Time for AusAID to lead on policy development

Campaigns and Advocacy, General, Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 17 May 2010

One good news story to come out of Tuesday night’s Federal Budget was the increase to $4.3billion for Australia’s international aid program. You might not have realised this was a good news story because it was yet another example of the Rudd Government’s failure to communicate its achievements to the Australian public.

You might also have been confused by the new international accounting standards adopted by the Australian Government this year, which have led to a 4 per cent increase in the value of Australia’s gross national income (GNI). The reality is the Australian Government has adopted the recommendation of organisations like Oxfam to expand the aid budget to $4.3 billion in 2010/11. Under the old accounting methods, at 0.37 per cent GNI this was more than the Government’s projected estimate of 0.35 per cent of GNI, but under the new methods is equivalent 0.31 per cent GNI.

So while some commentators have declared that this is a $1billion loss to the aid budget, because there is a bi-partisan commitment to reach aid levels of 0.5 per cent GNI by 2015 – a commitment re-affirmed this week by the Prime Minister and by Opposition Leader Tony Abbot last month – Australia’s aid budget will actually surpass previous aid estimates by several hundreds of millions of dollars by 2015.

But these discussions about volumes of aid, while important, can distract from the other half of the equation – how and where the money is spent. As the aid budget grows to more than double today’s levels by 2015, it becomes more important than ever that this taxpayers’ money is spent effectively. Aid money must be used to improve the lives of the poorest.

The Federal Budget held welcome news in this regard too. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced a review of technical advisers in 2010/11. Currently, technical advice reportedly makes up about 50 per cent of Australia’s official development assistance (ODA). Often this translates to highly paid contractors working as public servants in developing countries. But often, where capacity does not already exist, technical advisers play critical roles of setting up systems and ensuring delivery of essential services such as health and clean water.

Technical assistance is at its best when it is also delivers to local communities the skills and knowledge to do the job themselves, and when it responds to the needs and requests of partner governments.

There are other welcome changes too. The newly appointed AusAID Director General will now report directly to the Foreign Minister, and the foreshadowed re-structure of AusAID within the Department of Foreign Afffairs and Trade indicate an increased authority for the agency and an opportunity to be more effective and efficient.  

Increases to AusAID’s departmental resourcing and more transparent reporting should improve AusAID’s capacity to absorb the rapidly increasing aid budget, and to effectively administer the aid program.

All of which will enable Australia to take a broader and more strategic approach to new emerging challenges in international development. These include the compounding effects of climate change, rising food and fuel prices, and the global economic crisis.

But in order to take advantage of these important changes within AusAID, what is now needed is a refreshed strategic framework to guide Australia’s aid program through a changed geopolitical context and the increased vulnerability of the world’s poorest.

Australia’s new, more central role at the G20 decision-making table will provide a greater platform and opportunity for global influence, and Australia should approach this from a genuine whole of government perspective. Now is a key time for AusAID to shed its role as ATM, step up and lead Australia’s policy on the intertwined issues of international development, foreign affairs, security and climate change.

These four areas can’t be addressed in isolation.  Conflict and climate change undermine hard-won development gains. 

The initiatives of increased aid to Africa and Indonesia, education and disability services in the Budget were welcome and so too, the renewed commitment to the Millennium Development Goals – international goals to halve global poverty by 2015.

Notably, what was missing in this financial year was additional funding to help the poorest people around the world adapt to the effects of climate change. That there is no new money allocated in this financial year to helping developing countries cope with climate change, given the urgency of the climate crisis facing poor people around the world, is underwhelming.

Millennium Development Goal number 2 is to ensure that children everywhere complete a full course of primary schooling. But while education has been promoted as a flagship of Australia’s aid program, a greater proportion of funding is directed to vocational, technical and higher education than to basic and secondary education, leaving many children unable to hope for a better future.

Australia’s aid budget is the fastest growing part of Australian Government spending. The public spotlight will increasingly and justifiably be focussed on it. It has to ensure that it truly is making a difference to vulnerable communities in our region and beyond.

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial first appeared in The Canberra Times on 14 May 2010.