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DFAT’s Jakarta stampede threatens quality of aid effort

Date

Noel Towell

The quality of Australia’s $500 million aid effort to Indonesia is at risk from a “stampede” of local workers fleeing a “crippling work environment” imposed by Foreign Affairs bosses in Canberra, according to a local official.

DFAT has been warned of a “haemorrhaging of resources” in Jakarta as the Indonesians hired by Australia to administer aid projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars walk away from their jobs.

The manager, who left his Jakarta post last week, says about 50 “locally engaged staff” who worked for AusAID in the Indonesian capital have walked out the door since Foreign Affairs took over the aid agency nine months ago.

Foreign Affairs in Canberra played down the issue on Friday saying the loss of experienced staff was inevitable in a time of downsizing.

The staff “exodus” will come as a blow to the Abbott government’s policy of prioritising Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific region in Australia’s aid effort, with a pledge to be “more Jakarta and less Geneva”.

The departing senior program manager says departmental bosses in Canberra have imposed a new performance management regime and pay scales for Indonesian workers, separate to those operating for their Australian public service colleagues.

In an impassioned plea sent to DFAT secretary Peter Varghese, obtained by Fairfax Media, the manager says the program’s most vital workers are leaving.

“Of the 145 local staff AusAID had before integration, about 50 have left DFAT in the course of nine months,” the official told his departmental boss.

“These are not clerical staff that are leaving – these are some of Indonesia’s best and brightest.

“You have lost program managers, senior program managers, and unit managers who oversaw multimillion-dollar programs.”

The official told Mr Varghese that his local workers were fleeing the work environment imposed from Canberra.

“The reason for the exodus of local staff is the crippling working environment that took over the organisation in the past few months,” the manager wrote.

“The policies introduced here at Post can be construed as an attempt to marginalise the local staff.”

The introduction of two separate and distinct performance management systems for locals and Australian staff was causing tension between the two groups, the departing official said.

“Meanwhile, the waves of voluntary redundancy offers, the position downgrading, and the massive salary scale-down, all of which were exclusively targeted to locally engaged staff, have been demoralising to say the least,” the departing manager wrote.

“The quality of Australia’s largest aid program, it is safe to say, is at risk of being compromised.”

A DFAT spokesman in Canberra confirmed on Wednesday that 45 local workers had left the Jakarta embassy since September but said departures were inevitable in changing times.

“A number of changes in staffing arrangements have been necessary both at posts and also in Canberra, including the need to align staff terms and conditions, including performance management systems, across the integrated department,” the spokesman said.

“Inevitably, in any period of significant organisational reform, some individuals will decide to leave to take up other opportunities.”

He said the embassy would be looking to hire 34 new workers locally in the coming months to fill the gaps in the ranks and that no Indonesian employees had had their wages downgraded since the takeover of AusAID.

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