Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 13:59 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 13:59 | SYDNEY

The future of Australian aid

13 July 2011 13:57

Annmaree O'Keeffe is a Lowy Institute research fellow. She has served as Australian Ambassador for HIV/AIDS and Deputy Director General of AusAID.

Imagine the world in 2020: our European and American trading partners are still beset by sluggish growth and handicapped by sclerotic governance and aging populations. China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey are the dynamos of the global economy. And many of the least developed countries are still struggling to move forward.

States no longer have the monopoly on shaping global outcomes as the increasingly powerful non-government sector rivals the influence of sovereign states. Complex environmental issues, competition over dwindling non-renewable resources and food scarcity continue to preoccupy the international community.

Once you've imagined that world, imagine now how you would respond to it if you were the Australian Government managing Australia's aid program. That's exactly what the Lowy Institute was asked to do by the team commissioned by Foreign Minister Rudd last November to review Australia's aid program. The team, headed by Sandy Hollway, wanted to understand better the future state of the world and how it would relate to Australia's aid program. The result was the Lowy Institute paper, The Future State of the World: What it Means for Australia's Foreign Aid Program.

That paper fed into the review team's report, which was released last week in Canberra along with the Government's response. The initial reaction to both the report and the response has been resoundingly positive, and for good reasons.

The report is a solid, comprehensive piece of work with recommendations based on sound analysis of current and emerging trends and challenges, drawing on the lessons and practices of other donors and taking into account lessons learnt by Australia's own aid agency. It acknowledges that Australia's aid program is already in good shape – a point reinforced by Kevin Rudd when he released the report last week.

But the aim of the review wasn't to give the current program a brick or a bouquet. It was to advise the Government on how to make the program better, stronger and more strategic as the aid budget moves towards $8-$9 billion in 2015-2016.

And the Government is listening to its review team. Of the 39 recommendations put to the Government, 38 have been accepted. In delivering the Government's response, Kevin Rudd outlined a new framework for the program called An Effective Aid Program for Australia. The framework sets out the purpose, the program's strategic goals and five key ways it will deliver aid more efficiently and effectively.

What sets this framework apart from its predecessors is its emphasis on people rather than states. While the national interest is still incorporated in the overall purpose of the program, it's the humanitarian aspect of aid that gets the bold headline – the fundamental purpose of Australian aid is to help people overcome poverty

Aligned with the emphasis on 'people' is a markedly increased emphasis on working with Australian people to deliver the program. For example, included in the five ways to make the program more effective is involvement with the Australian community, including increased NGO and volunteer support as well as partnerships with business and academia.

Another element which sets the new framework apart is its determination to make all parts of the Australian Government accountable for the effectiveness of the program. Until now, only AusAID has been required to submit to tough evaluation assessments of its part of the aid budget. Other government departments, including AFP and Defence, have not had to submit to any similar process to determine if their aid activities deliver the outcomes promised.

The planned four-year, whole-of-ODA budget strategy with regular reviews and an annual report to Cabinet will go a long way towards lassoing those other government departments which received just under 10% of funding in this year's aid budget.

As for the rest of the Government’s response? Many of the important features reflect previous government approaches and strategies but this shouldn't be surprising. How they are expressed might be different but the essence is the same because they work – the strategic geographic focus, economic growth and good governance as the fundamental drivers of development, the essential role of women, the importance of effective humanitarian and disaster response, the need for better health and education services. And despite the new emphasis on 'people', the role of aid in serving Australia’s national interests remains a prominent element of the objective.

What makes this framework particularly important is that it now exists. The Government finally has a strategy for its aid program, something the Lowy Institute has been pushing for some time. The next step will be seeing how it's implemented.  

Photo by Flickr user Aust Defence Force.