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Helping poor people in developing countries less important for Australia aid: ANU survey

Helping poor people in developing countries has become a less important goal for Australia aid, according to a survey to be released by the ANU on Thursday.

Aid experts questioned by the university's Development Policy Centre complain about a loss of strategic clarity since the budget cuts and forced merger of AusAID with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

They say the culture within DFAT does not value the expertise of former AusAID staff.

"Australia's strategic and commercial interests are now seen to play a larger role in shaping the aid program," the authors of the survey say.

"Respondents are unhappy with the new government aid objective and the aid program is seen to have far less realistic expectations than it used to.

"This suggests that attempts to reposition the aid program under a 'new paradigm' and as a form of 'economic diplomacy' have not yet gained traction."

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The authors found that three quarters of the 461 aid experts surveyed think the aid program's performance has fallen over the past two years since the budget cuts and merger of the two departments.

With further cuts likely in the May budget, a lack of funding predictability is now seen as the biggest weakness of the aid program.

"It would be a mistake to view this deterioration in perceived effectiveness as a temporary effect," the authors say.

While the government has been making the case that aid is good for Australia, the authors say it needs to do more to communicate the message that the aid program is good for the world's poor.

A loss of aid expertise is seen as the cost of the merger of AusAID into DFAT.

"More than three quarters [of respondents] say that the merger has had a negative impact on aid staff effectiveness," the report says.

"A number suggest that the loss of staff expertise was not only a product of a large number of AusAID staff leaving after the merger, but also a consequence of an organisational culture within DFAT that fails to value development expertise.

"This is a problem that DFAT will have to address or else it will grow over time as more former, senior AusAID staff and advisers leave and as old projects end, requiring more new programming."

The survey contains some good news for the aid program, with around two thirds of respondents saying the program is effective.

However, this is a drop - from 70 per cent to 61 per cent - of approval since the first survey, in 2013.

"Nearly all those involved in implementing the Australian aid program still think that their own aid projects are effective," the report says.

Most of the respondents think Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been effective in managing the aid program.

"Her emphasis on gender is clearly appreciated," the report says.

"However, stakeholders are much less kind in their assessment of the overall political leadership of the aid program."

The aid stakeholder survey was conducted by the university's Development Policy Centre late last year before Steven Ciobo became International Development Minister.