Felled before forty: the once and future AusAID

Today the agency known since 1995 as AusAID ceases to exist as an independent organisation. And, as is now clear, by mid-2014 at the latest it will cease to exist as a separately identifiable component of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). With the probable exception of two or three of AusAID’s existing functional areas, integration will mean disintegration. So AusAID, born as the Office of the Australian Development Assistance Agency in December 1973, didn’t quite reach its fortieth birthday after all. There will be enough to say in the months ahead about what AusAID has achieved or might have done better, and about what might sensibly happen next. But today seems the day to ignore the happy Thompson gunner on the DFAT balcony and attend to the organisation that was—and might again be.

It’s generally hard to say what an organisation’s identity consists in. As an Austrian once said of a thread, its strength ‘does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’ Yet organisations, as such, often command great loyalty. Many people, particularly those now older than AusAID, dedicate their working lives to single organisations whose corporate identities become partly constitutive of their employees’ personal identities.

AusAID’s surface identity is defined by a series of Canberra buildings—on Hobart Place, Northbourne Avenue and most recently London Circuit and Allara Street—and acronyms—ADAA, ADAB, AIDAB and most recently AusAID. Its anatomy and physiology have been shaped by a series of directors general—Jim Ingram, Bob Dun, Philip Flood, Trevor Kanaley, Bruce Davis and Peter Baxter; ministers—most notably Bill Hayden, Alexander Downer and Kevin Rudd; and external reviews—led by Jackson, Simons and Hollway. Above all, though, AusAID has a complex personality derived from that of the people who have worked for it, in many cases for all or most of their working lives.

There is a great diversity of people in AusAID, and they arrived in several waves. There were, at first, grizzled colonial administrators and even quite a few kiaps—Australians who had served as patrol officers in pre-independence Papua New Guinea. There were numerous case workers in state offices, dealing with aid-funded international students. Then, in the second wave, there were people who wanted a public service career in aid for one of many reasons: they were idealistic, or had international credentials to apply, or wanted the stability of a public service job with a degree of exoticism, or were cautiously hopeful that aid could create more utility than other forms of public expenditure. These people were generalists who over time worked in most areas of the organisation. In the third wave were two very distinct streams: on the one hand, mid-career and young professionals, well-equipped with the theoretical basis for an aid career; on the other hand, mobile senior managers who moved in from other organisations where job security was low or, as in the case of DFAT, promotion opportunities few.

The second wave is still dominant, though by a diminishing margin. People in this group, having seen and done most things in their field, have a sense of professionalism but often could not point to any one area of deep specialisation. Mostly they know each other well and negotiate disagreements with an eye to the long term. They tend to lack a strong regard for formal authority and, when directed to do something dumb, have been known to practice what one student of AusAID behaviour describes as ‘non-violent non-cooperation’. Some are roguish, good in a pinch but best watched closely in china shops. Some are raconteurs. Some are reasonably described as eccentric. Most, however, just quietly and stoically prop up the organisation. AusAID’s locally-engaged staff sit squarely in this last category, having taken on increasing levels of responsibility over the years and having endured triennial changes of Australian personnel.

Any given person in AusAID might have had a great variety of experiences in the course of a career. On long-term overseas postings, even at quite junior levels, they might be negotiating directly with senior ministers or even leaders, both distinguished and dubious; progressively understanding who in the middle levels of a bureaucracy is honest, smart and determined enough to get things done, and how to help them; or attempting low-key visits to remote schools, health clinics, rural cooperatives and infrastructure projects, only to find themselves the main attraction at a town hall meeting of expectant dignitaries and villagers. In post-disaster situations, they might be collaborating with the formidable Australian Defence Force machine to get supplies transported and distributed; trying to figure out how food aid distribution works in a secretive, totalitarian regime under the watchful eye of marvellously evil minders; witnessing rivers clogged with thousands of bodies, mostly young mothers and children, in the aftermath of a tsunami; navigating the incredible chaos that is post-disaster aid coordination; or finding ways to resist the useless generosity of those who want to give what they have rather than what is needed.

In dealing with the aid program’s many agents and partners, they might be overturning rigid and elaborate program designs in order to permit improvisation by good technical advisers or adapt to changing circumstances; battling to dislodge entrenched but ineffectual contractors; struggling to find out and perhaps support what aid-funded NGOs and volunteers were doing in a particular country; influencing the behaviour of multilateral organisations—good, bad and indifferent—through boards, high-level consultations and country directors; racking their brains to find things which they and bilateral donors X, Y and Z can collaborate upon with the least possible pain in order to satisfy some diplomatic imperative; or squirming in stuffy rooms in multilateral meeting-places, listening to smug people drone about good donorship. And, most invigorating of all, in dealing with ministers they might be rewriting speeches from scratch moments before delivery; chiselling and bending visionary initiatives in order to give them some chance of getting to first base; or readying smallish and manageable ‘announceables’ in advance of ministerial tours in order to forestall larger and uncontrollable ones.

In addition, most people will have encountered a high level of personal risk at some point in the course of their work. Perhaps violent crime was rife, or they had to travel by dangerous and unconventional means or, in one instance, their workplace was bombed by terrorists. A number of AusAID staff have died in the course of their work, including one, Allison Sudradjat, who might well have become the first female head of the organisation.

AusAID has until recently been small and generalist enough that its long-term staff will have shared many experiences like those mentioned in the very partial list above, and will have built up strong international networks of people with similar roles and experiences. This commonality of experience and milieu is part of what makes the organisation what it is. But another factor, at least as important, is its sense of difference from other public and private organisations in the same general orbit—most notably but not only DFAT. AusAID staff will naturally define themselves in opposition to quick-fixers, fast talkers and carpetbaggers. Just as there is in DFAT a stereotype of AusAID, so there is in AusAID a stereotype of DFAT—as an organisation that is mercenary, transactional, short-termist and, most problematically, often lacking a realistic understanding of how its own ends might best be served by the aid program. Unjust as it might be, at least in relation to a good number of individuals in DFAT, this stereotype of the ‘other’ is part of what confers unity on AusAID.

Now the borders around AusAID are being comprehensively breached and dismantled, probably beyond any possibility of easy reconstruction. While this is in the end just a ‘machinery of government’ change, it is inevitably experienced as an affront, a personal loss, to the people who have invested their working lives, or their hopes for a working life, in the organisation. The affront might have been lessened if there were a perception that this unheralded merger were not in reality a hostile takeover, if DFAT as agent were thought to be acting only in line with the objectives of the government as principal, and if the objectives of the merger had been convincingly stated. But, as it is, there is a sense that one organisation is being consumed by another whose objectives might not exactly coincide with those of the government. The government wants a focused, high-quality aid program that strengthens Australia’s bilateral relationships. It can’t be easy for anybody inside AusAID to see how its disintegration could serve that end.

It must be acknowledged that for many AusAID staff, both Australian and locally-engaged in developing countries, the primary source of concern and anxiety now is not the passing of their organisation but the prospect of losing a job, any job. But this is compounded, for most people at any rate, by the loss of an institutional framework that has come to be part of their identity. The present uncertainties about employment and deployment obviously need to be resolved quickly, and in ways that preserve and wisely use the large reservoir and experience, skills and judgement that exists in the organisation. If this is done, it will be interesting to observe over time what impact the proportionally large influx of staff from AusAID (probably more than a one-third increase in Canberra alone) has on DFAT as an organisation. While the impact might not be very visible, it could prove to be quite pervasive and positive.

Will the policy of integration stand in the long term? Any such change creates a reversal opportunity for a future government. The reversal in this case is likely to be fiendishly difficult and not necessarily worth the candle once the current process and various future refinements of it have run their course. Nevertheless, there has to be some chance it will happen in time. The possibility is academic to anyone seasoned enough to feel a sense of attachment to what was AusAID. They’ll miss the organisation and they’re entitled to, even while they set about changing the DNA of the invading organism.

Robin Davies is the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre. He worked in AusAID from 1993 to 2012.

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Robin Davies

Robin Davies is an Honorary Professor at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy and an editor of the Devpolicy Blog. He headed the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security and later the Global Health Division at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from 2017 until early 2023 and worked in senior roles at AusAID until 2012, with postings in Paris and Jakarta. From 2013 to 2017, he was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.


  • Thanks Robin for a great comment on the change. It’s important that we understand it. I’m not so optimistic that the DNA can be changed. The elephant in the room is the difference in this dimension that you raise – culture/personality. AusAID and DFAT both do important things but they are vastly different things. The AusAID poverty focus was something relatively recent in a coherent sense. It felt like an important point in the evolution of the aid program. It’s gone I think. For now. I really feel for AusAIDers. We’ve lost a lot. I’m sure there are smart people working out what next but I still worry.

    • Over the past five and a half years I have liaised with AusAID staff on funding and program delivery. The partnership model implemented and the exchange has been professional and produced very positive outcomes. Monitoring and evaluation, value for money and overall measuring success occupies a space of qualitative outcomes which has evolved with global imperatives. The amalgamation of AusAID and DFAT will likely result in a cross pollination of values, systems and organisational culture. Integrity, empathy and accountability are worthy professional values to uphold. The up and coming graduates seeking work in the foreign affairs and international development fields will be provided with opportunities in a stronger and united outward looking organisation representing Australians and Australia’s interests in the international sphere.

  • A very good piece indeed. Having joined AusAID as local staff in Zimbabwe where the organization has been able to achieve results in a difficult political environment one reaches a point of great sadness when the future is uncertain. Not so much for the possibility of losing jobs, but on thinking how and whether this new arrangement will work. Just wondering whether we have embarked on a journey where we are taking two steps back in order to take one step forward or vice versa. All remains to be seen. I hope that not much time will be spent getting the new structures perfect while losing the momentum that the aid program had gained in these parts of the world.

  • Robin, Thank you for that excellent eulogy for an organisation that I worked in from almost the very beginning – from those days of the Aid Branch in External Affairs in the early 60’s, through the various changes of acronyms ultimately to AusAID. I can only hope that the professionalism and expertise gained over the decades will not be lost but will enhance that of DFAT. As my mate, Allison Sudradjat was wont to say ‘it’s the best job in the world’.

  • Echoing the majority of other commenters I hear, I thank you for the piece.

    Having spent many years working beside and encouraging improvement in Australia’s aid program, I too have been encouraged by the knowledge and commitment of so many of its staff. It strikes me, as echoed by Don d’Cruz’s consistent comment above, that this move has little to do with improving our aid program further – and is driven purely by ideology.

    Whilst recognising the success of the supporters of Australian aid who have gained a doubling of the aid program in the last ten years (off a very low base), it seems the quantum of aid debate has filled the always limited public space and left little room for a public discussion about why and how we deliver aid. Focusing on the dollars that go to aid has also evidently wrankled the ideologues like d’Cruz and his friends at the IPA who see this ‘integration’ as an achievement.

    There is of course significant opportunity that will come from this change but enslaving our aid dollars to a larger bureaucracy with a much broader agenda, will likely mean a blurrier public perception of what aid does and not a clearer one. It is difficult too, to see how the new FM will acheive her ‘genuine performance-based benchmarks’ – whatever they may be – with a greatly reduced workforce, a focus on ‘trade not aid’, a return to ‘mutual accountability’ (I look forward to the FM laying down the law to FM Natalegawa on what Indonesia’s obligations will be) and a PM who can’t seem to come to grips with how foreign policy actually works.

    I thank the staff of AusAID for their achievements and wish them the very best in navigating this personally challenging time that lies ahead. There is little doubt the incredible gains in reducing child mortality, in improving maternal health, in bringing polio to the brink of eradication and the millions of other lives that AusAID has made a positive contribution towards, could never have happened without your dedication, skills and commitment.

  • Thanks Robin for putting this so well. As someone who has worked outside of AusAID over many years, but with many forays into and adventures with the organisation, I still think the clear aim to reduce poverty is an essential and even noble thing. My sympathies are definitely with the many many people from AusAID who have shared and still share that view and who are now facing the unknown. We collectively need to keep the flame alive.

  • Also found the article very interesting Robin. It is the sad passing of an era, I hope that AusAID staff can become a positive influence on DFAT and on the new political leadership.

  • Such a good overview, excellent capture of the feelings that accompany this transition. As I sit writing reports for a new entity, I’m struggling for a short-hand name, but perhaps AFKA (the agency formerly known as AusAID) will do – which has the benefit of slightly existentialist overtones…

  • Robin, an excellent eulogy and as one who has hung around AusAID on the outside (mostly as a pesky NGO lobbyist) for thirty of that forty years it has been remarkable how it has weathered so many storms, but not this one: as we move to a new world order in which global self-interest rules, and the rules and standard setting DAC if not dead is certainly ‘pining for the fiords’.

    The challenge of the first few years of AusAID in the 1970s was to get beyond PNG and notice development, which the ‘second wavers’ you mention did. To your list of government reports one should add Harries of 1979 which foisted the notion of the development ‘project’ on us. It also foisted lots of agricultural projects everywhere, including Africa, using Australian approaches and technology (needless to say not a great success); resulting in series of cultural and context mistakes that may well be repeated, as paternalism and self interest re-emerges, and AusAID and broader DAC lessons are lost.

    Thanks again Robin for a great Obit.

  • A beautiful commentary. Ive only known AUSAid from afar but it grieves me to see another organisation swallowed up by mindless short term processes. This is happening in so many places. I understand generational change but I am uneasy about the replacing logics – and how they are used t support thinly veiled vendettas. Why is good sense and sophisticated pragmatism now on the nose?

  • Thanks, Robin, for speaking so eloquently and perceptively for so many of us. In recent weeks and days I’ve been struck by just how intensely I have felt the impact of these events. Like so many members of the ‘second wave’, I left AusAID to pursue broader career opportunities in development. But given the defining place of the institution in the Australian aid scene, I never left its orbit. One way or another – directly or indirectly – I have always worked for AusAID. The broader community of Australian aid practitioners is indelibly linked to the Agency, and what it stood for.

    Of course, I left for reasons, as did many others. As your piece acknowledges, AusAID/AIDAB/ADAB/ADAA has always had its shortcomings. And all of us know just how much we complained about it – at times deeply and bitterly. Get two aid workers together and you could almost guarantee that the subject would soon turn to AusAID bashing. But, paradoxically, it is just that antagonism that highlights exactly what is being lost here, and why we feel it so deeply: AusAID was as much an idea as an organisation. It was the idea that we worked for; the organisation merely gave the idea a name, and a home. And it gave those of us who believe in the idea a home, too. Not to put too fine a point on it: at times we hated AusAID because we loved it so much. It was a place that linked our personal ideals and aspirations to those of the nation, and the world. AusAID, for all its flaws, was the public institution that gave a home for those of us who suffered under the ineradicable delusion that wanting to be a good global citizen was consistent with a proper career, and the equally persistent folly that a career in development was a means to try to manifest our better selves.

    So, you can take the boy out of AusAID, but you can’t take AusAID out of the boy. And I hope and believe that the idea will survive the organisation.

    • Peter – thanks for articulating so clearly how many of us still working for AusAID feel. Despite it’s imperfection and flaws, there was more than one black arm bands being worn on Thursday. As you so beautifully point out, it wasn’t for the passing of an organisation but for the passing of an idea.

  • A well written, passionate and considered eulogy Robin. I have many good memories of working alongside dedicated AusAID staff, including yourself, providing essential humanitarian support in response to a number of natural and non-natural emergencies. AusAID gained many international friends during those hard days of toil.

  • I perhaps didn’t realise the extent to which AusAID has become part of my DNA until it was being taken from me. In this part of the world it is still 31 October so I find myself grasping at what little of myself remains, afraid to power down the laptop so I don’t have to see the DFAT logo appear. Thanks Robin to a wonderful homage to “the agency formerly known as AusAID”.

  • Thanks Robin for a perceptive and eloquent tribute to the AusAID that was. Thanks especially for singling out locally engaged staff – often the longest-serving and most under-appreciated. I look forward to your continued insightful analysis of the Australian aid that will be.

  • Well said Robin. As a DFAT officer who has worked with AusAID a lot in some pretty risky countries, I have a high regard for AusAID staff and for the organisation. Please don’t assume that the antagonism for DFAT is reciprocated. I’m sorry to see AusAID go, but DFAT will be the better organisation for the AusAID influx.

  • A beautifully crafted AusODE. How ominous that our unqualified purpose of ‘helping people overcome poverty’ should be put to death on All Hallow’s Eve; resurrected so fittingly in the sanctified form (the national Interest) on the 1st of November.

    Having worked with AusAID as an implementing partner, I’ve seen the exceptionally good, the woefully bad and the frighteningly ugly. But as a taxpayer and a humanitarian, I believe wholly in the institution and feel yet more despondence about the government directing what we know to be its takeover.

    The challenge for AusAIDers-that-were now lies in remaining as stoic, magnanimous and judicious in the more personal battle of (dis)integration, as in the professional ones of which Robin speaks. Great empathy for job uncertainty and logistical adjustments though I have, and my belief in enterprise agreements and fair remuneration notwithstanding, I implore all to remain principled not petty, constructive not conceited. When an enlightened government is returned, we (Australians) will need you to have penetrated the undesirable imperialism of DFAT culture, and equally, absorbed some of their oft-impressive acuity. When this miscalculation is reversed, both agencies will be the better for it.

  • As somebody who has worked in Africa as part of the Australian Staffing Assistance Scheme of AIDAB back in the late 80s, and observed closely the initiatives of AIDAB/AusAID programs in my field in that region over the ensuing years, I am concerned at the implication this restructuring may have for effective Australian aid initiatives in the future. Restructuring appears to be a part of political change at state and federal level, but too often reinventing the wheel results in loss of dedicated staff and a step backwards in effectiveness of initiatives and outcomes.

  • Thanks Robin, for eloquently expressing what many of us past AusAIDers are feeling. I, for one, am still proud to say I worked there.

  • Robin, THANK YOU! Thank you for honouring the commitment, the courage, the vision and the sheer tenacity of AusAID staff over the years. The Nonviolent Non-cooperation phrase made me smile and remember how many gender and conflict sensitive policies and programs have eventuated because people didn’t give up. I have so many AusAID staff to thank for their support and encouragement. We wait and watch.

  • Thank you from me too, for this and all your recent writings about the sudden death of AusAID. I have relied on you for insights and calm analysis throughout! While institutional structures shouldn’t really matter if the aid program is genuinely doing good things, and might be slightly crazy to feel sad about the demise of a public service agency, it’s hard not to feel concerned about what may be signalled by this still-perlexing change. What the priorities and culture and incentives will be for the aid program from tomorrow onwards – that is what is important, and still seemingly unknown.

  • Thank you Robin. Congratulations on a masterful and heartfelt piece. AusAID won’t get get a better eulogy. Witty, moving and pertinent. Those of us that invested in the ethos of AusAID understand what is being lost. While AusAID always had to adapt and change and it was sometimes hard to pin down exactly what was being achieved, nevertheless we know that the disintegration of AusAID represents the loss of a civilising influence in Australian public life.

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