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

Posted on January 21, 2020, 5:01 pm

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 poorer cousins?’

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

Fiji is sending 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.

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.

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 $4.3m. Ellen DeGeneres launched a GoFundMe with a 5m target. American singer Pink pledged $500k as did Nicole Kidman. Kim Kardashian West and the whole Kardashian-Jenner clan have been sharing links across their socials.

The list goes on.

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 countries’ 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.

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

Queensland Government bushfire appeal

Patrick Thomas is the Low-Income Countries Manager at World Vision Australia.