Up until 1973, Australia’s aid program was handled in a branch within the Department of Foreign Affairs. It’s taken 30 40 years for the circle to turn, but turn it has. This afternoon, one of Prime Minister Abbott’s first tasks after being sworn in was to announce the reintegration of AusAID back into the Department of Foreign Affairs.
There’s little detail about what form this integration will take but early reports suggest it will be a major undertaking rather than a simple peeling back of the move by the Rudd Government that saw AusAID become an executive agency in 2010.
Up until then, AusAID and its predecessor AIDAB had been 'autonomous' agencies within the foreign affairs portfolio. That meant the director general was answerable to the foreign minister but reported to the foreign affairs secretary on administrative issues. The 2010 move unleashed AusAID from the department although it still remained within the minister's portfolio.
In Canberra’s torrid turf wars, where the aid program bureaucracy has always been the small discretionary agency beaten up by the bigger and legislatively-secure departments of state, this attempt at independence was brave and, in the end, foolhardy, perhaps even suicidal.
Just one read of Peter Willenski’s Infanticide in the Bureaucracy: The Australian Development Assistance Agency shows that, from the beginning, the aid agency has had to remain vigilant to survive. Vital to this survival has been discretion and an ability to demonstrate to government that official aid can support foreign policy objectives while meeting development objectives.
But what has been an ongoing and at times acrimonious issue for the aid agency stems from the limited understanding by the bigger but less financially endowed departments, including most notably Foreign Affairs, that development assistance used specifically to meet (rather than support) specific foreign policy objectives is a clumsy, ineffective and very expensive tool.
It is regrettable, then, to see that the reintegration of AusAID back into DFAT is, according to the Prime Minister's statement, to enable 'the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda to be more closely aligned'. Given the existing and long-standing alignment between Australia’s aid and national interest objectives, how much closer can this alignment be?
Does this mean that national interest will dominate as the objective for Australia’s aid program rather than development or, even more specifically, poverty reduction? Under the previous government, the Howard and even the Hawke/Keating governments, there was a consistent and public recognition that Australia’s aid program, by addressing poverty and humanitarian issues, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, supported Australia’s national interests.
Having AusAID just a little distanced from the daily pressures confronting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade meant that the aid program has not been constantly distracted in its long term development endeavours (which is what development is: long, slow and hard) to deal with diplomatic brush fires and initiatives.
Now, if AusAID takes up residency again within the confines of Foreign Affairs, the temptation to use AusAID as a diplomatic ATM will be greater than ever. And the cost won’t be registered against the Foreign Affairs budget or DFAT's reputation but against the effectiveness of the development program and the contribution it has made as one of Australia’s most potent soft power tools.