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Tim Costello leaves World Vision with a plea

Australians need to give more, former World Vision head says as he departs after 15 years.

PHOTO: Supplied, World Vision

By Stephen Cauchi

July 8 2019 

The Revd Tim Costello – who last month concluded his time with World Vision after 15 years – has told TMA the Liberal Party had betrayed its founder Sir Robert Menzies in its approach to foreign aid.

Australians were also less generous in giving than the British and Americans, he said. However, he also reflected generously on his time with World Vision, which he has left for a role at the Centre For Public Christianity.

Mr Costello’s comments on Sir Robert came after an interview with The Age in June in which he criticised the Morrison Government for its “mean” foreign aid strategy.

Australia only spent 21 cents out of every $100 of gross national income on foreign aid, he told TMA. This was far less than a 1969 international agreement to spend 70 cents, which a small number of countries, including Britain, had adhered to.

“I think the modern Liberals have trashed the legacy of their founder, Bob Menzies,” said Mr Costello, whose brother, Peter Costello, was Treasurer in John Howard’s Coalition Government.

Australia gave 51 cents under Menzies, which was a “healthy” amount, said Mr Costello, a Baptist minister.

“Bob Menzies said aid’s not a left or right issue, it’s our humanitarian duty.”

The Coalition under Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey had “smashed” aid in the 2014 budget, he said.

“Twenty per cent of their savings in that budget came from aid. It was just a massacre, a humanitarian massacre,” he said. Aid had “continued to go down in future budgets”.

“We are mean. I don’t know when at this level we thought we could become so mean.”

By contrast, British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had passed laws mandating 70 cents in 2015.

“David Cameron, when he legislated it, said, ‘We won’t balance our books on the backs of the poor’.â��”

Australian giving, both domestically and to nations overseas, had dropped markedly since the Global Financial Crisis, said Mr Costello, 64. Only about one in three Australians donated money.

The Australian attitude to giving was “we pay our taxes and that’s all that’s required, the Government provides the welfare net”, he said.

“Americans, whose welfare net is inferior, say we’ve got to give much more – and do,” he said. “American and British corporate and mega-rich proportionally give a lot more, and are just expected to, than ours.

“I know that Australian branches of American or British companies – because they tell me this – are often saying, the culture here doesn’t expect of us what the culture in America or Britain expects of our head office in giving.”

Politicians in Australia often used rhetoric such as “we feel your pain, you’re hurting and you need tax relief,” he said.

“Actually a lot of these Australians, and I’m one of them, are doing pretty well.

“We suddenly feel entitled to say ‘we’re hurting too’ in a country that’s the third richest in wealth.

“Some Australians – certainly those in middle, upper-middle class backgrounds – have lost perspective and it’s reflected in the levels of giving and the turning inwards.”

Mr Costello mentioned that his father, who was not on a particularly high income, gave 10 per cent to charity “because he felt blessed”.

He said that, after 13 years as World Vision’s chief executive and over two as its chief advocate, he would have no formal role with the organisation.

The executive director of the  Centre for Public Christianity, Simon Smart, said Mr Costello would be joining the organisation as a senior fellow.

The Centre produces documentaries, podcasts, internet content and written material about the Christian faith.

Mr Costello would be involved in the Centre’s media content, said Mr Smart, and take on speaking and mentoring roles.

But Mr Costello will remain informally associated with World Vision, which he called a “wonderful organisation”.

“When World Vision calls on me for advice – absolutely happy to do that,” he said.

The role of chief advocate – which often meant being a first responder to global disasters – is “for a younger person”, he said.

He said his most challenging experience at World Vision was dealing with the Sudanese civil war in 2004, and in particular the atrocities of the Janjaweed militia group.

“I was overwhelmed with the systematic malevolence and evil of humans,” he said. “The Janjaweed’s systematic rape of women and burning villages and terrorising and killing – the cruelty of that literally overwhelmed me. And I lost my naivety and optimism that humans are basically good.”

His best experience at World Vision was the Australian public’s response to the 2004 Asian tsunami.

“We raised $110 million in six weeks. Our overheads were less than 1 per cent because you didn’t have to ask. People just gave. They were touched.

“The wave of destruction that took 300,000 lives was met by this remarkable wave of generosity in Australia.”

World Vision chief executive Claire Rogers said that Mr Costello’s unwavering dedication, passion and humanity through his work at World Vision had improved the lives of millions of vulnerable people.

“In both his role as chief executive and chief advocate, Tim has been instrumental in helping grow World Vision Australia to become the nation’s best-known humanitarian organisation. I am thankful to have inherited the leadership of this incredible organisation with the impact of Tim’s legacy,” Ms Rogers said.

“He is an inspirational and much-loved figure not just in Australia but around the world and I thank him for his extraordinary service to our organisation and the world’s most disadvantaged children.”