National

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cultural problems worrying the aid community

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been criticised by the aid community for perceived cultural problems and a lack of appreciation for aid programs within the department.

The Australian Aid Signs of Risk survey, produced by the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, found unprecedented budget cuts and a troublesome merger with AusAid were concerning the aid community.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has been praised for her aid engagements, but DFAT faces its own problems.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has been praised for her aid engagements, but DFAT faces its own problems.  Photo: Andrew Meares

The report, which interviewed 461 stakeholders from senior NGO officials to academics and contracting companies, pointed to a loss of strategy clarity and a concern helping poorer people in developing countries had been overlooked.

More than three quarters of respondents believed the department's merger with AusAid in 2013 had a negative impact on aid effectiveness and expertise, with many highlighting "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 programs," the report said.

One stakeholder told the researchers the perspectives of aid staff were "not understood or valued by foreign policy/trade staff, resulting in narrowing of objectives and less time to build relationships with counterparts".

Another noted "the marked devaluation of aid program management skills and the lack of recognition in DFAT senior management of the depth of expertise required".

When respondents were asked what the most negative consequences of the merger were, most identified a loss of staff expertise.

The Coalition government has cut the foreign aid budget by more than $11 billion since coming to power in 2014. Some stakeholders said the cuts created "an unstable environment for DFAT to work with its partners".

More than 90 per cent of stakeholders identified staff continuity as a weakness or the greatest weakness of the aid program.

The report recommended the department make greater efforts to retain experienced staff and to replace any expertise lost during the merger.

"This will be particularly challenging with the aid program now fully integrated into DFAT, but nevertheless needs to be prioritised," the report said.

Stakeholders also criticised a perceived lack of transparency, accountability and community engagement of the department's aid programs

"Respondents are clearly concerned about less information being available about the Australian aid program," the report said.

"DFAT has committed itself to aid transparency and its coverage of aid on its website is improving, but clearly more is needed."

Despite this, the report also found a majority of Australian aid stakeholders believed the aid program was effective.

"Given the turbulence brought by the aid program's integration into DFAT, and the impact of the 2015 aid cuts, this is a considerable achievement," the report said.

"Those aid program staff, as well as DFAT staff more generally, who have worked hard over the last two years to ensure Australia still gives aid well deserve credit for this, as do those outside of government who work on the aid program."

The report concluded by noting Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had impressed stakeholders with her engagement on development issues.

"[Ms] Bishop is widely seen as a champion for aid and her emphasis on gender is clearly appreciated, though broader government support for aid is seen as lacking," the report said.

"It is unlikely such favourable appraisals will last long if stakeholders continue to believe the aid program is becoming worse."