Making AusAID smarter: a role for universities

Written by Joel Negin

Over the past few years and with increasing momentum, AusAID has shifted from essentially being a project-focused contract manager to an agency that works more at the policy level on sector programming.  Whereas AusAID used to fund managing contractors and NGOs to deliver discrete pieces of development activities, they now interact with multiple international agencies, with developing country governments, and with other partners on sector policy issues. For example, there has been a reduction by half of the amount of Australian aid spent through contractors. Phrases such as sector-wide approach, harmonisation, pooled funding, and aid effectiveness are heard more often than ever before.

The Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness highlighted the importance of these changes and the substantial impact of this momentum on how AusAID operates. As AusAID (along with a number of other development agencies) has made this change, they have run into a challenge: their human resource capacity. After years of building generalist staff who specialised in contract management and who did not have sector specific technical skill, AusAID must question whether they have found themselves without the skillset needed for the new type of work being undertaken. The Aid Review and other stakeholders highlight the need for skills such as high-level negotiation capacity, stakeholder management, diplomacy and sector policy design.  These skills are critical to success and risk management as AusAID staff interact with government ministries, multilateral institutions and other development partners.

This is not a critique of AusAID individuals but rather an institutional shift from recruiting and training staff for one purpose and the significant change needed as the agency’s work changes. Importantly, this static situation is not confined to AusAID — educational institutions have also been slow to provide the training fora for this new skillset.

Training for development practitioners in Australia is generally provided by Australian universities through Masters of Development Studies, Masters of International Development and Masters of Public Health (MPH) programs (and equivalents). Yet the skills that are most needed in this new paradigm – management, leadership, negotiation, diplomacy – are not necessarily taught in those types of programs.

For example, most MPH programs continue to focus on biostatistics, epidemiology and health promotion. These skills are valuable for jobs working in communities, but do not add sufficiently to the capacity of someone being asked to negotiate a $40 million five-year contribution to a government’s maternal health pooled fund. Much of the development studies taught in Australia focuses on development theory and less on development practice.

Some would argue that the most appropriate place to learn the requisite skills would be a Masters of Business Administration program. But the profit-driven emphasis of such courses often does not suit the frontline challenges of development work.

The Masters of Development Practice program started by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs has attempted to bring together experts from a range of fields to provide focused training on how to work in the modern-day aid delivery environment. Students are taught about management, health, education, economics, infrastructure and are placed in developing country projects for three months between years one and two. Such a model approaches what might be needed.

Of course educational institutions are not AusAID training factories, but rather attempt to meet the needs of a diverse range of Australian and international students who might work for small NGOs, in communities or with their government ministries or international agencies.  I would argue that Australian universities have a role to play in training future AusAID staff, but that they need to be more flexible by bringing in lecturers from public administration, development studies, sector experts and business leaders to better prepare young Australians – as well as people from around the world – to be able to make a positive impact in the complex, multi-faceted, multi-actor world of international aid and development.

Joel Negin is a Senior Lecturer in International Public Health at the University of Sydney and a Research Fellow for the Menzies Centre for Health Policy.

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Joel Negin

Joel Negin is Head of School and Professor of International Health at the University of Sydney School of Public Health. He focuses on health and development in sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific.


  • Thanks Joel for this interesting piece. As someone who has run two of Australia’s largest post-graduate programs in International Development , I would make the point that whilst providing postgraduate qualifications for those that do work or would like to work for AusAID is important, AusAID is but one of a very large number of possible employers within the sector. Universities must therefore develop (excuse the pun) qualifications that cater for those wishing to work for AusAID, small NGOs, large NGOs, overseas based agencies, multi-lateral agencies, local councils, indigenous communities, etc. There is a variety of skills and technical proficiencies required across this wide gamut of organisations. So what is ideal for one organisations might not fit the bill for another. It is perhaps why ACFID have around 50 undergraduate and post-graduate courses (not including the embedded Grad Certs and Grad Dips) offered by various Australian universities listed on their website –

    Prospective students should speak to those organisations that they wish to one-day work to get a sense of which degree provides the basis for what must be life-long learning in this sector. The degree will only ever be the start – not the end – of learning what is effective development.

  • Thanks for a very interesting post, Joel. 7 years ago or so when i was tossing up what sort of Masters to complete i went with the Strategic Affairs option at ANU – which provides a broader overview of public policy, defence and foreign policy, etc, than your standard Development Studies Masters.
    As AusAID’s public policy role increases and aid enters the foreign policy mainstream, i think AusAID staff will need to have a better handle on broader issues of foreign policy – not just how to manage a contract or run public awareness campaign on HIV.

    Skills in diplomacy, negotiation etc can be picked up through study- but also through working in a role that requires them or doing seperate training while employed. Training in facilitation skills for instance can be rally valuable.

    An American friend of mine who works in development exemplifies what you’re talking about. He has a Masters of Development studies but recently moved to London to undertake a Master of Public Policy Services and Management- he describes it as an MBA with a not for profit/development focus. I think we’ll see more and more movement in that direction, especially for development workers with managerial aspirations.

    I agree entirely with Ashlee’s comment about second language proficiency as well. My understanding is that at the moment DFAT provide much better language training pre-posting than AusAID, I imagine that in coming years more emphasis will be placed on language at AusAID (French, for instance as Africa aid increases, and obviously a range of Asian languages). Establishing trust, rapport, credibility and simply being able to communicate are much easier when you have more language in common.

    • Hi Sam,
      Very interesting and important points. I agree that lots of the skills needed for this kind of work are probably better to learn “on-the-job.” But I don’t want to let universities (including my own) off the hook of developing appropriate training programs. The Master of Public Policy Services and Management (despite the wordy name) sounds interesting. Perhaps we will start to see a shift towards “MBAs for not for profit industries.”
      A colleague of mine who has worked in Rwanda for years wrote a paper called “Doctors Without Orders” which is basically about the fact that we need better managers for the billions of dollars going into public health – rather than having doctors and PhDs in biochemistry managing huge scale health projects.
      And on teh topic of languages that you and Ashlee raised – absolutely. I’m Canadian and French is mandatory for a number of years. Not everyone picks it up but everyone is exposed to it. I like the idea of second language proficiency as a prerequisite for development studies, foreign policy, any internationally-focused degree.

  • Great post Joel. This is interesting for me, because I started my Masters degree in the US last year (at American University’s School of International Service) and returned to Australia to complete it this year (at ANU) due to personal reasons.

    However, when I made the decision to return to Australia, I found it difficult to find a degree here that completely matched the content of the MA in International Development at American, where it was possible to major in development management, communications, policy and a whole range of other areas. Ultimately I chose a public policy degree majoring in development here rather than a development studies course.

    There’s a number of other interesting options in the US besides SIPA as well — at NYU there’s a masters in non-profit management, an alternative to those profit-driven MBAs. Public administration degrees are prolific as well (HKS and Princeton being the most well known). American has just started a graduate program in social enterprise.

    Another major difference that I noted between Australian and American programs is that at the top schools in the US, there is a requirement that all students demonstrate intermediate proficiency in a second language before they are eligible to graduate — or at some schools, for admission. Surely multilingualism in staff would benefit AusAID as well?

  • This is a very important, and I think much overlooked, topic in the aid and development sector. And, I agree that Australian universities have a key role to play in supporting students and graduates in their learning for aid and development. This is a shameless plug, I know, but I wrote on this same topic not last week and had some very insightful responses from both students and graduates around this topic. I think it contributes and complements this discussion by Joel Negin nicely.

    • Hi Brendan,
      Great post at – thanks for sharing. Lots of great thoughts in there – much needed.
      I used to work at Columbia University and know the Masters of Development Practice team and program well. I do want to add that even their program does not really spend lots of time on the diplomacy and intergovernmental relations side of practicing development. Someone who is going to work at AusAID (or DFID or WHO) needs a good dose of those skills as well as the technical knowledge. I’m not sure Australian Universities teach that well or teach that within dev studies or MPH. Here at the University of Sydney, the Graduate School of Government led by Geoff Gallop has been increasingly getting involved with leadership training with foreign diplomats and governments. Maybe AusAID could look there for some extra credit!

      • Hi Joel,
        Thanks for taking the time to read the post and comments. Very appreciated and honoured. I really like the idea of embedding diplomacy and intergovernmental relations into development studies and courses. But, this could be expanded to also include relations with NGOs and with national governments. I am finding more and more in my own role that I need not just technical knowledge, but also discrete skills in facilitating partnerships with national government and their public servants. At least in my MA course at UNSW, such learning was not even on the horizon. Yet, many graduates would be going into roles, not just at AusAID, which would require such. The program at USYD sounds interesting and could be something AusAID staff take on for professional development.


  • Nice post Joel, useful thoughts to chew on. Ramping up staff exchanges between AusAID and other donor agencies (DFID, SIDA, CIDA et al) would provide a complementary (and perhaps more targeted and timely) approach to bringing new ideas and skillsets to the organisation, while the changes to the furniture you’re proposing are underway.

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