Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:48 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:48 | SYDNEY

The choice of an aid supremo


Graeme Dobell

7 July 2009 11:51

The Rudd Government faces a key choice about how and where it wants to drive aid policy.

The Government has farewelled the long-serving head of AusAID, Bruce Davis, a change that has been the subject of rumour and speculation for some time. The Davis departure is not a Canberra surprise. But the manner of his going hints at a certain urgency along with some doubt about what should come next.

The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, announced on 1 July that Davis would leave his post on 3 July. So '(a)fter ten years of distinguished service as the Director-General of AusAID,' Davis was formally thanked and dispatched in three days. Sometimes things can happen quickly in Kevin’s kingdom. Davis 'will take up a diplomatic assignment later this year, following a period of leave.' In the meantime, he is not needed at AusAID to oversee the search for his successor.

The acting head of AusAID is to be Peter Baxter, a First Assistant Secretary in Foreign Affairs who is seen by some as future DFAT deputy secretary material. Is Baxter merely going to keep the AusAID chair warm or is he really trying it for size?

Baxter seems to have no aid experience, and the rumour-response inside AusAID is that this is the start of the great DFAT takeover. Maybe Canberra will follow the recent New Zealand example, with the measure of institutional independence AusAID now enjoys snatched away as it is swallowed up by DFAT. If that’s the plan, it has been brewed with remarkably little smoke or heat. Perhaps discount that vision as no more that fevered speculation.

Instead, let's take the statements from the Minister and DFAT at face value, assume the government isn’t going to make deep institutional changes, but decided to clear the captain’s cabin immediately before advertising for a new captain. The first choice is obviously what qualities will be needed by the new aid supremo. The second, much bigger choice, is about the level of independence to be exercised by AusAID.

The supremo issue is whether to look for an aid insider or an outsider. An outsider would be a bureaucratic heavy hitter with no attachment to the nostrums and narratives of the aid industry. A rising FAS from DFAT with no aid experience might just suit.

The argument for an aid insider is that this is a complex mechanism that will spend $3.8 billion this year (more than double what DFAT spends). The insider would understand the aid labyrinth, knowing how to control contractors, negotiate with NGOs, manoeuvre through the multilateral system and guide government-to-government bilaterals in Asia and the South Pacific.

DFAT argues the outsider case using the managerialist mantra. Those highly skilled generalists at the top of DFAT have been able to go off to do the top jobs at Defence, Immigration, ASIO and ASIS. And aid is just a related dimension of international affairs. DFAT’s view of who should get the AusAID job is deeply influenced by the second, bigger issue of power and control. DFAT will fight with deep intent and great intensity against any idea that AusAID deserves more than its current, limited freedom.

For a parallel, witness the recent work by Defence to sink the idea that the Defence Material Organisation should have be made independent. The message to DMO and AusAID is rather similar. Certainly, we want you to spend huge amounts of money. But remember where you sit on the organisational chart. The Department rules.

What do you think? Does the current dominance of AusAID by DFAT best serve Australia’s aid efforts and international interests? In my next column I’ll look at how cautious AusAID has been in exercising its limited prerogatives, in deference to DFAT. 

Photo courtesy of AusAID.