[caption id="attachment_10663" align="alignright" width="295" caption="ACL's Katherine Spackman (far right) joins Voices for Justice delegates to meet MP Darren Chester. L to R: Brandon, Nat, Mr Chester, Katerina, Bridget, Sonia and Katherine."][/caption]

This week’s annual Voices for Justice (VFJ) conference run by Micah Challenge in Canberra was another vital way to keep up the pressure on the Australian government to reach its contribution to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which it committed to in 2000.

It was the first time that I had attended the VFJ Conference and I joined about 200 people from all over Australia to meet together and lobby politicians (more than 100 MP visits were organised) to continue to reach the MDGs by 2015.

When the Australian government attended the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000, it joined other countries in agreeing to increase foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of GNI by 2015. Australia’s GNI is currently at 0.35 per cent and while the government has made a decision to increase foreign aid to 0.5 per cent by 2015, it’s still below the commitment.  As part of our lobbying efforts we asked the MPs we met to make a timetable for when they will commit to increasing aid to reach 0.7 per cent of GNI.

Briefly the MDGs Australia and other nations committed to at the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000 were:

1.)   Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

2.)   Achieve universal primary education

3.) Promote gender equality and empower women

4.) Reduce child mortality

5.) Improve maternal health

6.) Combat HIV and AIDS, malaria and other disease

7.) Ensure environmental sustainability

8.) Develop a global partnerships for development

As delegates at the conference we learnt that the MDGs remain off track, especially the fourth and fifth MDG. According to the UN, each year 8.1 million children die before their fifth birthday, while 358,000 women die due to complications in pregnancy. About 2.2 million of these children and 100,000 of these women could be saved if these goals were on track.

One of the key ways to help make progress on child and maternal health is by providing access to clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene (known as WASH). Delegates gave MPs a report entitled “WASHing Away Poverty”  The report outlines that diarrhoea kills about 1.3 million children each year, which is a great death toll than of AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

The below graph illustrates how much we’re lagging behind in helping developing regions improve sanitation.

According to this graph, we would reach the sanitation MDG by 2037, making it the last MDG target reached.

According to the World Health Organisation, providing access to WASH could prevent 28 per cent of child deaths or save the lives for more than 2 million children each year. However the Australian government is under investing when it comes to WASH. This year the government has budgeted to spend $117 million on WASH and by 2014/15 it will rise to $300 million. However, another key ask from VFJ delegates was for the government to increase its WASH aid to $500 million per annum by 2015.

Just as significant to increasing the funding, is making sure that we understanding how WASH funding is being spent. At present the aid program does not distinguish between funding for water and sanitation. Another key ask from delegates was that it would be separated so government can track how much money is going to water and to sanitation, as sanitation is often the poor cousin and looses out funding by most donor governments.

To make the point loud and clear about WASH, a giant toilet was on the front lawns of Parliament House on Tuesday morning to let politicians know that every person should have access to clean sanitation. MPs were also given a toilet roll to remind them of the message of delegates.

The VFJ conference is one way to continue to raise awareness about the MDGs and Australia’s role in helping developing countries. Australia is a prosperous and generous nation and should continue to reach out and help others.