Sam Byfield from the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne writes:
The Lowy Institute's commitment to stimulating debate about aid is laudable, and hopefully successful in elevating (and adding complexity to) the aid debate.
On the issue of the AusAID's 'insularity', there seems to be a few factors at play. Firstly, and this should come as no surprise, is the nature of bureaucracy as opposed to politics. The scope for engagement by bureaucrats in the public discourse is inherently limited. It takes a particularly brave bureaucrat to stand up and criticise (constructively or not) their employer's strategy.
Relatedly, there often seems to be an 'organisational line' pushed by AusAID staff – in the area of health, for instance, there is a stock presentation often rolled out by AusAID staff at meetings or conferences which limits the capacity for genuine policy discussion. This sort of management and information control isn't unique, however, to AusAID or to bureaucracies.
Jeni Whalan notes correctly that development is not synonymous with aid. It is increasingly recognised that saving lives and reducing poverty requires genuinely multi-disciplinary approaches. This is an area deserving of more research and public debate. This is perhaps reflected by a recent phenomenon, as the aid budget has increased, whereby AusAID has recruited staff from elsewhere in the public sector, particularly at senior levels – getting in seasoned bureaucrats and experts from other sources, as opposed to 'aid professionals'. One potential benefit is that the organisation might increase its capacity to engage in areas that are beyond the strict traditional purview of 'aid' – like security or trade, for instance. The Australian Civil-Military Centre is a good example of this. It is crucial that development responses and the discourses these are framed in continues to shift in this direction – it is also foreseeable though that this might pose a threat to some of the traditional aid players, and that working cross-sectorally with those from outside aid's traditional boundaries will take some getting used to.
On the issue of limited research, including of the 'big n' variety, I'd argue that there is good research happening, but (perhaps by definition) it's often within the confines of universities. Part of the weakness in aid research and debate is that researchers aren't necessarily good at communicating their findings, and there's sometimes not a lot of awareness about broader issues of public policy (indeed, sometimes there's a suspicion). Parliamentarians certainly don't have time to read journal articles, and are reliant on academics and public servants to highlight salient points (and are generally appreciative of those who do it well). Public servants themselves are often in the same boat as parliamentarians.
There needs to be stronger engagement between researchers (especially those within universities), NGOs and policy makers. ACFID's Universities Linkages Conferences play an important role, and ACFID is beginning to understand the importance of closer engagement between NGOs and academics. AusAID's Australian Development Research Awards scheme, launched a few years ago, is another notable addition to Australia's development research capacity.
The formulation of a Parliamentary Committee on Aid (or at least a separate sub-committee) would help generate more discussion around aid and development. Parliament's committee system makes an important (though sometimes downplayed) contribution to public policy. This takes several forms: firstly, it provides a forum for engagement between parliamentarians and both academics and advocates. Secondly, reports from inquiries end up on the desks of people who make decisions. And thirdly, particularly important or newsworthy inquiries (like the recent inquiry into workplace bullying) generate media coverage and public discussion. Yet, as has been noted before, there is no parliamentary committee or sub-committee focusing solely on development and aid. Rather, it is rolled into Foreign Affairs (particularly Human Rights). This is an ongoing oversight, though one the Coalition at least has said it will remedy if and when it forms government.
Overall, an essential element needed to expand public debate about aid and development of enhancing this process is to ensure that research is clearly and succinctly articulated in written and verbal form. In this area, researchers could learn a few lessons from the advocates Jeni cites as one pillar contributing to the debate.