Australia’s multilateralism à la carte is failing people in humanitarian contexts
16 Dec 2020|

Much has been written about the changing international order and the ‘crisis’ of multilateralism in recent months. The winds of change have been howling, indeed. International treaties and the multilateral system, with the United Nations at its centre, are being challenged like seldom before. The Covid-19 pandemic has been characterised by a severe lack of cooperation between major powers. And the Indo-Pacific is turning into the world’s main stage for geostrategic competition, as both autocratic and democratic nations increasingly flex their muscles.

Australia’s foreign policy is adapting to these realities, and rightly so. More attention is paid to promoting stability and growth in our region. Commitments to the rules-based order and key multilateral institutions have also been dialled up. In a landmark speech, Foreign Minister Marise Payne stressed that ‘the pandemic has brought into stark relief the major role of international institutions in addressing and coordinating a global response to a global problem across multiple lines of effort’. Funding was dished out accordingly, with strong contributions to the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility and key Asia–Pacific partner countries, among several steps to address the largest public health crisis in a century.

Australia clearly understands the importance of multilateral cooperation to tackle challenges that go beyond the capabilities of any one country. Yet, there is an elephant in the room. Why has Australia been largely absent from the multilateral response to Covid-19 in humanitarian crisis settings, most of which are beyond our region? Why is Australia stepping away from responding to protracted conflict and displacement in the world’s most fragile contexts, just as the pandemic triggers the return of famine and historic humanitarian need? How can Australia expect to promote stability in the Indo-Pacific when parts of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are on the verge of collapse?

The UN’s Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan is a case in point. Over the past nine months, it has been the core multilateral instrument to address urgent health and socioeconomic needs in countries already facing a humanitarian or refugee crisis, such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Mali, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. To date, the plan has delivered thousands of hand-washing facilities in crowded refugee camps, provided emergency support to survivors of gender-based violence, and provided special care for children at risk. The appeal requested A$13 billion for 2020 (small change compared with the A$15 trillion that wealthy countries have spent on domestic stimulus programs) but as of 14 December, it was 60 per cent unfunded.

Australia has failed to mount an adequate response, with a meagre contribution of A$29.7 million (0.6 per cent of the fund’s total budget). This is roughly the same as the government of Chad’s contribution, and compares poorly to strategic partners like the UK, Germany, Japan and the US that recognise the importance of strong humanitarian engagement in conflict settings. Add to this Australia’s declining contributions to the World Food Programme, whose critical role in fighting hunger in conflict settings was recently acknowledged with a Nobel Peace Prize. Nor is this underwhelming contribution balanced by a robust humanitarian aid budget; Australia’s is small compared with those of similar-sized economies like Canada and the Netherlands.

Of course, this reflects Australia’s strategic realignment, with the government’s new aid strategy noting that ‘while this pandemic is global, our interests, influence and capabilities are concentrated in our immediate neighbourhood’. Aid is seen as an extension to diplomacy and a tool to promote Australia’s economic and security interests in the Asia–Pacific region.

While the region is indeed struggling economically and socially, and additional support is warranted, it is short-sighted to reduce Australia’s engagement in the world’s crisis hotspots. Covid-19 is wreaking havoc in conflict-affected countries outside the Indo-Pacific, with levels of hunger, poverty, stress and tension all spiralling. Even before the pandemic, protracted humanitarian crises like the ones in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan left millions of children and youth in limbo, with far-reaching implications for their future opportunities. Infections are still rising unchecked, local economies have collapsed, and the spectre of famine looms in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and the West African Sahel region, all while violent conflict continues unabated. State structures in these environments lack the capacity or will to provide basic services to people uprooted from their homes; refugees in particular rely on a strong multilateral response to fill the gaps.

A ‘humanitarian step-up’ in Africa and the Middle East would be entirely in Australia’s national interest. It would save the lives and livelihoods of millions, prevent the international crisis from worsening and build on past development investments in these regions. Tackling the outbreak in the world’s most fragile contexts is also a prerequisite to ending the pandemic in the Indo-Pacific, both from a health and socio-political perspective. We know, for example, that economic collapse and life dissatisfaction can lead people to be more receptive to extremist ideologies; the growing marginalisation of children and youth in humanitarian settings may therefore have a direct bearing on future peace and security in Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. For the sake of our own prosperity and security, we should take note that millions of displaced people are at risk of turning into a permanent underclass, vulnerable to exploitation. Unless more is done now, we will deal with the expensive spillover effects for many years to come.

In the contest for Australian resources, strategic humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected populations outside the Indo-Pacific needs to gain much higher priority. A first step would be to adopt a A$150 million aid package, before the pandemic’s first anniversary, to address soaring hardship in protracted crises outside the Indo-Pacific, with a specific focus on averting famine and getting displaced children back into a learning environment. Further, given that more than half of the world’s refugees are children, it would be sensible to invest half of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s emergency assistance in the wellbeing of children caught up in protracted crises, including their nutrition, mental health and protection from violence. We cannot risk losing a generation of children to conflict and Covid-19.

Not least, the changing nature and complexity of crises also demands a new approach. Australia should use its development programs to focus more on building resilience and preventing conflict in the world’s most fragile contexts, to help communities better face future shocks and address their own needs.

Former UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld famously said the UN ‘was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell’. Australia is well placed to adapt to significant shifts in the regional balance of power while also advancing multilateral humanitarian goals and means. It is time to step up again and help fulfill Hammarskjöld’s promise in the world’s major humanitarian theatres.