Australian aid transparency: Coalition yet to deliver

Coastal Highway, Vanimo - funded by Transport Sector Support Program (Flickr/DFAT/Jacqueline Smart Ferguson for AusAID CC BY 2.0)
Written by Stephen Howes

Coastal Highway, Vanimo - funded by Transport Sector Support Program (Flickr/DFAT/Jacqueline Smart Ferguson for AusAID CC BY 2.0)Not long after the last election, on 7 November 2013, Julie Bishop said: “As transparent as AusAID has been, we can be more transparent; as open, we can be more open; as effective, we can be more effective.” She said she wanted “as much openness … as possible.”

Two and a half years on, what has happened? Has the aid program become more transparent under the Coalition? There has been some progress over the last couple of years after an initial sharp reversal. The Blue Book [pdf] has come back (recoloured as orange), and this provides some useful consolidated data. But I’ve always thought that what really matters for transparency is concrete, unvarnished information about specific activities and relationships. And while the new integrated aid website has been populated with some documents, overall transparency does not seem to have improved.

Here is an illustration, which I have selected because it concerns our biggest aid project to our biggest aid recipient, the PNG Transport Sector Support Program, worth about $400 million between 2014 to 2019. Go to the DFAT website and look up transport aid to PNG and you will find this:

DFAT Transport Sector Support Program webpage

Note the links to two documents. One is a 2010 MOU, of unclear current relevance, between the two countries’ transport departments. The other document is from January 2013, and provides the design (though not the budget) for the above-mentioned $400 million project. And then there is a link to the website for the same project, which is glossy, but light on documents. As far as I can tell, it has no project reports either.

So, a $400 million project, with one design document, three and a half years old, and a few announcements.

We can compare this to the situation prior to the Coalition coming to office for the same project by using the very useful web.archive.org tool. I went back to its 15 August 2013 snapshot of the web as a record of what things were like just before the Coalition came to power. Here it is for PNG transport:

AusAID PNG Transport Sector Support Program webpage

One could find then, apart from some general documents, the design (though from 2005), but also an annual plan (though only for 2011) and a monitoring report (though only for January-June 2011).

So, document availability was not crash hot under Labor, but better in this case than under the Coalition. For completeness — at least for this case — I should mention that useful remarks about many projects can be found in the annual country portfolio reviews. According to the latest PNG annual review, the PNG transport project is going very well. Such synthetic, summary information is important, but no substitute for project-level data.

Admittedly, this is only one example, though it is an important one: the biggest project for our biggest aid recipient. We did a transparency audit in 2013, and found pretty mediocre performance by Labor relative to its own Transparency Charter. We found that while two-thirds of projects had a design document on the web, only just over one-third had a project report. And on average, project reports and reviews were two years old. We haven’t yet done a transparency audit for the Coalition. Some other PNG projects are better documented, especially in the area of governance, though there is no mention there of the new mega Governance Facility, which is about to take over from transport as the biggest PNG project, even though the tender has already been awarded. The most recent PNG health monitoring or evaluation report is from 2013, and there are no education reports, only three plans from 2010 and 2011. Perhaps other countries provide better documentation, but I noticed, for example, that the Indonesia website has only one monitoring or evaluation report dated 2015 and none from this year.

If there have been improvements, they have been patchy, leaving major holes of missing or out-of-date information still to be filled in. One positive is that perhaps more evaluation documents are now published, including through this useful list (though strangely I couldn’t find an evaluation of the first PNG transport project, despite the fact that the second is now well underway).

In the meantime, other countries have moved streets ahead in terms of transparency. If we want to be “as open as possible” we need to look not only at the historical record but at other countries, as it is international performance that sets the benchmark. Take DFID, and their largest aid recipient, Pakistan. DFID’s biggest project to Pakistan is in Punjab for education. The Punjab education project page is shown below:

DFID Punjab Education Support Programme II webpage

It has 13 documents attached to it, the most recent a February 2016 review. Moreover, and unlike their Australian counterparts, the DFID project pages provide clear information on how much has been spent on the project, both in the current year and in earlier years. The DFID Development Tracker is an IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) portal, and draws both the annual information expenditure and the various documents from the project information that DFID publishes to IATI. Australia reports the same budgetary information to IATI (not documents apparently), but has not developed a user-friendly portal. In theory, as Robin Davies explained, you can use a generic portal to search for this Australian spending data, but it’s far from easy, and, since the government is not making the data easily available to the public, hard to know how reliable it is. (Robin points to some major problems with the Australian IATI data he unearthed: Myanmar programs classified under Indonesia, for example.)

So, here we are, three years on, with still a poor performance on aid transparency, in a context in which other donors are moving ahead rapidly.

Let’s hope that if the Coalition is returned, Julie Bishop makes transparency a second-term priority, for example, by making performance in this area one of the aid program’s performance benchmarks. And that, if Labor win office, Tanya Plibersek follows through on the emphasis she has given in her recent remarks to effectiveness and accountability. Australia might have become a below-average donor in terms of generosity, but we should still aspire to be not only above average, but best practice when it comes to effectiveness. Transparency is an important part of that, it’s an area in which it is not hard to do well, and we have lost time to make up for.

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre.

Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School. Stephen served in senior economic positions for a decade at the World Bank before becoming AusAID’s first Chief Economist. In 2011 he was a member of Australia’s Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness.

7 Comments

  • Also, on Twitter DFAT has responded that “we don’t accept devpolicy claim on transparency. No major difference between what was on AusAID’s website and DFAT’s now” Great to get a response, but this misunderstands my argument which is that the Coalition has promised but not delivered more aid transparency. We seem to more or less have stood still while other donors have moved ahead quickly.

    Given the interest the blog has generated, we’re going to proceed with another transparency audit, similar to the one we did three years ago. We’ll put the results up as soon as we have them.

    • Please do undertake the transparency audit. It is very important. DFAT’s response is disingenuous – as your blog shows, transparency is certainly no better and almost certainly worse now than it was. They should provide a blog to attempt to prove that their transparency is the same or better – rather than tweeting that they don’t accept the argument.

      • Joel, thanks for your advice, which we followed. As you predicted it would, the detailed analysis does show a clear decline in project-level aid transparency. See the blog here with report to back it up.

    • While I appreciated the somewhat retro colours that were used to organise documents in the old AusAID page above, my main reason for suggesting a return to this is that it makes it easy for both DFAT staff and external readers to identify the state of documentation for an activity and also easier to find a document than in the somewhat quirky ordering on the DFID site.

  • Mel, you make a very good point. Sometimes the documents are on the web, but not where most people would look for them. For example, the procurement site which you point to has the draft design document for the PNG Governance Facility from April 2015. The final design was released with the tender for this document last year. Yet neither the draft nor the final design for this facility is listed or linked to under the PNG aid for governance section – more than a year later, and even though it is such a critical change for the sector.

    The Transport Sector Support Program website is another interesting example of how other websites can be more or less helpful. I’ve now gone back to see what it looked like in 2013 (again using web.archive.org), and it is full of up-to-date annual plans and performance reports. It is a pity that that tradition has not been maintained, with the current TSSP website focused more on announceables and much less on information.

    Garth, I’m not so sure that we need to go back to the way in which AusAID categorized documents. We just need more and more timely documents on the web.

  • It would be great to also go back to the document organisation provided on the 2013 website (the four coloured headings) which was designed to show the progress of a project and its documentation.

  • Stephen

    Thanks for this commentary on what is a tremendously important topic.

    In the context of transparency, I would argue we could do well to widen the lens on the conversation for it is not just an essential feature to ensure openness about what is being or has been spent. I would argue that it is an essential feature across the whole aid programming cycle including and importantly at the front end when concepts and designs are being conceived and developed – and of course when investment is made and services procured.

    There has been some obvious effort by the aid program to redress the information gaps that is the feature of the Austender system by DFAT posting here information about forward planned investments. I think it fair to acknowledge DFAT’s effort in increasing this level of information at the front end, even if more could possibly be done.

    In October 2013 on this forum here I wrote of the value the private sector can offer aid programming by earlier and more purposeful engagement, so it is pleasing that we are seeing more industry engagement sessions, early release of concept notes seeking comment and so on – but maybe there is room for more regular and consistent application of this practice.

    I argue there is an important link between transparency and the possibility of doing better development. Releasing information to the market as early as practicable not only helps to level a playing field and address any perception of advantage; regularly engaging the market in the thinking and concept development might well create an enhanced solution. Again, there are increasing examples of the market being engaged in this manner, including as recently as this week on the Design Concept: Proposed New Australian Government International Volunteering Program here. Again, DFAT should be acknowledged for this.

    Conversely, there has been a great deal of procurement through the Aid Advisory Services (AAS) Panels, some of not insignificant value. These investments did not make the Annual Procurement Plan. There was once a separate page on the DFAT website that had declared five planned procurements, but that information was not maintained and now no longer exists here. To be fair, the sheer volume of AAS activity, including of smaller value procurement, probably does not warrant the administrative costs of maintaining such detail. In the context of transparency, however, there could be opportunity for improvement in transparency in how decisions are made in terms of which Panel to use and which Panellists are invited to propose a solution. It should be noted that an exercise is currently underway to assess the current AAS in preparation for a successor arrangement.

    Finally, a feature of the aid program over recent years is the mobility for former AusAID personnel into other delivery partners of the aid program. This has tremendous value, by keeping quality, smart, experienced people involved in supporting the Australian aid program. In the context of transparency across the whole aid programming cycle it would be naïve to assume this feature does not create complications.

    Stephen, I think your call to action is warranted and I think it needs to holistically consider transparency in all aspects of aid programming. It is to do with much more than accountability; it is as you say about contributing to best practice in effectiveness.

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