4 takeaways from the Australasian Aid Conference

A view of a session on lifting aid transparency during this year’s Australasian Aid Conference held in Canberra, Australia. Photo by: Anjana Regmi / Twitter

The 2017 Australasian Aid Conference, in Canberra on Feb. 15 and 16, gathered representatives from government, NGOs, the private sector and research community to discuss and debate issues in aid, development and humanitarian assistance, both in Australia and globally.

New announcements, programs and insights came from the various panels over the two days. And Devex was there to provide four key takeaways.

1. Australia’s aid program priorities

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s address to the forum highlighted new funding for programs supporting sexual and reproductive health and improved data on gender and disadvantage, as well as the future direction for Australia’s aid program.

Australia responds to the global gag rule

Australia has hit back at the Trump administration's gag rule by announcing $9.5 million Australian dollars ($7.3 million) in funding for the International Planned Parenthood Foundation. The announcement was met with cross-party parliamentary support and applause from Australia's development sector at the 2017 Australasian Aid Conference.

Disaster response and mitigation will continue to play an important role in Australia’s aid program, along with gender. Health and education programs will also remain high priorities, together with private sector engagement and aid for trade.

Innovation challenges will expand, with a new challenge to be launched in April aimed at finding solutions to increase access to education in emergencies, with a focus on girls. The challenge will be supported by foreign ministers from Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey.

Countering violent extremism will also become an important focus of the program moving forward, part of a broader change in the way countries define official aid.

“Last year, Australia worked with other developed countries to change the rules on the use of official development assistance,” Bishop explained. “The changes mean that certain peace and security assistance to developing countries, including non-coercive approaches to countering violent extremism, is now ODA-eligible.”

Creating a stable and economically prosperous Indo-Pacific region was a strong message Bishop put forward, and the aid program will incorporate a framework to guide aid programs in countering violent extremism in the region.

Across sectors, Bishop discussed the importance of educating the public about the aid program. “International development faces the same pressures as other areas of policy,” she said. “So like other strands of globalization, our international aid sector must step up and explain — and re-explain, in clear and effective terms — why it is in our national interest, to support the development of developing countries.”

The aid program, she said, will need to “bring the Australian taxpayer and Australian public with us.”

2. The role of government in engaging the private sector

Private sector engagement was a topic of discussion in a number of the conference panels, but a common theme was how the government can play a facilitating role between the private sector and civil society.

The Australian aid program has been working to increase private sector engagement since 2014. Simon Cramp, director of private sector development with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, explained that the department sees the role of government as best served by bringing together NGOs and the private sector.

“I think one of the things that was really important for us in the beginning was understanding from the private sector’s point of view exactly what is our value proposition and why they want to work with us [DFAT],” Cramp said. “One of the things they said to us very early was, in many cases, it wasn’t actually to get to the government, it was to get to NGOs. But they weren’t quite sure how to do that and so they were interested to use the government as an intermediary.”

Without government in the middle to assist, Cramp said, both side are too cautious to engage, fearing negative outcomes. Government provides legitimacy to their collaboration.

Guo Peiyuan, general manager of SynTao, explained that China’s role as a facilitator had been vital there. “If they [the private sector] see that the government is included in this program and NGOs are also included, then they will assume the government is… providing a guarantee… or will ensure that this is a ‘politically’ correct program,” he said. “Chinese companies are still quite cautious on working with NGOs, not because they don’t want to, but they don’t know how and they don’t know the value. They know how to deal with government.”

3. Filling the gender data gap

Australia’s aid program is making strides toward better awareness of gender in monitoring and tracking progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. Most notably, the conference saw the announcement of $9.5 million Australian dollars ($7.3 million) funding for the Australian National University and the International Women’s Development Agency to research and implement a program analyzing the extent of gender disadvantage in developing countries.

“We can’t understate just how much of a challenge effectively monitoring the SDGs will be,” Lachlan Strahan, first assistant secretary for the multilateral policy division with DFAT, said, explaining that for gender data in particular, only a limited number of indicators contain an agreed methodological approach or suitable existing data.

DFAT is strongly supporting the development of the Individual Deprivation Measure, a new measure of poverty that aims to go beyond households to focus on individual poverty, and identify how it impacts men and women differently.

The poor are at the heart of the IDM’s development. Janet Hunt, deputy director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy, explained how researchers surveyed poor communities in Angola, Fiji, Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique and the Philippines. The results identified 15 key indicators — food, water, shelter, health, education, energy, sanitation, relationships, clothing, violence, family planning, environment, voice time, use and work — with the a five level scale of deprivation as the outcome.

The new funding enables the IDM team to move forward with tweaking the measure, but also getting it out as a useable tool, open for use in global data collection.

“The first step we are thinking about is building bridges to data collection,” Kylie Fisk, research program manager with IWDA, explained. “Technology is [a] really important part of that, and a massive part of the investment from DFAT is building a tech platform that will allow app collection of data, a server for all the different data sets and data visualization.”

Joanne Crawford, team leader for IDM, said that education and training programs will encourage governments and NGOs to get involved in data collection. “People need to believe there is an issue or a problem in the way things are currently done and then believe the IDM provides them with a better way of measuring poverty than is currently done.” Work over the next 12 months will focus heavily on engagement.

By 2020, they aim to have the model and platform perfected for wider use in poverty and gender data collection.

4. A changing humanitarian system

The humanitarian system is under debate in Australia, as it is globally. The stresses are greater than ever, with humanitarian disasters on the rise from challenges such as climate change and conflict displacement.

“We are at a pivotal time for how the humanitarian community and how the international community need to both think and respond to the challenges we face today,” Jamie Isbister, humanitarian coordinator for DFAT, said. Despite what he described as a “huge funding shortfall” to deal with humanitarian crises, he believed international response was heading in the right direction.

“On the positive side, the way that humanitarian assistance is being provided and can be provided in the coming years is changing dramatically too, and I think with that comes real opportunities for the way the donors, U.N. agencies, local organizations and in effect the communities are able to ensure that assistance is able to be much more orientated toward the needs and decisions of people themselves who are affected by that and is much more timely and relevant,” he told the audience.

Paul McPhun, CEO of Médecins Sans Frontières Australia, highlighted the persistent gaps in coverage. “We see a humanitarian system that is struggling. It’s been struggling for some time to deliver in acute conflict settings,” he said to the audience. “So there is a widening gap and in contexts where we are working today, where we have teams on the ground… we see a significant lack of adequate humanitarian response.”

McPhun argued that the current system was not adequately prepared for the crises MSF responded to, and said it could not be addressed by trying to transcend the divide between the humanitarian action and development alone. Putting a greater emphasis on traditional development projects could make a response less timely and more risk averse, endangering lives, he warned.

The discussion also touched on the growing role of global militaries in humanitarian response. Although militaries often respond to natural disasters, the response to the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014 was the first time foreign military had been deployed to respond to an infectious disease outbreak, noted Adam Kamradt-Scott, an associate professor with the University of Sydney.

“One of the biggest impacts of having the military involved in this response was the psychological impact,” Kamradt-Scott said. In Liberia, the presence of U.S. military showed locals the world had not forgotten them. “What it said, fundamentally, to the Liberians… was that America had arrived to help. That someone really cared. And it was just the visual impact of seeing helicopters flying overhead, military vehicles on the roads and a whole lot of people in uniform that had a huge psychological boost.”

Military presence also helped NGOs, according to Kamradt-Scott, who were fleeing outbreak areas under instructions from their risk averse headquarters in European countries. “The fact that the military were deployed, it had a real demonstrable impact on NGOs’ willingness to accept the level of risk of continuing to operate in these countries.”

Research Kamradt-Scott is currently conducting will delve further into the pros and cons of military involvement in humanitarian crises to find where the red line for their involvement is. The 2018 Australasian Aid Conference may reveal the outcomes.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.