Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:57 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:57 | SYDNEY

Reader ripostes: Promoting foreign aid

This post is part of the Promoting foreign aid debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

23 July 2010 08:18

This post is part of the Promoting foreign aid debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Two responses to our recent debate thread on whether Australia should be doing more to promote its foreign aid.

Below, thoughts from John Cheong-Holdaway. But first, Alex Douglas, who is working in Nepal on peacebuilding issues including the country's Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Program:

A debate has recently emerged among Lowy bloggers on whether Australia should be 'making a greater effort to promote the success stories' of Australian aid.

Any effort to promote the success stories of foreign aid is likely to distort Australia’s programs. Success stories that attract media and public attention are invariably about how aid has helped an individual; be them an illiterate woman, an HIV patient, or a rural farmer. Chasing these photogenic personal success stories will further distort Australia’s aid program to focus on  projects rather on systems. Aid will flow to building a new school in a remote village rather than reforming the host country’s government education system. Australian money will go to helping upgrade a hospital rather than improving the health system.

This is a problem for two main reasons:

  1. Working on projects is very expensive. Development worker are always frustrated with the inefficiency and corruption in host governments, but the fact is that governments still remain the most efficient provider of public goods.
  2. Working on projects does not promote the idea of government. In many fragile and post-conflict states the idea that government (as opposed to a particular administration) can be beneficial is not accepted. The citizens that receive aid that flows directly from donors to projects are likely to see government as increasingly irrelevant. The irrelevance of government to its citizens undermines the government’s ability to collect taxes, deliver other services and prevents the citizens seeking to hold their government to account. The goal should be to help governments improve their services not to sideline them from delivery.

There is no problem with promoting the success stories of Australian aid. But we must accept that the real success stories of Australia’s aid program are not going to be photogenic.

 John Cheong-Holdaway:

Sure, media and other civil society oversight is important, but only as one element of the appraisal and evaluation process. It's much easier to put on a good show for a journalist than it is to design an effective assistance program that addresses a real need in a target country.

There's already a strong incentive in development to undertake projects that look good rather than do good, creating a PR department under AusAID will only exacerbate that tendency.

There's dozens of libraries all over Timor-Leste set up because people love setting up libraries and stocked with piles of books that no one can understand (because they're in English). Soccer fields in communities without adequate sanitation facilities, etc. etc.

The aim of overseas development assistance should be to improve the lives of the populace in the target country, not to make the folks back home feel good about themselves...