In a small, rural clinic in Bangladesh a few years ago, I met the most extraordinary women. They were volunteer birth attendants who went through villages in their district giving advice and support to women in pregnancy and childbirth. Midwives to poor women who can’t afford doctors or hospital visits, in a place where pregnancy and childbirth are among the most dangerous times in a woman’s life.
These volunteer birth attendants – themselves poor women, without formal qualifications – spoke with me about the information and training they were receiving and the difference it made to their work.
Previously they had advised women to restrict their diet during pregnancy, in the belief that more food led to a bigger baby and greater danger of a complicated delivery. They now understood the importance of nutrition and rest for both mother and baby.
Once they might have delivered a baby on the floor, cutting the umbilical cord with a tool used to harvest grain. Now they made sure that the delivery area was as clean as possible, and used gloves, gauze and a sterilised surgical tool.
Before their training, they had offered traditional advice to new mothers to avoid feeding the baby from the breast for a few days. Since the training, they had come to understand that, even though colostrum doesn’t look like mature breast milk, feeding from the breast early and often gives a powerful boost the baby’s immune system.
That training helped save lives. Their improved understanding and skills, along with a few inexpensive resources, meant the difference between a safe and successful pregnancy and one that could easily have ended in tragedy.
Do you want to know the other remarkable thing about those women and their training? I helped pay for it. As did every other Australian tax payer.
Between 2008 and 2011, through a partnership with UNICEF, the Government of Bangladesh and a local organisation called BRAC, Australian aid helped train and deploy more than 150,000 community health workers and volunteers to support women in pregnancy and child-birth.
In just 2011, their work led to more than 231,000 women receiving medical care for pregnancy-related complications across four targeted districts in Bangladesh – a 33% increase in coverage since 2008. Overall, in a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, the program achieved an 11% annual decrease in maternal deaths in four targeted districts between 2009 and 2011 – double the average annual decrease across the rest of the nation.
It’s impossible not to be proud of the fact that Australian aid, in partnership with governments, international organisations, and local civil-society organisations, helped to improve the health system of Bangladesh and saved the lives of thousands of mothers and babies.
I could share stories like this one from different countries, in different sectors.
Generous and effective, poverty-focused, aid is one of the ways wealthy nations like Australia contribute to a fairer, better world for all. Churches and charities must be part of the global fight against poverty, but so too must our governments – as neighbours in the community of nations. In the face of shared global challenges such as poverty, inequality, illiteracy, disease, hunger, and environmental degradation, our shared security and prosperity depends on it.
Our aid program has helped vaccinate millions of children against killer diseases. Ensured millions of girls can access decent quality education. Helped communities become more resilient and prepared in the face of disasters. Worked with governments and civil society to improve the quality of institutions. Restored and protected the natural environment on which we all depend.
When God blesses nations with wealth, it is so that we can be a blessing to all within the nation and to others beyond our borders – not hoard that wealth for ourselves. Christians, of all people, must be passionate supporters and advocates for a generous and effective, poverty-focused aid program – encouraging our nation’s leaders to be champions for aid, and speaking out when aid is cut.