Australia urged to keep humanitarian response unit within DFAT

Humanitarian relief supplies for people affected by flooding in Solomon Islands. The Australian Council for International Development wants the Australian government to establish a stand-alone division specifically for disaster management and humanitarian response. Photo by: Tony Bransby / Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

As fears mount over further cuts to Australian foreign aid once the federal budget is released on Tuesday, nonprofits are calling on the Abbott government to keep a “stand-alone humanitarian division” within the revamped Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade structure to maintain regional leadership in disaster management and humanitarian response.

The Australian Council for International Development, which represents over 120 local NGOs, along with the country chapters of international organizations like ActionAid, Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision, among others, published recently a policy paper with recommendations on how the Pacific’s largest donor can increase the effectiveness of its humanitarian response in the region.

“Australia plays a vital role in responding to [humanitarian] challenges — both in our immediate region and globally,” notes the report entitled Humanitarian Action for Results, which also points out why the commitment to these issues should not be lessened despite the current belt-tightening trend in traditional donors.

One of the policy paper’s main proposals is to maintain an independent humanitarian unit in the integrated DFAT structure to make Australian aid more proactive than reactive when there’s a humanitarian crisis.

“The integration of Australia’s aid program with [DFAT] presents a timely opportunity to ensure that the Australian government is strongly able to respond to humanitarian crises,” Mark Purcell, ACFID executive director, told Devex.

Declining budget

The report further explains that through this “stand-alone” unit, humanitarian funding allocation would be ensured on the basis of need and “humanitarian programming decisions [would be] made in a neutral, impartial, and transparent manner,” apart from “effectively [monitoring] the quality of Australia’s humanitarian aid.”

Despite the uncertain direction of its foreign aid policy, Australia is still one of the world’s top donor for disaster and humanitarian assistance, and in 2012 was the tenth largest contributor worldwide with 3.4 percent of the funding.

But this may decrease significantly given Foreign Minister’s Julie Bishop’s January announcement of partial details of the aid cuts, that saw a 16 percent decline in the country’s humanitarian and emergency response appropriations to $137.4 million from $163.3 million the previous year.

It will be interesting to see if the Australian government will consider this recommendation anytime in the next few months, as the integration process of the now-defunct AusAID into DFAT is still ongoing and scheduled to be finalized by July, while specific details demanded by many employees and stakeholders — staffing, retained units, compensation, functions — remain quite vague at this point.

Other recommendations

Apart from the separate humanitarian division within DFAT, the NGOs outlined in the report other recommendations for the government to maintain Australia’s frontline role in regional disaster and humanitarian response.

• Facilitate regional consultations for humanitarian response scheduled in 2016.

• Adopt a more balanced approach to allocating aid through different (qualified and tested) implementing partners.

• Focus on innovation as a way to make informed choices and decisions when crises strike.

• Keep a certain financial threshold both in humanitarian funding (10 percent) and disaster risk reduction preparedness programs (3 percent).

 “While responding to crises will continue to be a critical need, efforts to support governments and communities to reduce further disaster risks are the best and most cost-effective form of defense,” Purcell said.

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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.