of coronavirus, there are widely held concerns across the Pacific. Now would be the perfect time for Australia to pick up the baton once more,” Purcell said.
The broader aid figures showed that spending on individual Pacific nations was patchy, with Australia increasing the amount it gave to Papua New Guinea, while reducing the amount it spent on some of its other, and most vulnerable, neighbours.
Overall aid spending was cut to the Cook Islands (26%), Fiji (5%), Kiribati (10%), the North Pacific (42%), Samoa (14%), Tonga (10%) and Tuvalu (17%) between 2014-15 and 2019-20. It has remained steady in Nauru and the Solomon Islands.
The big winner from the region was PNG, which receives roughly 10 times more in Australian aid than the next largest Pacific recipient, Fiji. PNG got an additional $82m in aid over the past five years, a 16% increase.
Australia has dramatically cut its overall aid program in the last five years. In the current financial year, it will spend just 21 cents on foreign aid for every $100 the nation earns, a historic low, down from a peak of 33 cents in 2013-2014 and well below the UN target for wealthy countries of 70 cents.
The department of foreign affairs and trade was contacted for comment.