The World's Generous Bushfire Response Highlights Our Foreign Aid Hypocrisy

You know those struggling Pacific nations that often seem to need our help?

Clean water for Vanuatu; infrastructure in PNG -- well, Australia’s bushfire crisis has turned those tables. Now it’s them offering us help.

International aid has become personal for this rich land of plenty and it feels weird.

There is gratitude, for sure, among Australians, but there is also sadness and shame: ‘What happened to our great economy to warrant offers of financial aid from less wealthy cousins?’

The Royal Australian Air Force transported food and other essential supplies to remote and stricken PNG villages after catastrophic flooding in 2007. (Image: AAP)
After 2015's Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu, Australia launched Operation Pacific Assist to help the 75,000 people left homeless. (Image: AAP)

One hundred members of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force have arrived in Australia.

Fiji has offered an engineering platoon.

Vanuatu has pledged 20 million vatu ($AU250,000) to assist the Rural Fire Service and workers to help Australian farmers affected by bushfires.



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What emerged from the Budget was an even uglier picture of Australia’s miserly approach to the poorest people in the world.

New Zealand sent troops and machinery including three helicopters and crew, with 157 of their firefighters already assisting with local efforts.

US, Canadian and New Zealand firefighters and experts are already here.

Many of our neighbours have offered military support.

France has offered operational assistance.

The international community has rallied around us in our time of need. (Image: NSW Rural Fire Service crews fight the Gospers Mountain Fire as it impacts property at Bilpin, December 21, 2019. Credit: AAP)

And it’s not just governments.

Celebrities have rallied and flexed their social media might to ask their global fan base to dig deep. Australian comedian Celeste Barber alone has raised over $50m. Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance has donated $4.3m. Ellen DeGeneres pledged 1.5m. American singer Pink pledged $500,000 as did Nicole Kidman. Kim Kardashian West and the whole Kardashian-Jenner clan have been sharing links across their socials.

The list goes on.



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I wonder how this experience -- with Australia not the donor, but the recipient --  as devastating as it continues to be for many of us, can influence how we consider our own aid program.

Foreign aid is often not the saviour people expect. Instead, it is confronting, a last resort and often received sadly. The reasons countries are given aid -- the traumas, the catastrophes, the crises and the chronic issues -- are often so damaging to individual and collective pride, worth and utility.

Some Australians’ reactions to our country’s giving to others in need: 'Why can’t they be happy with what we give them?’, must surely now be replaced with a personal reflection: ‘Foreign aid is not a gift happily received, it is a necessity of a desperate situation’. 

As a humanitarian worker, I spruik the benefits of aid, but also acknowledge its limitations. It helps, but it can never replace what is lost.

Donated goods are seen at the Lucknow Memorial Hall, Victoria, Friday, January 3. People in Victoria's worst-hit bushfire spots are being encouraged to leave before conditions worsen. (Image: AAP)
Bushfire-devastated Mallacoota residents are evacuated by the Australian Navy. (Image: AAP)
A business owner  stands in front of her destroyed shop with her partner in Cobargo, NSW, Wednesday, January 1, 2020. (Image: AAP)
Residents console each other in Coolagolite, NSW, Wednesday, January 1, 2020. (Image: AAP)
Foodbank has had over 400 volunteers helping to sort and pack more than 3,000 food hampers for bushfire affected communities. (Image: Facebook)

The bushfires and climate crisis should make us rethink perceptions of aid both at home and abroad. 

We all have a role to play to help others out of desperate situations.

So, thank you for the help. We are humbled and grateful. I hope we don’t need it again.

World Vision is encouraging people to support victims of the fires by donating to: The Salvation Army Disaster Appeal, Australian Red Cross bushfire appeal, Victorian Bushfire Appeal, and the Queensland Government bushfire appeal.

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