Absence of 'blue book' step backward in Australian aid transparency — NGOs

Australian Awards staff work a booth at a career fair in Vanuatu. The Australian government has decided not to share the budget document detailing its foreign aid activities. Photo by: Yohann Lemonnier / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

Development stakeholders dependent on and connected to Australian aid may have to keep up the guessing game on who will be affected by the recent aid cuts — country-, region- and project-wise — following the Abbott government’s decision not to release the so-called “blue book” for official development assistance.

Traditionally released simultaneously with the federal budget, the “blue book” or ministerial budget statement serves as a long-form document detailing where aid is being allocated by sector, country, regionally and globally.

But this time, the government did not give specific details on the reasons why they decided to hold with the document, a regular fixture in Australian aid for over a decade which underlines (or used to) the country’s commitment to aid transparency.

“Not releasing the blue book is a step backwards in transparency” and undermines Australia’s position within the international development community, Joy Kyriacou, an adviser for Oxfam Australia, told Devex.

Kyriacou — who still hopes the document will eventually be published — added that the blue book “not only [tells] you how much money is being delivered to each country but it also gives you a snapshot of what the programs and the priorities will be in those countries.”

READ: Australian aid budget: Winners and losers

Lack of transparency

The absence of the document is not only a cause for concern among the local development community — it’s also seen as the latest milestone in a downward trend.

The now-defunct AusAID, Australia’s aid agency integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, dropped six places in the 2013 Aid Transparency Ranking and is now outside of the top 20 despite publishing its own transparency charter in 2011 and the country’s partnership endorsement of the International Aid Transparency Initiative.

Kyriacou noted that the National Commission of Audit’s recommendation to keep an independent budget statement on the aid program should be reviewed by Canberra, even if it seems like the government is not too keen on bringing back the blue book in the near future.

Instead, she complained, DFAT just plans to release in the coming weeks an overall aid policy statement and benchmarks for Australian aid, and update their website to include information about the programs they are going to be supporting in each country.

“We're really hoping that there will be a lot more detail about policy directions from all of those,” Kyriacou said.

Pressure on NGOs

Asked about the possibility of humanitarian groups and aid organizations receiving more pressure to deliver development outcomes now that the government has decided to become less involved, Kyriacou said that each stakeholder has a role to play.

“I think NGOs do a specific job and they do a very targeted job around the world. But that doesn't mean governments don't have a responsibility to do their part,” she explained.

The division of work between NGOs and the government aid agency, in the case of Australia, has at times been unclear.

Paul Ronalds, head of Save the Children Australia chief, told Devex that DFAT should not lose its “distinct humanitarian identity” and the aid program remains a “distinct and valuable branch within DFAT,” as that would bode well for both the country’s international standing and public support for foreign aid.

“Any savings generated by the integration should be directly invested back into Australia’s aid program,” he suggested.

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See more:

The foreign aid program that Australia 'can afford' — DFAT
Australia urged to keep humanitarian response unit within DFAT
NGOs dismayed over 'broken promises' on Australian aid

About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.