The problem for Australia’s aid bureaucrats is that spending nearly $4 billion doesn’t necessarily buy much respect in Canberra. Or bureaucratic power.

Being an efficient spender of cash is not to be scoffed at. AusAID has developed important skills: running tenders, operating contracts and transferring money. But the institutional effect is that AusAID doesn’t always get invited to the policy table. When invited, it speaks last.

The process of selecting a new Director-General of AusAID will force the Rudd Government and Foreign Affairs to confront what it wants to do with aid. As noted in my previous column, Bruce Davis headed AusAID for a decade. That is an unusual tenure for almost any era. At the end, the Government announced that Davis was going and then had him gone in only three days.

The Davis era delivered marked and measurable bureaucratic achievements: the budget rose and the number of senior staff increased with the level of the cash. But AusAID has been notable for how careful it has become in even thinking about thinking. Closing AusAID’s internal library was one manifestation. One insider interpreted this as: ‘We are an operational agency, not a thinking agency.’ Or, if we need to think, we’ll hire a consultant.

Another message was the abolition of the AusAID discussion papers produced through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. These were semi-academic works on development issues. The most important was an annual publication on the PNG economy, an official Australian discussion of development issues in PNG. Its disappearance left a notable gap in Canberra‘s 'thinking' about PNG problems. Indeed, not saying anything publicly about PNG has become something of an AusAID trait.

Aid ‘partnerships’ in the South Pacific could make AusAID even less willing to speak openly or critically about the Islands. 
 
The whole-of-government mantra has been chanted loudly in AusAID. Bruce Davis made it clear to senior and mid-level management that he expected staff to ‘cooperate’ with departments such as DFAT, Treasury, PM&C, Defence, and Finance. He wanted no problems at senior levels with these agencies. This qualifies as efficient management. And it is certainly what was demanded of Davis by DFAT, especially under Ashton Calvert.

How much has AusAID surrendered its prerogatives in its area of expertise? This is the hard stuff at the heart of bureaucracy.

What was an aid agency to do in the age of terror, post-September 11, when the Howard Government decided that ‘governance’ (security) would be central to development work in the South Pacific? What could an agency do when the Howard Government decided that issues of maternal health and birth control must be subject to the strict oversight of a Catholic senator from Tasmania, whose vote tipped the balance of power in the upper house?

Doing as directed is one reason God created Cabinet Ministers. Doing as other departments wish is the grey area. AusAID has always been caught in a squeeze between DFAT and Treasury. And in this decade, the Prime Minister’s Department has called more shots, as have Defence and the Federal Police. Operations in East Timor and Solomon Islands have been outside ‘development’ criteria or even evaluation. The re-weighting of aid spoken of by the Rudd Government is clearly a work in progress.

Deciding on the aid supremo will be a decision not just about the UN Millennium goals, but how Australia will organise the team to play toward those goals.

Photo courtesy of AusAID.