DFAT announces new aid policy in response to COVID-19. But is anything different?

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Women wearing protective masks look on as they walk on a street after the government announced new cases of COVID-19 in Dili, East Timor. Photo by: Lirio da Fonseca / Reuters

CANBERRA — A new Australian aid policy document will be launched on May 29 by Marise Payne, Australian foreign minister, and Alex Hawke, minister for international development and the Pacific. Titled “Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response,” the new policy will see the aid program focus on health security as its key pillar.

“This pandemic has revealed critical gaps in global health security,” the document reads. “These need to be addressed in order to immediately respond to COVID-19 and prepare for the possibility of further waves of infections. They also require attention in order to ensure the world is better prepared to manage future disease outbreaks.”

But despite this recognition of the importance of health security and the diversity of challenges that exist — including the need to strengthen health care systems, vaccination coverage, and human, animal, and environmental health interaction — no additional budget is being allocated.

From the 2019-20 financial year budget totaling $4 billion Australian dollars ($2.6 billion), AU$280 million has been moved from elsewhere within the Australian aid budget from programs that can no longer continue or are seen as no longer relevant in the shadow of COVID-19 — this is 7% of the annual budget that has needed to be diverted in one business quarter.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, these changes have been made in partnership with recipient countries

“To mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in our region and to respond to requests from partner governments, Australia is working in partnership with Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to pivot our support to meet emergency health and medical needs and provide financial support, drawing on our existing aid program,” a spokesperson for the DFAT told Devex.

“Australia is providing separate support packages for Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and Timor-Leste.”

NGOs and civil society organizations in recipient countries have seen funds directed to assist them in delivering services, including in responding to increased cases of domestic violence. To date, DFAT said the largest package that has been developed was to assist PNG in managing its emerging health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic, and to continue essential services.

“This immediate funding will provide respite, as new funding is mobilized from the IMF [International Monetary Fund], ADB [Asian Development Bank], and World Bank,” the spokesperson said.

The Australian Volunteers program, scholarships programs, and sports for development programs are among the areas confirmed to have received cuts with other programs requiring person-to-person contact also seeing funds removed. DFAT is making no promises that these cut programs will ever be returned.

Australian aid’s new approach

The new aid policy provides no detail on how an aid program focused on response to and recovery from COVID-19 will operate, with limited information on how they will design programs and monitor effectiveness.

Instead, the document provides a strategy and vision: “A stable, prosperous, resilient Indo-Pacific in the wake of COVID-19.” The geographic focus will remain on the Indo-Pacific region with priority given to the Pacific, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia. The objective will be to “partner with the Indo-Pacific in responding to and recovering from COVID-19” to establish regional security and economic recovery that will also benefit Australia.

Health security, stability, and economic recovery will be the three main areas of action. But protecting vulnerable groups, including women, girls, and people living with disabilities, will remain a priority for all programs to ensure no one is left behind.

In delivering the new aid program, DFAT will seek to work smarter and engage partners better to stay within its existing budget allocation, and be responsive to the new restrictions that are in place. To achieve this, the aid program will look to be part of a wider whole-of-government approach to international engagement and support, be flexible and responsible, build effective partnerships, build interventions based on evidence, and seek new approaches and instruments — including funding which is yet to commence through the Australian Infrastructure Financing for the Pacific.

“AIFFP financing will be an important part of Australia’s longer term approach to supporting our Pacific neighbors and Timor-Leste, by funding critical infrastructure projects that will contribute to economic recovery in our region, and meet partner government priorities,” a spokesperson for DFAT said.

DFAT will also seek to be the “partner of choice” for the Indo-Pacific region in responding to and recovering from COVID-19.

COVID-19 development response plans will be developed for country and regional programs. Global programs will also be aligned with COVID-19 objectives through strategic partnership agreements with multilateral organizations. Reporting will include brief annual progress reports, periodic outcome-focused reports, investment monitoring reports, and periodic multilateral performance reports.

Responding to the new ‘policy’

On May 14, DFAT announced that they had officially put on hold the review for a new international development policy, originally announced in December 2019. The new policy was largely communicated by Hawke in February, but soon after DFAT realized that COVID-19 would require the aid program to make fundamental changes to the way it was delivered. The Australian international NGO sector was informed that a new policy was being developed in-house, with limited consultation.

The Australian Council for International Development sought to express the sector’s ideas where they could by engaging with DFAT staff and ministers where possible. Marc Purcell, CEO at ACFID, said that the resulting document was welcomed by the sector as providing a roadmap ahead to “tackle COVID-19 and protect vulnerable people.”

“This is a once-in-a century threat to health and livelihoods,” he said. “Domestically, the [Australian] government has rightfully pulled out all the stops in responding to COVID-19. Our response into the region needs to be the same.”

Purcell welcomed the focus in the report on protecting the vulnerable, the need to address climate change, inclusive growth and addressing the specific needs of women and girls as part of the new strategy. But he was concerned that the existing financial resources were not enough to deliver on the aims of the strategy, especially considering past natural disasters such as the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia has seen additional funds injected into the aid program.

“As the government concedes, the scale of the COVID-19 crisis will ‘dwarf the resources we have available,’” Purcell said. “To date, the government has only drawn on the existing development cooperation budget and has repurposed existing programs in its response.”

A new, one-off AU$2 billion injection over four years was suggested by Purcell, as the funds required to deliver programs effectively to the Indo-Pacific region. And ACFID will continue to advocate for a larger aid budget to deliver on the new policy objectives in the next Australian federal budget, expected in October.

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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.