Good people, bad systems

8 Nov 2006

Australia’s aid polices are too important to be left to insiders, writes Stephen Bartos

AUSTRALIA’s reputation in the South Pacific has rarely been lower. At the recent South Pacific Forum in Fiji, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, attacked “heavy- handed approaches that have little regard for social and cultural sensibilities.” Although he did not mention Australia directly, the message was clear. Media headlines accused Australia of bullying and arrogance towards its Pacific neighbours.

The politics behind the rhetoric are obvious. Politicians are inclined to pursue their own domestic agendas via disputes such as those surrounding the pursuit by Australian authorities of the former Solomon Islands Attorney-General, Julian Moti, or other instances of alleged colonialism by Australia. Playing politics comes naturally to leaders from both Pacific islands and Australia: from statements he made after the forum it is obvious that our prime minister sees advantage in taking a hard line.

International controversy often plays well for domestic political purposes, so we should not be entirely surprised by what politicians do. But what is the significance to the public service? The answer is that it is not just politics alone; there is substance to the accusations of bullying and arrogance, and a major contributor is the way we deliver Australia’s aid program.

AusAID does not have a good record in relation to sustainable outcomes. The standout example is PNG: despite being the major recipient of Australian aid for decades, standards of basic well-being in that country are hardly better now than at independence. Both the right (for example, the Centre for Independent Studies) and the left (for example, Aidwatch) are deeply critical of so-called “boomerang” aid programs or projects that see most of the benefits ending up back in the hands of Australian firms. Similar stories are dotted around the Pacific - to be fair, along with successes.

Australia has much to learn from lower-key, but more effective, aid agencies in our region. New Zealand’s prime minister fared much better at the forum than did ours, and its delivery of aid on the ground seems to make fewer enemies.

Australia’s prime minister and foreign minister appear genuinely puzzled as to why the Solomon Islands is not more grateful for the huge investment Australia has made in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, or RAMSI. In recent National Institute for Governance work there, we observed among senior Solomon Islands public servants a general level of support for RAMSI in principle (especially the presence of Australian troops) but concern about specific projects and individuals. We observed why directly: among the Australian officials we met, most were admirable, but unfortunately a handful did come across as arrogant and dismissive of the abilities of the Solomon Islanders they were working with. In a small country, it takes only a few people with attitudes like this to poison the whole effort: bad news travels much faster than good.

The design of the assistance program itself also leaves something to be desired. I spoke with a senior Solomons official who clearly had the ability to turn his department around, and knew exactly what he had to do to improve performance. So why don’t you do it? I asked. The answer was depressing: “Because I believe our department will lose its AusAID money if our performance improves.”

Debate about the efficacy of Australian aid is not simply a reaction to current problems in the Solomon Islands, PNG or East Timor. It is more fundamental, driven by recognition that our aid program should become more outward-looking and the need to deal with a more complex regional security and economic environment. To the government’s credit, it has developed an important recent White Paper on aid, which is likely to prove the starting rather than the ending point for much debate.

In an insightful paper to the international Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management conference in Sydney last month, David Hawkes, a consultant with a deal of aid experience, suggested, “Projects and programs tend to proliferate in an ad hoc manner, often featuring duplication and overlap and an absence of coordination. Some aid projects are being implemented in some countries for the second or third occasion without any identified sustained outcomes ...” In his view:

[V]ery few people in AusAID understand the nature of the reform process or the issues associated with governance in practice. This is largely because they have no direct experience of the processes involved or their ramifications in people- management terms in developing countries, or even in Australia. This lack of appreciation of what successful reform entails is not confined to AusAID staff. It also manifests itself among many technical advisers engaged through a tendering process that, as well as the price factor, favours the engagement of people with “overseas aid experience,” irrespective of whether or not they have actually managed reform processes in Australia or elsewhere at an appropriate level.

Because AusAID staff do not have an understanding of what is involved, they appear reluctant to accept the advice of people who do have experience with reform, largely because their advice is ‘different’ from what has been designed and what has been done previously...

This accords strongly with the experience of Treasury and Finance officials who these days often work overseas alongside AusAID officials, and who are frequently dismayed at how little understanding of reform the latter demonstrate. Despite losses of corporate memory in our economic departments, there are still quite a few officers who recall how difficult and painstaking our own financial management reforms in the 1980s were; their practical expertise is frequently discounted.

Hawkes also noted, “There is ample evidence to suggest that those advisers with a long history of project work are preferred because they are more familiar with AusAID’s administrative processes than they are with what is really required in the reform context.” Denis Ives, who presented the paper, explained that what this really meant was that AusAID preferred consultants who could write reports the way they wanted them (AusAID has a 94-page mandatory style guide just for its own special requirements).

In many ways AusAID is mired in an old paradigm of development in which “governance” focuses on anti-corruption and law-and-order measures. These are hugely important, but not the complete story; and if all you do in governance is look for corruption, then that is all you will find. AusAID’s website still publishes an old-fashioned publication on “good governance” (itself a loaded term - it implies that there is an ideal model) from year 2000, which ignores the enormous strides in thinking on governance in Australia since then. Aside from academic work, there are government publications such as the ANAO better-practice guide on public-sector governance, the PSC’s Foundations of Governance, the work of the Department of Finance and Administration. These don’t appear to be reflected in the AusAID thinking.

AusAID’s reputation is that it discourages criticism - many Australians who deliver aid on the ground believe (rightly or wrongly) that if they speak out against AusAID they will never again receive any aid projects or funding. Commentary from those outside the narrow bounds of the “international development” community is also discouraged. It is a tactic: the argument that outsiders are not well informed or capable enough to comment is frequently used by those in positions of influence. It used to be a classic defence, education and health argument until governments realised these issues were too important to leave to self-selected experts.

AusAID has not been free of critics in the past, but they have tended to come largely from activist groups and from anti-aid advocates in free-market liberal thinktanks. There are now healthy signs of the emergence of a robust debate on whether Australian aid is actually working.

The vast majority of AusAID staff are trying to do the right thing, but it is a classic case of good people caught up in bad systems. If the organisation can become more transparent and focused on outcomes - the aspiration of Australian government - this can only be to Australia’s longer-term benefit. The issues are too important to leave to insiders.

Stephen Bartos is the director of the National Institute for Governance, University of Canberra. This article first appeared in the Public Service Informant section of the Canberra Times.

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