Australian NGOs: Mixed feelings on new foreign minister

Julie Bishop, Australia's minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, meets women in Sri Lanka. Nongovernmental organizations share their reactions to newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott's appointee. Photo by: Julie Bishop's website

A week after assuming office, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the rest of his cabinet are already shaking things up, trimming down the country’s bureaucracy to strengthen the federal budget.

One of Abbott’s first moves was to “integrate” official development assistance into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under Julie Bishop, following a previously announced AU$4.5 billion cut in the foreign aid budget.

The only woman in the government during the election campaign, Bishop pushed for more aid effectiveness and alignment with foreign policy. The latter point has become a serious concern for the development community, uncertain over whether Australia will prioritize national interest over humanitarian commitment.

AusAID’s integration into DFAT has thus prompted mixed reactions from local NGOs, just like what happened following the announcement of CIDA’s integration into Canada’s foreign affairs and trade department a few months ago.

Effectiveness and the Pacific

Bishop’s focus on program effectiveness and eye for evaluation and monitoring over the course of her political career is at least one hopeful reason to look forward to her leadership at the foreign ministry, according to World Vision Australia.

“[We] look forward to working with Julie Bishop. We hope that her focus on further increasing the effectiveness of Australian aid and her interest in effective monitoring and evaluation will further strengthen Australia’s aid program,” Garth Luke, World Vision Australia’s ODA chief, told Devex.

Under the last conservative government of John Howard, Bishop served as education minister in 2006. She implemented a performance-based salary scheme for public school teachers, underlining her stand on program effectiveness and efficiency.

The Australian Council for International Development, a leading think tank focused on foreign aid, also welcomed Bishop’s appointment, saying her planned initiatives can be a boost to Australia’s aid and foreign policy.

“We welcome a range of initiatives that Ms. Bishop will oversee. These include increased support for NGOs, as well as a focus on regional women’s leadership and the New Colombo Plan,” said ACFID executive director Marc Purcell.

The New Colombo Plan plans to send Australian students to partner universities in the Asia-Pacific region as part of the government’s people-to-people link to make Australians know more about Asia.

Asked about what will characterize Bishop’s leadership as foreign minister, Jenny Hayward-Jones of the Lowy Institute commented it will probably be the delivery of her promise in prioritizing the role of Australia as the Pacific’s “partner of choice” while engaging strategic ties with several key nations.

“I think Julie Bishop will focus her efforts on the Indo-Pacific region,” noted Hayward-Jones. “The new government will renew the focus of Australia’s relations with the United States, Japan, Indonesia, China and India.”

Aid for trade

Despite the positive sentiments toward Bishop’s appointment, other NGOs are worried about the new government’s push for “aid for trade,” characterizing aid in economic terms in giving developing countries financial assistance, so they can participate in trade activities.

This program, according to ActionAid Australia, will put more pressure on countries that need aid the most but do not have the capability to immediately engage in trade.

“Julie Bishop has indicated that she will promote an ‘aid for trade’ approach to Australia’s aid program in her time as minister, which concerns us greatly,” said Archie Law, the organization’s executive director. “The most vulnerable people in the poorest countries don’t participate in or benefit from international trade.”

Luke shared the same sentiment, pointing out that “there is a lack of evidence that aid programs can kick-start economic growth.” However, he gave leeway to the government to try the program out while adding aid effectiveness is what’s needed at the moment.

Andrew Buchanan of CARE Australia, on the other hand, noted aid for trade is an essential component in Australia’s development agenda, but reiterated that it is just a component and should not characterize the country’s whole ODA policy.

“[We] believe ‘aid for trade’ can assist countries improve the environment for the private sector and create more and better jobs. As a component of a well-developed aid strategy, this can be effective in reducing poverty,” said Buchanan.

Despite the uncertainty, aid for trade will unlikely completely take over AusAID programs, as development needs of several key partner countries remain to be “varied and require a multifaceted approach,” surmised Hayward-Jones of the Lowy Institute.

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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.