AUSTRALIA’S foreign aid agency and the Department of Defence will share intelligence under a new agreement non-government groups fear could put aid workers at risk by blurring the distinction between development assistance and military operations.

The deal aims to promote ‘seamless’ co-operation between AusAid and Defence.

Called a Strategic Partnership Agreement, it was signed on April 29, the same day Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced more troops – and AusAid staff – would be sent to Afghanistan.

The agreement says AusAid and Defence are equal and natural partners with common goals.

Non-government organisations said there was a need for the military and aid groups to co-operate, but they warned of dangers in eroding the neutrality of aid workers.

Any move to co-opt development assistance for military purposes potentially put aid workers at risk in conflict zones, they said.

The agreement says Defence will give ‘intelligence information and services’ to AusAid. ‘Specialist assistance will be shared between Defence and AusAid in order to facilitate seamless and effective collaboration in promoting security and development, good governance and stability,’ it says.

It adds: ‘It will not be provided to the detriment of the primary activities of either agency.’

The deal is in line with moves for greater civilian and military co-operation in dealing with humanitarian emergencies, such as the Asian tsunami, and in countries devastated by conflict, such as East Timor.

In Afghanistan, AusAid works closely with Australian troops who undertake development work aimed at winning ‘hearts and minds’ in the fight against insurgents.

The Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for non-government aid groups, welcomed the agreement as part of ensuring a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to human security.

But the council’s acting executive director, Kelly Bruce, said there was a ‘massive challenge’ in keeping aid neutral and distinct from the military.

She called on AusAid to clarify how closer military co-operation would ‘enable the delivery of impartial, independent aid and, therefore, reduce the risk of attack’ on aid workers.

Aid workers increasingly are being targeted in conflict zones, with 260 reported killed, kidnapped or injured last year. ‘Blurring of roles between military forces and humanitarian actors’ were significant factors in these attacks, Ms Bruce said.

Jack de Groot, head of Catholic aid agency Caritas, said closer co-operation in conflicts would raise ‘delicate’ issues.

He said aid ‘is not given out of a political agenda or some military imperative. Neutrality of aid has started to get blurred, and I think that’s not clearly articulated in this document.

‘How does AusAid explain to Defence, when it’s working with NGOs, that these NGOs are completely independent, that they’re not going to be a source of intelligence, they’re not to be seen as part of a strategic military plan?’

James Goodman of Aid Watch said the agreement risked undermining AusAid’s primary mandate – to help developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development.

‘It’s recruiting AusAid for Defence objectives, it seems to me. It will work under the ambit of Defence,’ Dr Goodman said.

AusAid declined to respond to NGO criticism of the agreement.

‘The agreement serves to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each organisation in responding to humanitarian crises and articulates the different skills, attributes and strengths of each agency,’ AusAid said in a written statement. ‘It is no more than that.’