The last few years have heralded significant changes to Australia's foreign aid program. The standalone aid agency, AusAID, was integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The aid budget faced the largest cuts ever in its history.
These changes have not been without consequence and a new survey of almost 500 aid experts and practitioners points to the serious risks now facing the Australian aid program.
The 2015 Australian Aid Stakeholder Survey is the second such survey of Australian aid experts and practitioners undertaken by aid think-tank, the Development Policy Centre, based at The Australian National University. The first survey was held in 2013, prior to the integration of AusAID and the large aid cuts. The second survey was carried out in the second half of 2015.
The survey was targeted at those who are most knowledgeable about the Australian aid program: the leaders of NGOs and businesses who implement the aid program, as well as government officials and academics interested in aid.
The results do contain some good news for the aid program. In particular, the majority of stakeholders continue to believe that Australian aid is effective. But this view is not as widely shared as in 2013. And, whereas in 2013 most stakeholders thought the effectiveness of our aid was improving, now most think it is worsening. The majority now rate Australian aid as less effective than aid from the average Western donor, again a reversal from 2013.
Some of the increased dissatisfaction is due to the massive budget cuts of 2015. Funding predictability is now viewed as the biggest weakness of Australian aid. But the survey results also make it clear that the concerns of stakeholders are not just about the budget.
Stakeholders perceive a loss of strategic clarity, and a reduced emphasis on helping the poor versus an increased emphasis on Australia's own interests.
About three quarters of respondents view staff expertise as a weakness of the aid program – up from half in 2013 – and say that the merger with DFAT has had a negative impact on aid staff effectiveness.
Transparency and community engagement have gone from being strengths of the aid program to weaknesses. In 2013, only one quarter of respondents saw aid transparency as a weakness. Now three quarters do.
These results have some important policy implications. While some of these areas are ones where we do see progress (there is noticeably more aid information on the DFAT website in recent months), clearly much more is needed.
First and foremost, further aid cuts scheduled for this year (an additional $224 million) should be averted, not least because they will play further havoc with funding predictability.
The government needs to convince the Australian public that aid is still primarily about helping poor people in developing countries.
The Department of Foreign Affairs should replenish the stocks of aid expertise that were severely depleted by the large number of AusAID staff leaving in the wake of the merger, and make it easier for its staff to specialise in aid policy and management, a complex area with its own demanding requirements of skill and experience.
The government needs to come up with a new aid Transparency Charter – like the one we had back in 2011, but which has since been allowed to languish – and hold itself accountable to the standards set by it.
Finally, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and newly-appointed Minister for International Development and the Pacific Steven Ciobo must do more to communicate to the public the importance and successes of the Australian aid program.
Our aid stakeholder survey is proving to be a useful tool for accountability and learning, and we plan to implement the survey again in another two years.
Overall, the survey provides valuable and constructive feedback to the government on what it needs to do to restore confidence in and improve the effectiveness of Australian aid. Those surveyed are those trusted to implement the Australian aid program. Their warnings should be heeded.
Dr Terence Wood is a research fellow, Camilla Burkot a research officer, and Professor Stephen Howes the director of the Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
The full survey report, Australian aid: signs of risk – the 2015 Australian aid stakeholder survey, will be launched at the 2016 Australasian aid conference at ANU on Thursday, February 11.