What guides Australian NGOs: need or the national interest?

Need and the focus of Australian NGOs

If you’re an aid NGO, government money is tempting. It affords the chance to help more people, or to help people more. It can free you from the hardscrabble work of fundraising. But government funding may come at a cost: influence. Overtly or subtly, government money may start shaping where you work and what you do.

Or it may not.

Whether money buys influence is ultimately an empirical question. The sort that should bring researchers rushing to the rescue, waving reports replete with answers. Frustratingly though, the question of whether government funding routinely influences NGOs’ work isn’t easy to answer. Influence can be subtle. And democratic governments don’t usually broadcast their attempts at exerting control over non-governmental organisations.

One way of looking for signs of government influence over development NGOs is to study where they work. If – once we’ve accounted for the impacts of other factors such as proximity or population – we find NGOs mostly work in places that are economically or strategically important to their home country, it may suggest government influence. Similarly, if – after the effects of other factors are taken into account – we find NGOs mostly work where their government spends its non-NGO aid, it may be evidence of influence.

This isn’t the type of research that produces definitive answers – it’s a data dig done in search of possible clues. It’s also how researchers have tried to gain a better picture of what influences NGOs internationally. (For three good but paywalled examples see here, here and here.)

While this type of analysis exists for some other donors, no one has ever studied Australia. However, thanks to the transparency of the Australian Council for International Development and its members, I have been able to examine Australian NGOs’ work overseas. As part of this study, I looked at where Australian NGOs work, including whether their focus was suggestive of government influence.

If you want to carefully inspect what I’ve done, read sections 3, 4.5 and the second appendix of my recent Devpolicy Discussion Paper, Australian NGOs Overseas. In the meantime, here are the key takeaways from what I found.

I found no evidence whatsoever that, on average, Australian NGOs focused more on countries where the Australian national interest is probably higher. The proxies I used for national interest were imperfect (read the paper) but they are the standard ones used in existing research. And some studies from other countries have found clear correlations using the same proxies.

Meanwhile, when I studied whether Australian NGOs focused more on countries that the Australian government gives more aid to (excluding government aid going via NGOs), I found a clear bivariate correlation: Australian NGOs do focus more, on average, on countries that receive a greater share of Australian government aid. However, bivariate correlations reveal little, as there may be legitimate reasons for NGOs and the government paying more attention to certain countries (higher need in some countries, for example). And, once I controlled for other influences, I found no relationship between the country focus of Australian government aid and the average focus of Australian NGOs.

These are encouraging findings and contrast with more negative results from some other donor countries. They raise a question through: what actually does drive the focus of Australian NGOs? When I looked at this, I found that some predictable factors do: NGOs focus more on closer countries, for example.

Most interestingly though, I found a relationship between need – as measured by lower scores on the Human Development Index (HDI) – and NGO focus. The relationship isn’t a simple one – you can see the average relationship charted below. Need is on the x-axis. NGO focus is on the y-axis. The figure shows the average relationship once other potential influences are accounted for. The red line on the figure is the level of human development in the median aid recipient country.

Human development and the focus of Australian NGOsHuman development and the focus of Australian NGOs

On the right-hand side of the figure you can see that as human development gets higher, the focus of NGOs falls. To put it another way, NGOs typically focus more on needier countries. This is a healthy relationship, obviously. However, there’s also something strange to be seen on the left-hand side of the figure. The line of best fit on the left also slopes down, indicating Australian NGOs focus less in the countries with the lowest levels of human development. (By lowest I mean very low, well below the median developing country.) This is a puzzle, although it may have a simple explanation: there aren’t many countries with very low levels of human development. Most aid recipients have human development scores above 0.55, and Australian NGOs tend to focus much more on the neediest of these countries.

That leaves us with good news for the Australian aid community: there are no clear signs that government funding unduly influences where Australian NGOs work. On the other hand, recipient country need has a clear influence.

This isn’t the final word on government-NGO relationships in Australian aid, but it’s encouraging nonetheless.

This post is the second in a two-part series summarising Devpolicy Discussion Paper 94 Australian NGOs overseas. You can find the first post here.


This research was undertaken with the support of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The research was also enabled by our ongoing data partnership with the Australian Council for International Development. We are grateful to the ACFID, and to its members for their transparency. The views in the post are those of the author alone.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.


  • Hi Nina,

    Thank you for your comment. And thank you for some really interesting figures about the distribution of countries with the lowest levels of Human Development.

    The explanation you offer sounds very plausible. I thought it must have been part of the story. However, I’m no longer confident that it is though. This is because when I added regional fixed effects to my regression models (the results are in the report’s appendix) the inverted u shape spending pattern could still be found.

    Adding regional fixed effects means that the analytic leverage in the regression is drawn from differences within regions not between them. So the result would not seem to be solely a product of Australian NGOs under-serving Africa while focusing more on Asia and the Pacific.

    Also, the chart on page 23 of the main report shows that NGOs differ in their regional focus from the government aid program. NGOs focus quite a lot more on Sub-Saharan Africa and quite a lot less on the Pacific.

    Both NGOs and the government do focus most on Asia, but I’m not sure that’s NGOs following the governments lead as much a reflection of historical patterns of aid giving and a ongoing ties.

    At least, that’s my thinking at this point in time.

    Thanks again for your comment. It’s been very helpful as I continue to think about the results of the work.


  • Hi Terence,

    I believe there is an additional reason to the downward slope for countries scoring less than 0.55 on the Human Development Index.

    The bottom 34 countries – all scoring 0.55 or less – are all on the African continent but for Afghanistan.

    Of the next 26 countries, which covers HDI values between 0.55 and 0.65, 16 countries are located in the Asia-Pacific. This is the group of countries that according to your article receives the highest percentage-share of donations.

    I presume, it is fair to say that the Australian government is focusing the majority of its aid-spend on countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

    I would argue, the downward slope show exactly that the the NGOs are following the government non-NGO spend. It is telling a story of lesser interest in lowest-scoring countries, all of which happens to be on the African continent, and a higher interest towards Asia-Pacific which also traditionally has a higher political and national interest.

    It would be great to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thank you
    Nina Hjortlund
    Founding Director and CEO
    Australia for Cedar Tanzania

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