After a long wait, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — which now oversees all foreign aid programs — finally released over a week ago the evaluation report on its controversial volunteer program, hounded by allegations of overspending, ineffectiveness and lack of support, among other issues.
The document, published along with an avalanche of other reports that were supposed to be ready some time last year, dismisses most of these claims and insists the program is doing good.
“The evaluation confirmed that [the Australian Volunteers for International Development program] is making an effective contribution to Australia and partner government development objectives … It is also an effective public diplomacy mechanism.”
Despite the program’s ability to add more visibility to the country’s aid efforts, “it comes at a modest cost relative to the annual budget.” Budget for the volunteer program in 2013-2014 is around AU$65 million, up by around AU$2 million from the previous year and representing around one percent of the overall aid budget.
For the core partners of the AVID program, this is a welcome development that reaffirms the effectiveness of the volunteer programs they handle. The AVID core partners include Australian Volunteers International, Austraining International and the Australian Red Cross.
“AVID is value for money,” Peter Britton, AVI executive manager for international services, told Devex.
Ashlee Chapman, spokesperson for Austraining International, noted that inquiries and questions regarding funding, operations and effectiveness of the program are normal given the “current political and economic climate” of Australia.
“This process is essential to manage the aid budget effectively and we therefore expect questions about expenditure on the volunteer program,” she explained. “DFAT and the core partners work together according to shared standards to ensure adequate support for volunteers before, during and after their placements and their safety throughout, while striving to be cost effective.”
Despite the generally rosy outlook of the evaluation report, some issues that question fundamental aspects of the volunteer program raised before still remain.
Among these is the government’s alleged overspending for Australian volunteers that, according to a local volunteer program previously funded by the state, defeats the purpose that volunteerism wants to achieve along with cost-efficiency and effectiveness.
Local reports claimed that on average, the AVID program spends almost $60,000 per volunteer per year — an “overboard” figure that poses the risk of losing the meaning of volunteerism in the process, according to Roger O’Halloran, executive director of Palms Australia.
“Sometimes, if you’re paying volunteers considerably more than we are, [not] similar to the way the country they live in, you actually do not get the type of relationship between the volunteer and the local community,” he told Devex.
O’Halloran’s deputy Brendan Joyce, in an earlier interview, added: “It is important that we are not implying [that] cheapest is the same as the best. However, we have received no indication from any source that the extra funding to AVID agencies is in any way increasing the volunteers’ effectiveness.”
Palms Australia was part of the now-defunct Pilot Volunteer Fund, that provided resources for the sending of volunteers in partner countries to provide diversity in the volunteer program and complement the operations of the core partners.
The other organizations included in the PVF are Challenge Australia (now called VOICE) and Engineers Without Borders. The fund, however, was abolished early last year despite its significance in the groups’ funding — including Palms — constituting about 75 percent to 80 percent of the organization’s expenses the past years.
Austraining, meanwhile, explained the difference in costs for volunteers, particularly with core partners, saying it is due to the different situations that volunteers may find themselves in including security and health protocols in host countries.
Notably, the report also revealed in its methodology that the information utilized in the study was gathered through existing data, literature, and survey of returned volunteers with fieldwork conducted in three countries: Cambodia, Vietnam and the Solomon Islands and 192 host organizations with a 49 percent response rate — despite the program’s operations in over 40 countries with almost 1200 host organizations. Whether the countries and organizations surveyed for the purpose of the evaluation serve as statistical representative of the entire program is thus unclear, along with other factors.
To improve the program, DFAT laid out 7 recommendations:
1. Consolidate the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program with the AVID program to avoid confusion and streamline the whole volunteer efforts.
2. Consolidate number of countries involved and explore options for managing and contracting for service provision.
3. Ensure more involvement in planning including funding, number of volunteers and host organization evaluation.
4. Implement formal support networks for volunteers and host organizations.
5. Refocus the AVID program to develop long-term capacity of host organizations.
6. Consult and seek expert advice and work together to market and promote the unified AVID program.
7. Develop and implement an effective performance-monitoring system.
“The program core partners look forward to working with DFAT closely on the redesign and introduction of any new systems,” Chapman concluded. “[We] are accountable to these standards, to DFAT and to the Australian public to provide the best possible level of management and to achieve the objectives outlined.”
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