Speakers: Stephen Smith, Australia’s Foreign minister; Dr James Goodman, spokesman, Aidwatch; Julie Bishop, Australia’s Opposition Foreign Affairs spokeswoman.
MOTTRAM: Twelve million dollars to research the giant panda in China .. 13-Million to redevelop a single school in Nauru .. half million dollar salaries to advise on gender, law and justice or energy .. and at least one advisor in East Timor with a questionable past in Rwanda. They’re the kinds of headline items in the aid budget that make governments cringe. And Stephen Smith, Australia’s Foreign minister has been at pains to stress that what makes good shock value in a tabloid paper doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
SMITH: You are always going to be able to find examples which, put up in isolation are easily able to be asserted as not getting value for money. You should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
MOTTRAM: At a media conference in Canberra, Mr Smith went on to point to good developments through Australian aid, particularly in the country that so often produces development horror stories .. Papua New Guinea.
SMITH: In Papua New Guinea for example we have made substantial progress in a number of areas. The number of students attending proimary school for example. The number of roads being extended into regional areas and the effectiveness of our HIV AIDS program in PNG.
MOTTRAM: So minister in the third year of your government are you confident all you can to address this probelm because aid groups have been talking about this since 2004?
SMITH: No I’m not. I’m not confident we’ve done all we can. I think we can do more and I think we need to do more. The point I’m making is that very much of this are long standing decades long systemic difficulties.
MOTTRAM: Indeed that’s exactly the criticism levelled at Australia not only by non-government aid groups but internationally by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the O-E-C-D.
Dr James Goodman is spokesman for the aid advocacy group, Aidwatch.
GOODMAN: We’ve pointed to a systemic problem in the aid budget going back many years now, going back at least to the Howard government when there was a systematic effort at commercialising the aid budget, so that more and more aid flows through private companies that have responsibility for managing the distribution of the aid and through private consultants. And in fact way back in 2004, the OECD raised concerns about the growing use of technical assistance as it’s called.
MOTTRAM: But since then, the use of private companies, technical rather than direct assistance, has increased so the proportion of Australia’s aid program that’s handled privately reached 50 per cent, Aidwatch says, double the OECD average. The OECD raised the issue again last year. In Australia’s national budget handed down earlier this month, Foreign minister Stephen Smith announced a review of the use of technical consultants. James Goodman says that’s a direct answer to the OECD criticism, but not good enough, while private companies operate under commercial in confidence strictures and automatically take ten per cent of the aid money they administer as profit.
GOODMAN: I don’t think there’s any substitute for arriving at a policy position and the government giving some leadership on this.
MOTTRAM: He advocates using non-government agencies, that don’t take profits. Stephen Smith told Radio Australia earlier this month he’s not prejudging anything, but that there may well be a case to deliver assistance in other ways. Mr Smith also says the now annual review of AusAID by Australia’s national auditor is a good development, while he’s also thinking of making an internal AusAID effectiveness review .. instituted two years ago .. an external, independent one.
As well as the imperative to ensure the best use of aid for development purposes, there’s a domestic imperative too. The Foreign affairs spokeswoman for Australia’s Opposition is Julie Bishop.
BISHOP: We’re talking about consultants being paid more than the Prime Minister of Australia. We’re talking about consultants being paid a significant amount of the aid budget. Now, Australian people are generous – they support a foreign aid program, but they want to make sure that the money gets through to the people on the ground who need it.
MOTTRAM: With a general election only months away, the Rudd government will likely want to show better progress to voters already disillusioned with it’s policy management.