Greens go Tory on aid

The UK’s coalition government deserves praise for the handling of its aid program in recent years. With its transparency and value for money agendas, and notably the mid-2011 setting up of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the UK is working harder than most on improving its aid quality. More recently it has also taken the lead in aid quantity, massively increasing its aid spend to reach the UN target of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) this year.

Yesterday Greens Senators Christine Milne and Lee Rhiannon launched their proposed Overseas Aid (Millennium Development Goals) Bill 2013 (reported on here and here. The Bill itself will be available here in the coming days). Taking lines straight from the UK Tories’ playbook, the Bill seeks to legislate a commitment for Australia’s aid program to reach 0.5 per cent by 2015/16 and then 0.7 per cent of GNI by 2020/21 as well as to establish an Independent Commissioner on Aid Effectiveness.

Australia came out of the 2007 elections enjoying bipartisan support for increasing the aid budget to 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015/16. Aid increased from 0.28 in 2007 to 0.35 per cent in 2011-12, but last year Labor announced  a year’s delay in the scale-up effort and the Coalition removed the time-frame from its commitment to 0.5 per cent altogether. The Greens’ Bill goes beyond this earlier bipartisan commitment with its final target of 0.7 per cent. It also requires that climate finance and asylum seeker assistance in Australia not be counted towards the aid target.

Australia has also in recent years moved some way in the direction of independent evaluation, most recently establishing an Independent Evaluation Committee (IEC) to oversee AusAID’s in- house Office of Development Effectiveness.

The Greens’ proposal again goes much further, with the Independent Commissioner on Aid Effectiveness being granted statutory authority to “consider any issue in connection with Australia’s official development assistance.” The Minister may also request the Commissioner look into a certain issue, but the legislation would in effect give the Commissioner authority to choose their own evaluations. The Commissioner would have the power to draw upon both AusAID staff and external contractors to assist in inquiries. All evaluations would also have to be tabled in Parliament (made public) within 15 sitting days of the Minister receiving the report.

While there are arguments for and against more independence for aid evaluators, the main fear has always been that critical reporting would shut down the aid program. Delinking quantity and quality decisions, as the Green’s Bill does, takes this fear away. Of course, such a delinking only makes sense if you think on average aid is high quality and under-provided, but that’s not a bad generalization.

The main substantive difference between the Australian Greens’ policy and the UK Tories’ one is that the Tories have given up on their original aim to legislate for 0.7 per cent (in the end, they just did it, without the legislation). But to argue whether aid targets should be legislated, or to debate the details of the legislation is to miss the point, which is the very different political contexts in the two countries. Scaling up aid still enjoys bipartisan support in the UK, but seems to have less and less support here. It’s a sad reflection on us that what is mainstream policy in the UK is only advocated by a minority party here.

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

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, at The Australian National University.

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.

2 Comments

  • An interesting article, but a few words of caution might be useful:

    ICAI is far from a proven public good – their reviews are often patchy and ill informed, (see comments here) whilst draining huge amounts of time from the country teams they descend on.

    The Queen’s speech last week failed to confirm the commitment to 0.7% – and this highly visible growth in the budget has earned DFID some very powerful and vociferous enemies in the Tory camp, and in the press. this might all come back to bite them in the form of a re-merger with the FCO or a cut in budget (the burgeoning xenophobic UKIP party, currently stealing many Tory votes, wants to switch it off completely).

    The increase in budget might have been more managable and useful if it had been accompanied by a streamlining of management burden and greater use of sector budget support or EU-style MDG Contracts. instead it has been accompanied by a retreat to 1980s style project micro-management, a neurotic approach to corruption, and a growing mismatch between budget, management capacity and principles of aid-effectiveness.

    On this latter point, DFID has gone from leading the field in demonstrating good practice, to having effectively dropped harmonisation and alignment like a hot potato. If one looks at their quality assurance guidance for Business Case design, whilst it is very strong on fiduciary risk, vfm, etc it is silent on any of the good-donorship principles of Rome, Paris, Accra or Busan. This means that all the DFID funds programmed in the last 2 years will have been done with no consideration of these hard-won principles of effective aid, but will instead be strong on narrow, projectised and attributable short-term results. That may be “aid”, but it is not “development”.

    And I won’t even start on Mr Cameron’s efforts to remove a commitment to inequality in the post 2015 agenda…

    So yes, lots to learn from UKAid, but not always lessons to emulate!

  • Thanks for this post. I remain unconvinced that aid will be a significant issue in terms of the forthcoming election in Australia but it is good to see the Greens doing their bit to get it on the agenda. As for the Cameron government’s activities in the UK… it is something of a good news bad news story. Whilst it is fair to say that making the commitment to the money is more important than debating legislative language it’s important to remember that enshrining the 0.7% commitment in legislation was part of the commitment. Plus, and possibly more importantly, if this item from the New Statesman is correct, then the devil really is in the detail

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