A major review of the $3 billion Australian aid program, the first of its kind ever conducted, was tabled in Parliament last Thursday at 4.30pm, one hour before most of Canberra departed for the four-day long weekend.
If it weren’t for the 11th hour timing, the Australian aid agency AusAID would have got a big tick for transparency. It’s not often a government department lays itself open to public scrutiny in this way.
There also seems to be a genuine commitment to using the review to make much needed improvements, as well as increase public awareness about Australian aid. This is a great step. However, the review still makes for some sobering reading about where changes need to be made to improve the quality of Australian aid.
One very serious finding in the review is that 50 per cent of Australia’s aid consists of ‘technical assistance’, where aid money funds large, often tax-free salaries for Australian consultants and companies to advise local governments and service providers. The disgraced former AWB chairman Trevor Flugge and his million-dollar AusAID consultancy in Iraq is a case in point. This model feeds a corporate aid industry centred on 10 or so large Australian companies, and will not deliver genuine improvements to the lives of the communities that need aid.
A lack of public awareness about how aid works has for a long time seen much of the aid program captured by a very narrow set of ideas about development. Influential think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute for Public Affairs, which are outwardly and explicitly sceptical of aid spending in general, fought for an unbalanced focus on economic growth in the aid program during the tenure of the past government.
Their ranks were joined after the Bali bombings in 2002 by another group of influential strategic policy commentators, who saw development through the prism of securing the region against terrorism and other insalubrious activity.
The review released last Thursday gives a good indication of what can happen over a five-year period when this narrow group of stakeholders have too much influence. The review states that while some good results have been achieved in ‘establishing security and financial stability’ in the Pacific region, the aid program is not getting sustainable results in health, education, livelihoods and gender equality programs.
In the Solomon Islands the figures speak for themselves. The RAMSI intervention – which is specifically focused on security and financial stability and where a proportion of the funds are actually contracted to the Packer family company GRM International – receives $128.5 million in this year’s aid budget. The rest of the Solomon Islands’ aid program – health, education, livelihoods, water, sanitation, gender empowerment (that’s right, absolutely everything else) – shares $95.4 million.