Private enterprise is not development’s dark side

The incoming Government’s funding and structural shifts to the Australian aid program have provoked a range of responses. If nothing else, it is pleasing that this topic is being discussed more widely. Even more pleasing is the leadership and balanced writing offered by the Development Policy Centre, especially that of Robin Davies.

We agree with Davies’s assertion that ‘bending’ the program is the prerogative of the Government but that ‘breaking’ it is a risk to be avoided.

One aspect that Davies considers is aid quality. He points to this being achieved ‘through structured approaches to program conception and design that incorporate contestability and the lessons of experience’. He then suggests that these capabilities are absent in DFAT and should be carefully preserved during the integration process.

Without entering the debate as to where these capabilities should sit within the public sector, we want to emphasise that they do exist within the broader aid implementing fabric, particularly among the private sector managing contractors. Managing contractors have had, and continue to play, an important role in the quality of the Australian aid program.

The incoming Government, and the Foreign Minister in particular, have made no secret of their belief in the value of private enterprises as creators of jobs, and as core to economic growth, with these elements contributing to poverty reduction. Disappointingly, the private sector is still widely perceived as comprising profit-seeking businesses, focusing solely on self and shareholders, and not on aid priorities. This is particularly true of the organisations termed managing contractors.

The private sector does have a range of commercial imperatives. But these are only ever achieved through consistent quality and performance, value-for-money and innovation. By virtue of how the private sector is structured, with many companies being publicly listed and adhering to significant global standards, managing contractors bring significant capabilities in risk management, quality assurance, logistics, project management and administration to the aid program.

I do not suggest that managing contractors are the solution for everything. A good proportion of aid is delivered by other means. But as implementing partners they offer far more than good administration. There is a real opportunity for managing contractors to be engaged more purposively throughout the aid cycle, including where it intersects with trade and diplomacy. Managing contractors have many lessons from experience that can assist with program conception and design; we create jobs across the value chains that aid investments seek to engage; we export culturally appropriate products and services that can inform diplomatic practice.

Should the managing contractors be used for everything in which the aid program seeks to invest?

Certainly not.

Could the aid program benefit from harnessing the core strengths and experiences of managing contractors more extensively?

We believe so.

There have been some efforts to more effectively engage managing contractors to support program conception and design. We welcome this and there is still more that can be done, particularly where significant aid investments are being considered.  Invite managing contractors to participate in initial workshopping about an investment concept. Consistently release concept notes and program designs early, and in draft form, seeking input from industry and other interested parties to strengthen the design process. Involve industry in regional/sectoral strategy sessions, to explore where our lessons can inform future investment decisions. All of this can be done while maintaining transparency and contestability.

We are encouraged by the Government’s recognition of the role of the private sector. We are also encouraged by the increasing realisation of our value from many within the aid program. As one part of the private sector, managing contractors look forward to continuing their contribution as implementing partners: to promote economic growth, to contribute to the reduction of poverty and to increase the positive impact of the Australian aid program.

Mel Dunn is Chair of International Development Contractors (IDC) Australia, which brings together private sector companies who are experienced, innovative and effective in delivering international aid to the world’s poorest countries.

Mel Dunn

Mel Dunn is the Chief Strategy Officer at DT Global. He is responsible for ensuring that DT Global’s initiatives and efforts lead to delivering better development outcomes that prioritise value creation for our people, partners, clients and stakeholders.


  • Thanks Tess

    Yes I agree that managing contractors, the private sector in general, and each of us does not have all the answers – together we may just get there!

    One thing I do want to respond to relates to the the potential inference that readers could take from your statement linking managing contractors to the tendering alone for that is only one part of managing contractors’ DNA.

    Managing contractors certainly require tendering competence, but it would remain a shame if managing contractors and other private sector actors are not drawn on more purposefully outside the bounds of procurement rules, for they have so much to offer beyond just preparing quality tender responses.

    I know from the members of the IDC that all see themselves as true development professionals – small and large organisations alike – because they are development professionals – the rest is a governance construct. They all possess the desire and commitment to continue to support good development, by being drawn on for ideas etc is irrespective of any competitive tendering process.

    In fairness and to remain balanced in view, it is also up to us, the private sector, to stand up and be heard and show this commitment in action as well as words.


    • Hi Mel
      Thanks for this response and for giving me the opportunity to clarify my response – I am completely in agreement with you on the range of contributions that managing contractors can make and have been encouraged to see and hear of more and more activities of the type that you envisage. I think there are more opportunities to connect development professionals from numerous sectors and promote as much sharing of ideas and knowledge as possible to support development and I would like to see managing contractors doing more of stepping up, being made welcome and even facilitating activities of this type of their own.

  • Thanks for this post Mel, I think it raises some significant points.
    There definitely needs to be a means to harness the experience and thinking of managing contractors and the consultants they place within aid projects at the concept and design stages. They do not necessarily have all the answers and indeed they may not have any of the answers but they may have some pertinent questions that can add value at many stages before tenders are released or TORs are advertised. I have lost count of the number of consultancy assignments I have looked at and then tossed aside because they fall into the category of “well I wouldn’t be starting from here” and the thought of trying to impress upon anyone (including, but not limited to, managing contractors) why they should be changed in order to improve the quality or effectiveness of the exercise is just too tiring to contemplate. But, ranting aside, I think we need to recognise that we are all involved in these activities because we care about what we do and we care about doing it well. There are some opportunities for those of us who are interested in thinking and innovating in whatever sector to come together to contest ideas rather than compete for work, but there could be more and let’s hope that there are.

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