Keeping an eye on Australia’s aid

For more than a decade Australia has had an aid program concentrated on giving assistance to fragile and conflict-affected countries – looking for ways, adapted to each country’s situation, of helping to address sources of internal conflict and of improving, or at least not further weakening, state institutions.

In a new discussion paper for the Development Policy Centre, I’ve noted some distinctive features of this Australian aid to fragile and conflict-affected countries, in the context of  international literature by aid providers and others about such aid.  Australia’s aid, especially to Timor‑Leste, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan, has been notable for:

  • working links between civilian aid and aid designed to bolster internal and cross‑border security, provided by the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Federal Police or other agencies such as the Department of Immigration and Customs; and
  • a “whole-of-government” approach involving agencies other than AusAID in delivering aid, through twinning arrangements which send Australian officials on long‑term secondments and invite officials from partner agencies to Australia for training.

I was involved in whole-of-government aid for a period in the mid‑2000s as an Australian Treasury official, and saw for myself how it was both potent and problematic.  I was struck by how effective it proved when it put capacity behind purposeful local leaders.  I also remember the mixed responses of AusAID’s teams of managing contractors and consultants – some eager to grasp the new opportunities, others threatened and resentful.  I was interested to see how this would play out in the evaluation reviews which AusAID’s Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) launched in 2007, and in the interdepartmental committees implementing the whole‑of‑government approach, notably the Development Effectiveness Steering Committee (DESC).

Unfortunately ODE’s attention was soon channelled in different directions, and the DESC has remained invisible and silent for people outside the government. In an annex to my paper for Devpolicy, I summarised the range of published evaluations or reviews of Australia’s aid to fragile and conflict‑affected countries.  All of these are informative, but readers get little help in forming a picture of what types of aid have proven most effective in these countries.  I could see no direct attention given to comparing the effectiveness of aid to these countries with Australia’s other aid.  It also seems little attention has been given – and less as time has gone by – to comparing the effectiveness of whole‑of‑government and conventional aid.

In May an Independent Evaluation Committee was established to review the effectiveness of all of Australia’s aid, as the Independent Aid Review had recommended a year earlier.  In my paper for Devpolicy I made, in effect, an appeal to it:

… let’s hope that independent reviews of Australia’s aid to fragile and conflict‑affected countries will continue to be done – but with a more comparative perspective, with more systematic follow‑through from year to year, with more evaluation of parts played by agencies other than AusAID, and with more prompt publication.

If we hope for this we might also hope – again, as the Independent Aid Review recommended – that the Australian Parliament will form a committee or sub‑committee on aid and development, such as a sub‑committee of the Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT).

There are many policy and administrative issues in Australia’s growing aid program, including how effective it can be, in what ways, in fragile and conflict‑affected countries. A JSCFADT sub‑committee could improve on the attention given to the aid program in Senate Estimates, which tends to be dominated by the most topical issues. It could do justice to the forthcoming work of the Independent Evaluation Committee, and more broadly to AusAID’s extensive reporting on its programs. It could also have a salutary influence on other agencies involved in delivering Australia’s aid, directly or through the DESC – asking whether their contributions are sufficiently selective, well coordinated and guided by internal and external evaluations.

John Eyers was Chief Adviser (International) in the Australian Treasury from 2004 to 2006, and was seconded to the PNG Treasury from 2006 to 2008 as part of the Enhanced Cooperation Program.

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John Eyers

John Eyers has worked in the Australian Treasury, ADB, Commonwealth Secretariat, Office of National Assessments, PNG Treasury, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.


  • John, I haven’t had a chance to read through the full report in detail as I intend to but before this post moves off the radar I wanted to pose a question to you.

    In scanning through your summary of other’s views of failed states it seems to me that the role of the community in contributing to strengthening failing states or rebuilding failed states is ignored. If we are to see the strength of the state as being dependent upon a functional social contract between the governed and those that govern then surely our contribution should equally be focused upon building the capacity of the governed to, for example, hold those in government to account, to develop lobbying capacity etc.

    This is more than a glib call for civil society which usually gets included in every report and some chump change allocated to NGOs, its a question as to fundamentally what are we doing in stabilization efforts? Do we build a state as an end in of itself regardless of its functionality or is the state apparatus only as good as the community understands how to utilize it for its purposes?

    As I noted in an earlier post on this blog there are too few community strengthening projects around, the CAP in Iraq and NSP in Afghanistan being the only two worth mentioning. That their approaches don’t appear as headers in any of the strategies of the groups you summarized is I would suggest a reason for our continuing failures in preventing state failure or in state building efforts.

    Again, apologies if this is covered in detail in your report as I haven’t had the chance to go through it all.

    • Denis, I haven’t included in my discussion paper much about community capacity to want and obtain better governance, but you’ll find plenty in several of the texts I cite, especially (from memory) World Development Report 2011 and Fixing Failed States. Given your interest in community strengthening projects, I suggest you look also at:
      a recent ODE evaluation of AusAID’s engagement with civil society in developing countries – based on theory of change / literature review / mapping of AusAID’s engagement in PNG, Philippines and Vanuatu / cross-case analysis / case studies –
      BRAC – NGO based in Bangladesh providing microcredit, education and other services to poor isolated communities –
      PNPM – national program for community empowerment in rural areas of Indonesia, supported by World Bank –
      With regards, John

    • Thanks Denis for your insightful comment. I agree, that community-based initiatives are a significant part of any sustainable aid initiatives ( excuse the understatement) and are often overlooked or under-represented in planning and M&E of these initiatives. Communities that take ownership of aid through knowledgable, organised and influential leaders, are far more likely to sustain these initiatives and benefits in the longer term. Peter McGlynn

  • In the context of the Eyers report, it is interesting to read of AusAID cancelling its contract with an Afghan-based non-governmental organisation (The Liaison Office – TLO) after a critical report on progress in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province.

    AusAID asked TLO to prepare the report to evaluate Australia’s efforts as lead nation in the province up to the end of 2011. I understand that TLO conducted about 180 interviews with local residents for the report, with a similar number of interviews from four quarterly provincial updates also incorporated. The resulting primary data was analysed by the TLO Research Team, comprised of both national and international staff, who conducted further desk research and triangulation interviews with 50 key Uruzgan actors and 29 development organizations. The report also includes local perspectives derived from a December 2011 survey conducted at a provincial stability meeting (jirga) with 523 Uruzgani respondents from all districts. The TLO Report appears to be comprehensive and is available on the TLO Website.

    I note that the report was financed by the Royal Netherlands’s Embassy in Afghanistan and the AusAID. I wonder if the report has been accepted by the Dutch?

    Mr. E. John Blunt is an Institutional and Public Procurement Expert with extensive experience in leading public procurement reforms in a variety of international development environments. He is currently on assignment with the Southern African Development Community in Botswana.

    • John,

      This was actually brought up in the most recent Senate Estimates (see page 51). According to DG Peter Baxter the decision to cancel the contract was actually conducted in agreement with the Dutch and was based primarily on consistent lack of performance (for example, over a two year period they expected 17 reports from TLO and only received 6).

      The primary justification for not looking for another contractor is because AusAID has significantly increased its presence and Oruzgan since 2010 and was confident they could get the information they needed to conduct programming decisions from their own people on the ground.

      All of this, in my eyes, seems quite reasonable. I would still be interested in hearing TLO’s perspective on the whole matter. If I come across anything I will be sure to share.


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