As new budget cycle approaches, unpredictability hounds Australian aid

Boxes of humanitarian aid to be sent to Solomon Islands. Development stakeholders in Australia and beyond are concerned about the direction of the country’s aid program. Photo by: Tony Bransby / DfAT / CC BY

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently announced that he may call a double dissolution election for July 2 this year which would dissolve both upper and lower houses of the federal Parliament and require all members to seek re-election.

The maneuver was an attempt to force the hand of the Senate in passing legislation introduced by the Turnbull government for building industry reform which failed in Canberra on Monday. The failure was generally expected. To clear the way for a July 2 election, the 2016 budget night was moved up from its traditional slot of the second Tuesday in May to a week earlier on May 3.

Among an already apprehensive group of development organizations pushing for greater investment in foreign aid, the legislative announcements are likely to cause greater anxiety. Facing a more aggressive deadline, these groups will have less time to make their case to both lawmakers and the Australian public. They will also be negotiating with a new minister for international development and the Pacific who has been in her new role for just over a month.

Budget cuts undermine effectiveness

Australia’s aid budget has been decimated since 2013 when the Australian Agency for International Development was merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. After years of slashes, the most recently proposed aid cuts could result in a budget under 3.8 billion Australian dollars ($2.97 billion), returning foreign aid to its lowest level since 2005-2006.

Development stakeholders in Australia and beyond are concerned about the direction of the aid program. Prior to the last federal election and change of government in 2013, a stakeholder survey conducted by the Development Policy Center revealed an overall positive outlook on the Australian aid program with more than 75 percent of respondents believing there had been significant improvement in the aid program since 2003.

Forward to 2015, a similar stakeholder survey revealed a significant reduction in the quality and effectiveness of the Australian aid program with respondent criticism directed at the policies, programs and lack of transparency under a Liberal government since 2013.

“The general consensus is that the quality of Australian aid is getting worse,” Marc Purcell, executive director of the  Australian Council for International Development, explained to Devex. “Under current projections, the aid budget will fall again by [AU$224 million] in the upcoming budget, meaning that Australian aid will reach the lowest level we have ever given in aid as a nation.”

In addition to the dramatic budget cuts, the survey traced negative perceptions to other factors including a loss of strategic clarity on the purpose and focus of the aid program, a loss of aid expertise through AusAID amalgamation, and reduced transparency and community engagement.

“Three-quarters of stakeholders now think that the aid program’s performance has become worse over the last two years,” Purcell said.

Tanya Plibersek, the shadow minister for foreign affairs and international development, warned that the cuts to the aid budget would impact the ability for Australia to contribute to the delivery of Sustainable Development Goals.

“The Abbott-Turnbull governments cut funding to programs including maternal and child health, schooling, and water and sanitation — and they’ve tried to hide it by reducing budget transparency,” she told Devex. “Despite promising to shield countries in our region from the cuts, Julie Bishop’s axe has fallen on their aid budgets too.”

On the word stage, the scaling back of the Australian aid program under Abbott and Turnbull have impacted international perceptions of Australia. The results of the  Aid Transparency Index ranked Australia as 25th in the world for aid transparency with a rating of “fair.” According to the report by Publish What You Fund, Australia’s aid spending transparency has stalled due primarily to irregular reporting and a failure to provide comprehensive data.

Looking for leadership

In September 2015, Turnbull announced a new Ministry for International Development and the Pacific headed by Steve Ciobo. But by February 2016, retirements of several cabinet ministers led to Ciobo’s promotion to Minister for Trade and Investment and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a former assistant minister for multicultural affairs, was appointed to the post.

In an interview with Devex after her appointment, Fierravanti-Wells expressed optimism over her new role and the direction of the aid program. “I am committed to the continuous strengthening of the aid program and am firmly focused on its goal to promote prosperity, reduce poverty and enhance stability in developing countries,” she said.

There have been some signs of a modest, but promising redirection under Turnbull. The new prime minister’s creation of a dedicated international development ministry has been viewed positively and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is still considered a “champion” for international development. Furthermore, Turnbull’s recent announcement of AU$1 billion for the Clean Energy Fund was another welcome development for aid stakeholders and represented a clear departure from his predecessor’s climate change position.

Still, implementers and practitioners argue that a lack of predictability — in funding, staffing, and strategic direction — remains a major obstacle to Australian aid effectiveness.

“Despite the passage of 12 months since the cuts were first announced, we do not yet have detailed information on all the specific programs which have been discontinued as a result of aid cuts,” Purcell told Devex. “As such, the full impact of the cuts remains unclear.”

From the onset of the AusAID amalgamation, NGOs and other development stakeholders feared that that development causes would lose out to foreign policy and trade priorities. And today, many criticize the aid program for focusing too much on Australia’s political interests as well as infrastructure and trade and not on enough on education, health, resilience, and social protection. DFAT has yet to respond to a parliamentary inquiry designed to look into the role of the private sector in promoting economic growth and reducing poverty.

Plibersek stressed that humanitarianism should be the focus and that humanitarian outcomes will lead to stronger partnerships and security in Australia’s region.

“Having a strong foreign aid program is the right thing for Australia to do as a good global citizen,” said Plibersek who also called aid a good foundation for geopolitical stability. “We hear a lot about ‘aid for trade’ from the Abbott-Turnbull government, but Labor believes the key objective of Australia’s aid program should be a humanitarian one.”

Pushing for change

The upcoming federal budget decision and subsequent election represent other critical junctures for the Australian aid program.

Stakeholder survey findings indicated that electing another Liberal government could precipitate further reductions in aid spending, but a change of government could result in increased funding for foreign aid. There is limited confidence, however, that funding will increase to desired targets, according to the survey.

The Campaign for Australian Aid, with the backing of 65 aid and development organisations including World Vision, CARE Australia and Oxfam, is urgently pushing for change. Their current campaign wants Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison to “Stop the Clock” on aid budget cuts.

“We are calling on the government to reverse the final scheduled [AU$224 million] cut to the aid budget so that Australia does not become the least generous we've ever been with the lowest aid budget ever,” said Tony Milne, campaign director for Campaign for Australian Aid.

Reports in Australia this week indicate the budget may have already been decided with advertising campaigns reportedly recorded to promote cost saving measures.

As election day approaches, Australian NGOs are promising to tee up the aid program as a critical election issue. While the Campaign for Australian aid might not be enough to stop additional budget cuts, the organization has a supporter base of 1.59 million Australians and could influence the election. Current polls indicate an election could swing either way.

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About the author

  • Cornish img

    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. 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 Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.