AusAID’s country strategies: why such a modest improvement since 2009?

Most large aid agencies put out country strategies for their major country programs (at least), normally developed with input from the partner government and other important stakeholders. At a minimum, it’s a way to tell the world what they are trying to achieve in a particular country, and a basic ingredient of aid transparency.

AusAID has long been committed to producing country strategies. In 2009, however, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) criticised AusAID [pdf] on this front, finding that:

A primary cause of weaknesses in selectivity of country program aid has been a failure to complete country specific strategies, and their lack of centrality to aid allocation decisions — in early 2009 only 11 of the top 20 recipients of country program aid had a strategy in place. (p. 18)

The ANAO recommended that AusAID “completes country strategies for all major country and regional programs and keeps them up to date” (Rec. No. 2). AusAID agreed. So how has AusAID done since the 2009 report? We have taken the 20 largest country and regional programs and looked at which ones had country strategies published two years ago, last year and this year. We included “Partnerships for Development”, which have come to replace country strategies in the Pacific .

Our results are shown in the table at the end of this post. They show a minor improvement from the score of 11 out of 20 awarded by the ANAO in 2009. In 2010, 12 of the 20 country and regional programs had strategies; in 2011, again 12; and in October 2012, 13.

In all three years, there were strategies for the top five programs. But, on the negative side of the ledger, the sixth and seventh biggest programs haven’t had strategies for most of the last three years.

The Pacific is by far the best performing region. All major recipients have a Partnership for Development in place, and there is a page on the AusAID website listing them all.

Why hasn’t there been greater and faster improvement since the ANAO report? Timely country strategy completion is not always possible. The situation on the ground changes, or partner government consultations are delayed. But even allowing for this, the limited improvement in the completion rate is surprising. It is particularly odd because for at least the last two years, two of AusAID’s key performance performance indicators have been that “strategies [be] in place for 100 per cent of country, regional and thematic programs.” And for the last two years, AusAID has needed to admit that it has fallen short. In its 2011 Annual Report [pdf], AusAID committed to update all its strategies in 2011-12 (p.17). But in its just released 2012 Annual Report it admits that this hadn’t been done. The reason given is that “the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness and subsequent release of the Effective Aid policy in July 2011 delayed some program strategy development, affecting a small proportion of the program portfolio.”

Whether 20 percent (the value of the seven out of the 20 top programs currently without a strategy) is small is one issue, but is it reasonable to blame the non-publication of so many country strategies on the new aid policy?

Since the aid review, AusAID has certainly been busy putting in place a new overall policy and several new strategies. There are some eight new thematic strategies (for health, education, etc), as well new strategies for multilateral engagement, private sector development, civil society engagement, AusAID research, and the Comprehensive Aid Policy Framework.

Getting all these policy documents out is itself a major achievement, but the argument that the process of overall policy development has delayed the completion of country strategies can only extend so far.

Consider the fact that in December 2010 AusAID released draft strategies for five of its top 20 programs (Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, East Asia regional, and Pacific regional) with a promise to release final strategies six months later. For some reason, 22 months later, the final strategies still haven’t seen the light of day. If those December drafts had been final versions, or if AusAID had actually kept to its commitment to publish final versions in June 2011, the scores in our tables would look much better. But as of now those drafts are of little use. Do they still guide decision making? Or are they irrelevant? The outside observer really can’t tell. And what happened to that June 2011 deadline? Perhaps it was decided that the strategies couldn’t be finalised until the Effective Aid policy was in place. That was July 2011. But here we are at the end of 2012, and there are still no final versions for any of those five drafts.

Or take Vietnam, the sixth biggest program. Its 2010-2015 country strategy was finally released in October 2012, more than half way through the strategy period. The just-released Vietnam country strategy is a short 19-page document, most of it at a very high level. The strategy says that Australian aid will focus on human resource development, economic integration, and environmental sustainability. These objectives no doubt make a lot of sense, but they are not ones dictated by any review or new strategy. There is simply no way that the long delay in releasing the Vietnam strategy can be satisfactorily explained by references to changes in overall aid policy.

In any case, changes in overall aid policy can be expected to happen fairly often. There could well be major changes again if there is a new government after the next election. If country strategies are to be delayed by a matter of years whenever a new aid strategy is adopted, it will never be possible to ensure timely and regular publication of country strategies.

At most, the changes in aid policy can be regarded as a contributing factor to the slow response to the ANAO recommendation. What else might explain it? Perhaps it is simply that AusAID is a very busy agency, and its Minister (who has to approve the strategies) is a very busy Minister, and putting out country strategies in a timely manner hasn’t been a high priority. It is not something AusAID gets quizzed about at Senate Estimates, nor something which aid stakeholders push for. Most aid lobbyists want more aid, and more aid for their cause, but who lobbies for country strategies?

It is encouraging that AusAID has renewed its commitment to finalise and publish country strategies with a promise in its May 2012 Comprehensive Aid Policy Framework to have published strategies for all its top 20 countries by the end of 2012. That’s not quite what we are measuring, as we are looking at the top 20 countries and regions, but it will be interesting to see how much AusAID can lift its score by the end of the year, not just for the top 20, but in fact for all country and regional strategies, as promised by the Annual Report.

Ultimately it is up to those of us who want more effective aid to hold AusAID to account in relation to its public commitments. It is in that spirit that our analysis has been undertaken.

Country and regional programs with a published, final strategy

Notes: We use the top 20 countries measured by allocations in the 2012-13 budget. The 2011-12 list of top 20 countries is the same as 2012-13 (though with a different ordering.) In 2010 Iraq (for which a strategy was released [pdf] in December 2010, covering only until June 2011) and Northern Africa/Middle East (no country strategy) are in and Samoa (country strategy for all three years) and Fiji (a country strategy released in 2012) are out.

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre. Jonathan Pryke is a Researcher at the Centre.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School.

Jonathan Pryke

Jonathan Pryke worked at the Development Policy Centre from 2011, and left in mid-2015 to join the Lowy Institute, where he is now Director of the Pacific Islands Program. He has a Master of Public Policy/Master of Diplomacy from Crawford School of Public Policy and the College of Diplomacy, ANU.

4 Comments

  • I fully support the views of the performance in the Pacific in terms of development strategy. Pacific island countries are innovating in a number of development areas now – undertaking peer reviews of their national development plans and frameworks, integrating development and development partners into their national strategies, and generally taking the lead on their own development agenda. Australia has fully supported this, and many of these things were initiated by the Cairns Compact. The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat has worked hard to make this happen – the peer reviews and MDG monitoring is among the most important development work done in the region, and they do it well.

    Other countries, and other donors, could learn from the Pacific example.

  • Hi Stephen,
    I agree with you about the need to publically publish information about what we are claiming we are spending on foreign aid. The essence about published information however is whether it is meaningful or valueless?

    While the article you refer to may well have limited horizons, I suggest the real issue is not whether consultancies are either good or bad but whether they areeffective in producing results at the grass roots?

    The experience of many would suggest that after decades of huge amounts of aid monies being spent on wonderful sounding projects, the effects are minimal at best at the level where something is desperately needed.

    Take for example the recent media report on the provision of AusAID support in the fight against drug resistant TB in Western Provence of PNG directly opposite the Torres Strait. What is really happening as reported by a journo who actually visited the region and saw with his own eyes is I’ll bet not what is being reported to those who are signing off on the program.

    Sorry mate. I don’t agree with you about it being hard to address compliance issues concerning foreign aid. Having worked at the kunai roots level I can assure you it is very easy. All you have to do is accept that a published assessment is only as good as the methodology used to prepare the report.

    What use is there to get those wonderful, glowing reports of achievement if they are in fact, based on totally meaningless statistics and misinformnation? Total expenditure figures are the beloved addiction of politicians who quote them ad nausium but don’t have any idea about what was actually achieved in reality. They are also the meat of those who feed off the public purse without achieving any long term results for those who we are supposed to be assisting.

    If a consultancy is worth its salt, it should provide an effective reporting mechanism that assesses achievements based on a prior set practical benchmark or target. If you can’t measure practical results, you can’t manage a program.

    Could it be (perish the thought), that those who are currently involved in consultancies might be slightly partial in this area of concern?

  • Paul,

    You’ve misunderstood what the article is about. I think what you’ve put forward is a proposal for assessing aid effectiveness at the recipient country level. I wouldn’t say its a particularly good proposal. Sometimes a really good consultancy has massive resturns, whereas I get the impressions you would say: the more being spent on consultancies, the worse the program.

    But in any case, our article is about something quite different, and much less ambitious. It’s about one small piece of the aid puzzle, the production and publication of country strategies. I assume you would agree that aid agencies should produce and publish country strategies. If we agree on that, then we can also agree that we should check on whether AusAID is actually following through on its promise to produce and publish. That’s what we try to do.

    More generally, I think assessing aid effectiveness is really hard. Assessing compliance with good practice in aid is easier. Compliance doesn’t necessarily imply good aid, but its an important first step.

  • The overview of any huge scheme like this is fairly useless unless it is translated into previously set benchmark achievements. E.g.:

    1. What percentage by country of this expenditure is spent in Australia and never reaches the country AusAID is intending to help?

    2. Of the amount that is actually spent in the developing nation, how much is spent on consultancies and expatriate salaries?

    3. Of each country’s total share, is there a feedback loop to establish the effects and ongoing benefits accruing? If so, who signs off on this loop? Those actually benefiting at the coal face or those in the capital of the local national government whose budget these AusAID funds augment?

    4. Against what percentage of each local national budgetary item is the AusAID allocation?

    5. What percentage of each country’s AusAID allocation is actually expended in rural (non metropolitan) areas on rural programs benefiting those in rural areas?

    6. Finally, did the auditors actually go into the field and check first hand the benefits accrued in each program or did they only check the written reports submitted by AusAID and expatriate consultancies?

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