CANBERRA — A deep dive into International Aid Transparency Initiative data published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows how the Australian aid program is shifting programs to the COVID-19 response — which includes changing the the sectoral focus of existing programs.
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Previously, DFAT has stated that funds for COVID-19 programs are not new and have come from canceled or adjusted programming. The IATI data, extracted on July 19 and covering commitments and disbursements classified as development assistance until Dec. 31, details 40 coronavirus-related disbursements for 28 programs valued at 173.2 million Australian dollars ($123.6 million) made between Jan. 1 and June 30. This provides transparency on 62% of the AU$280 million that DFAT said has been diverted to the pandemic response.
COVID-19 control has emerged as a development assistance sectoral focus in the DFAT data, with a number of existing programs reclassified to include a proportion of spending in this space — including for some disbursements dating as far back as June 2014, demonstrating issues that will emerge in funding data as donors shift program objectives.
The largest disbursements have been for a COVID-19 Pacific support package, providing grants to East Timor and Pacific island countries. The package aims to provide assistance across three areas: outbreak preparedness and response, strengthening health institutions and systems, and economic impacts and recovery.
Under this program, AU$96 million has been disbursed, including AU$56.2 million to the Oceania region, AU$19.3 million to Papua New Guinea, AU$13 million to the Solomon Islands, and AU$7.5 million to East Timor. A total of AU$100 million was set aside for the financial year that ended on June 30.
Geographically, the Indo-Pacific region remains the focus of DFAT’s funding, with Southeast Asia and Afghanistan also hot spots that the Australian aid program is supporting. Pandemic response, health messaging, and economic stimulus are all priorities for DFAT, according to the data.
But the diversity of programs shows the challenges that are emerging in trying to hold back COVID-19 in these regions. Programs funded include AU$1 million for the Mekong subregion to strengthen checks and immigration borders in the hope of limiting the spread of the virus.
What is clear in the data is the importance of partnerships in delivering the Australian aid response to COVID-19 — with NGOs, civil society organizations, church groups, and multilateral institutions as key delivery partners.
Partnerships with NGOs, CSOs, and church groups
In delivering the Australian aid program, partnerships are an essential aspect of the model. NGOs funded through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program are considered among the best performing areas of the aid program — and they have been an important part of the coronavirus pivot.
As of June 30, AU$24.4 million was disbursed through the COVID-19 Pacific and East Timor preparedness and recovery NGO partnership, which aims to leverage existing NGO support in target countries. According to DFAT, the partnership will “provide multi-sectoral, flexible support, tailored to individual country contexts.” Programs related to health, social protection, gender-based violence, and water, sanitation, and hygiene are among those being supported.
Through this partnership, single disbursements have been made to Papua New Guinea at AU$6.5 million, East Timor at AU$4.9 million, the Solomon Islands at AU$3.4 million, Fiji at AU$2.9 million, Vanuatu at AU$2.9 million, Tuvalu at AU$229,000, and regional Oceania at AU$3.5 million.
While no specific NGO partners were listed in these disbursements, other programs provide insight into which partners DFAT considers critical in the COVID-19 response.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been identified by DFAT as an important delivery partner for the Asia-Pacific region. A AU$1.9 million disbursement was made for IFRC’s humanitarian assistance to the region.
Existing humanitarian partnerships, including the Australian Humanitarian Partnership — between DFAT and CARE, Caritas, Oxfam, Plan, Save the Children, and World Vision, with AU$50 million in funding to 2022 — have also been utilized in the response. The partnership received a disbursement of AU$500,000 to support East Timor in a flood response in March, with coronavirus preparedness as an objective of the assistance delivered.
In other areas, locally based NGOs and CSOs have been essential in targeting local and disadvantaged groups.
In Bangladesh, BRAC is the delivery partner of a AU$2.6 million program aimed at reducing the risk of COVID-19, including through food support and public awareness campaigns. To aid vulnerable children and youth, the Underprivileged Children's Educational Programs, a Bangladesh-based NGO, received AU$120,000. And in Myanmar, the Myanmar Health and Development Consortium received AU$500,000 to deliver ventilators and personal protective equipment to front-line workers.
Also critical has been the use of local community groups in the delivery of health and safety messages, supported by Australia’s Pacific Church Partnerships Program, a AU$2.1 million program invested over five years. To date, AU$13,000 has been disbursed for 2020 through the partnership for coronavirus-control activities in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Despite Australia’s warning that multilateral partnerships will be put under the microscope to determine their value to the aid program and the Indo-Pacific region, the IATI data shows their importance in Australian aid deliverables.
The Australian aid program has provided AU$5 million for UNICEF’s COVID-19 global response, with the Australian funding to be specifically provided to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Pacific island countries, and East Timor. A further AU$90,000 was disbursed to UNICEF as part of a program targeting children’s mental health in Mongolia as a result of restrictions imposed due to COVID-19.
AU$4.5 million was disbursed to the United Nations Population Fund for programs targeting sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The World Food Programme received AU$4.5 million in three disbursements for rapid food security assessments across the Pacific, the organization’s operations in Myanmar, and food security in Bangladesh.
UN Women received AU$3 million for phase three of the Women, Peace and Security Global Facility, which is expected to undertake interventions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Nations Refugee Agency received AU$2.5 million to scale up its coronavirus preparedness and response in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
And the United Nations Development Programme received AU$1 million as part of its response in Bangladesh for people and households affected by COVID-19, in addition to national and subnational capacities as part of the response.
In supporting the implementation, United Nations bodies are also important. AU$1.9 million disbursed for a Solomon Islands disaster management and climate resilience program, which includes requirements for preparing and responding to COVID-19 and other disasters, will utilize UNDP to provide “sustained technical disaster preparedness and response support.”
The humanitarian and health coronavirus response in Laos has seen Australia disburse AU$4.8 million, which includes support for U.N. partners on health, nutrition, and education programs. And U.N. partners are also critical in the delivery of AU$3.3 million disbursed for the program of humanitarian action in Afghanistan — of which an estimated 5.6% was geared toward COVID-19 control.
For the year to date, 19% of disbursements for the Australian aid coronavirus response have been directed through or delivered in partnership with multilateral institutions.
Shifting program priorities
While new programs have been developed to respond directly to needs related to COVID-19 in partner countries, existing programs are also seeing objectives shifted to incorporate the pandemic.
The initial investment concept for the AU$39 million Australia Indonesia Health Security Partnership was released in May 2018, but the program is now classified as 99.8% in support of coronavirus control and 0.2% in support of infectious disease control, according to funds disbursed on June 30 that delivered AU$6.2 million to Indonesia. The program aims to strengthen Indonesia’s ability to mitigate, detect, and respond to health emergencies posed by emerging infectious diseases.
But the reclassification of programs is also impacting commitments and disbursements that occurred prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program for humanitarian action in Afghanistan, in partnership with U.N. agencies, has seen AU$112.4 million in disbursements made since June 2014 — now all with a 5.6% sectoral focus on COVID-19.
Payments in 2017, 2018, and 2019 as part of a program to leverage Australian expertise to improve learning outcomes in the Indo-Pacific region now include coronavirus education in their description. And 18.1% of a program targeting the health sector in Kiribati is supporting COVID-19 control — not just for disbursements in 2020, but also in 2018 and 2019.
While this data is likely to be improved over time, these errors demonstrate the challenges that exist with wider development data and deciphering the true investments being made to respond to COVID-19.
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