Lowy Institute

Debate: Promoting foreign aid

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Australia's role as an overseas development assistance provider has been a hot media topic this week:

  • An article in the Sydney Morning Herald critiques the way AusAID designs and implements aid programs.
  • Crikey is undertaking an entire series titled 'Who profits from our foreign aid?'
  • Steve Lewis strikes again, with more than a sprinkle of hyperbole, unleashing another piece slamming Australia's aid program. Steve's articles would benefit from taking stock of the realities and challenges involved in implementing aid programs in developing countries that only have access to very limited resources – success is not guaranteed, as discussed here and here.
  • While Australia and PNG take a positive step and sign agreements to review Australia's $450 million aid program to PNG, it is important to note what isn't being said on the state of affairs in PNG.
  • The Australian newspaper argues that it is time to challenge the 'virtuous aura around aid' and that the Australian general public should be better informed in this area.

With our mainstream media now commenting regularly on Australia's overseas development assistance and often highlighting only faults and inadequacies, isn't it time the Australian Government, through AusAID, made a greater effort to promote the success stories and engage the Australian public, considering it is set to fund Australia's increasing aid budget?

Comments

Paul Davies responds to Danielle Cave:

Danielle Cave writes: 'With our mainstream media now commenting regularly on Australia's overseas development assistance and often highlighting only faults and inadequacies, isn't it time the Australian Government, through AusAID, made a greater effort to promote the success stories and engage the Australian public, considering it is set to fund Australia's increasing aid budget?'

Really? Really? 

The answer to legitimate scrutiny of the value for money delivered by our taxpayer funded aid program is the diversion of further taxpayer funds to make Australians feel better about the money they are already spending?

I'm sorry, but this strikes me as just the sort of self-dealing that actually DOES raise real questions about the validity of the spending our government does in the name of development assistance. I would think a more appropriate response to 'regular mainstream media commentary' on Australia's development assistance would be to ensure aid spending actually does result in improvements in the sort of development indicators that actually matter — life expectancy, educational attainment, physical and communications connectivity — otherwise a skeptical examination from media is, at the very least, warranted.

Love the blog.  Am not very often moved to respond but this comment invited a corrective.

Comments

Paul Davies makes some good points in his response to my post on promoting Australia’s aid program. Certainly donors' primary goal should be to work towards improving development indicators. I agree that critical examination from the media is warranted — hence my links to those articles in my post.

However, my post did not equate engagement with the public to an increase in spending (of taxpayer dollars). Communication with the Australian public is vital and can be significantly improved using existing resources. It is an important tool of transparency and accountability — each of which are absolutely essential for any publically-funded aid program, particularly one in the midst of huge transformation, in terms of both size (with a rapidly increasing budget) and geographical direction. Significant improvements can and should be made in this area.

The Australian aid budget has been under some fairly heavy scrutiny this year. A good deal of this is warranted, yet some is exaggerated, and still more fails to present a full picture. Scrutiny is important and justified, no qualms here regarding that. The aim of my post was to point out that the bulk of the media coverage of Australia's aid program rarely exposes us to the full story. I want to know more about Australia’s aid program — the good, the bad and the ugly. At the moment, as a member of the Australian public, it seems I am only fed the ugly — which is simply one dimension of a much larger story.

Comments

Two responses to our recent debate thread on whether Australia should be doing more to promote its foreign aid.

Below, thoughts from John Cheong-Holdaway. But first, Alex Douglas, who is working in Nepal on peacebuilding issues including the country's Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Program:

A debate has recently emerged among Lowy bloggers on whether Australia should be 'making a greater effort to promote the success stories' of Australian aid.

Any effort to promote the success stories of foreign aid is likely to distort Australia’s programs. Success stories that attract media and public attention are invariably about how aid has helped an individual; be them an illiterate woman, an HIV patient, or a rural farmer. Chasing these photogenic personal success stories will further distort Australia’s aid program to focus on  projects rather on systems. Aid will flow to building a new school in a remote village rather than reforming the host country’s government education system. Australian money will go to helping upgrade a hospital rather than improving the health system.

This is a problem for two main reasons:

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  1. Working on projects is very expensive. Development worker are always frustrated with the inefficiency and corruption in host governments, but the fact is that governments still remain the most efficient provider of public goods.
  2. Working on projects does not promote the idea of government. In many fragile and post-conflict states the idea that government (as opposed to a particular administration) can be beneficial is not accepted. The citizens that receive aid that flows directly from donors to projects are likely to see government as increasingly irrelevant. The irrelevance of government to its citizens undermines the government’s ability to collect taxes, deliver other services and prevents the citizens seeking to hold their government to account. The goal should be to help governments improve their services not to sideline them from delivery.

There is no problem with promoting the success stories of Australian aid. But we must accept that the real success stories of Australia’s aid program are not going to be photogenic.

 John Cheong-Holdaway:

Sure, media and other civil society oversight is important, but only as one element of the appraisal and evaluation process. It's much easier to put on a good show for a journalist than it is to design an effective assistance program that addresses a real need in a target country.

There's already a strong incentive in development to undertake projects that look good rather than do good, creating a PR department under AusAID will only exacerbate that tendency.

There's dozens of libraries all over Timor-Leste set up because people love setting up libraries and stocked with piles of books that no one can understand (because they're in English). Soccer fields in communities without adequate sanitation facilities, etc. etc.

The aim of overseas development assistance should be to improve the lives of the populace in the target country, not to make the folks back home feel good about themselves...

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Comments

Last week, both Alex and John made some important points and as this debate kicks on, which has been surprising but very interesting, there seem to be two broadly-defined camps emerging:

Camp 1 — promoting Australia's aid success stories is okay but has limitations;

Camp 2 — there is no need to promote success stories at all (and in fact some responses have insinuated it is wrong to do so).

Interestingly, responses have, so far, not taken a forward-looking approach to this debate. I would like to widen the debate and look further at my other initial point — engagement. There has been very little mention of whether it is important (or not?) for the Australian Government to engage with the Australian public on the future direction of its ballooning aid program.

Australia's aid budget for 2009-10 is $3.8 billion and is set to ramp up to 0.5% of Australia's Gross National Income by 2015-16 and hit an estimated figure of $8-9 billion. In five years Australia will have one of the world's largest aid budgets, behind only the US, Japan, France, Germany and the UK if you look at current OECD development assistance figures (country donors only).

With Australia's aid budget set to more than double over the next few years surely it is both wise and fair (to the Australian public) that this will be accompanied by an increase in public engagement. By engagement I mean establishing a clear dialogue with the public over this unprecedented increase – what is the strategic vision for this additional $4-5 billion? How will this money be spent? Where will the money be spent? And while we are here asking the tough questions it may be worth asking why?

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John is right – an additional PR department situated within AusAID is not what is required here (there is already a communications branch that takes care of public affairs) but I would argue a more proactive organisation that engages the Australian public would in fact help to give Australia's aid program long-term sustainability.

I certainly agree with a number of the contributors to this debate that the greatest success story would in fact be an effective aid program, and that would, in many ways, speak for itself. There certainly appears to be a lot of work being undertaken in this area. However, it needs to be questioned whether, in the near future, the Australian public would support an $8-9 billion aid program it knows very little about and a program whose future strategic vision has not been effectively communicated.

What has been missed in this debate is that public support is important. Barnaby Joyce's comments on foreign aid being cut (to ease Australia inflationary pressures on food) seemed to be widely dismissed by the media, but his thoughts exposed an interesting dilemma — the government's commitment to double the aid budget by 2015 comes at the opportunity cost of spending that $4-5 billion domestically.

The 2010 Lowy Poll (from page 15) shows that public opinion is divided when it comes to Australia's aid program but I think there are also positives that can be taken from the poll's results. 55 per cent of those polled believe 'the government is currently giving the right amount of aid to developing countries' with 22 per cent believing we currently give too much and 19 per cent responded 'too little'.

It is also interesting to note that older Australians (45 years +) were 3.5 times more likely than younger Australians (18 to 29 years) to say the government is currently giving 'too much' aid. Men were also more likely to say this than women.

Developing a stronger dialogue with the Australian public does not have to come at considerable expense — the resources already exist, they just need to be given breadth and flexibility. Failure to do so could result in further division in public opinion about why the Australian Government has decided to commit to doubling the aid budget. The Australian Government should build greater public awareness around the aid program and give AusAID a voice to explain and communicate the strategic direction and vision, of Australia's soon-to-be very hefty aid program.

Photo by Flickr user michael scott, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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Comments

Chris Roche from Oxfam Australia writes:

I think Danielle Cave raises a number of important points, particularly regarding the critical need to get the Australian public involved in the debate.

A recent review of the Paris Declaration noted that there is a real danger of the aid effectiveness debate becoming limited to the domain of aid technocrats. They suggest that if there is not broader dialogue involving parliamentarians and citizens then support for aid can be subject to political reversals, or other more high profile issues.

I think, for that reason, Danielle is correct in arguing for the government investing in greater public awareness on this issue. However, I also think we need to be starting to explore the potential for greater citizen-to-citizen dialogue and exchange.

Arguably, shortening the accountability chain between the 'taxpayer' and those people that aid seeks to ultimately benefit might put all sorts of interesting new pressures on the system, as well as promote a more honest dialogue. We already know that when citizens can hold service provider to account more directly, through social accountability processes, this makes a real difference.

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Potentially, the growing use of social accountability mechanisms combined with the imaginative use of social networking tools, and the generation of peer-to-peer communications could play a transformative role in developing a new future for aid. Not least because this approach offers the potential to build more effective linkages between civil society organisations and community groups in both 'donor' and 'recipient' countries. 

There are an increasing number of examples, such as the work of Global Voices Online, Witness, and Ushahidi which illustrate the possibilities of providing groups and communities with the ability to tell and communicate their stories, provide feedback on elections, publish evidence of human rights abuses, empower female activists, debate how they might act as part of a diaspora, or monitor the performance of  governments and aid agencies, through participatory processes and on public forums such as the web.

This, in some contexts, can provide men and women who are often the 'objects' of development with the ability to become its subjects and to publicly sanction poor behaviour and performance of aid organisations and their governments. Their story needs to become more prominent in these debates.

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