Australia is a generous nation, right? We give a lot of our wealth to poor nations. Some think we give too much. 

So just how much aid do we give? If you lined up 200 fifty cent coins on the ground and said that represented our annual national income. How many of these 50 cent coins would we give in overseas aid? Would we give 10 coins, or five or even just one? The answer is actually, less than one 50 cent coin. Our current level of overseas aid sits at just 35 cents per every $100 of gross national income. 

"Lifting aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI would allow Australia to save the lives of an additional 500,000 people each year and provide basic education for another 700,000 children."

- Tim Costello

In fact in the league ladder of rich nations, which was released this week, Australia languishes in 13th place out of the 23 OECD nations and well below the average of 0.46 per cent of gross national income.

And this from a nation that was recently ranked by Credit Suisse as the world’s second wealthiest country. 

The reality is that most  Australians think we give a lot more aid, most think we give up to 15 or 20 per cent of our overall income. They are shocked when they are told the percentage is less than half of one per cent.

Perhaps it is not so surprising, given that our private giving to overseas aid is high compared to other countries. So it’s little wonder people don’t understand why our government isn’t giving more in overseas aid. 

But even with this modest amount of aid, Australian aid spending does have a big impact. Australia’s aid program currently saves the lives of an estimated 300,000 people each year and provides basic education for almost 1 million children as well as improving outcomes in a wide range of other areas such as agriculture and governance.

The good news is that even now, despite the acrimony of a minority parliament, both sides of politics have committed to boost our level of aid spending to reach 0.5 per cent of gross national income (or one 50 cent piece out of the 200) by 2015. 

Lifting aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI would allow Australia to save the lives of an additional 500,000 people each year and provide basic education for another 700,000 children.

Yet amid the government’s drive to find budget savings, there is a risk of this commitment being cut. Media reports have suggested this promise may be pushed out instead to 2020.

The tragedy is such a decision would mean a loss of over $1 billion a year to the aid budget. This is money that can and is making a profound difference. Every day, 20,000 children die in our world because they are living in poverty, but aid has helped cut that from 27,000 per day just 10 years ago.

And Australia sits in a part of the world where there are more people living in poverty than anywhere else. It is a region with some of the highest levels of needless child deaths, with East Timor for example ranking 142 out of 194 countries for child mortality and 18 of Australia’s closest neighbouring countries are developing.

Both the government and the coalition should be applauded for making this commitment to boost our overseas aid program to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015. But it is critical that both sides of politics keep this commitment. 

It is an affordable and fair commitment that will save many lives and help many others.  It is also in our nation’s own self interest given that aid also fosters security and economic development which in turn benefits Australia. 

Other nations such as Britain that are confronting far worse financial troubles have pledged not to balance their books on the back of the world’s poorest. It is my heartfelt hope that our political leaders do the same.

The government can afford to keep this commitment. This May Budget will be a critical litmus test on if it is willing to keep its promises on aid. 

Tim Costello is the chief executive of World Vision Australia. This article was first published in the Herald Sun newspaper.