Making Australia’s humanitarian assistance fit for the future

AusAID staff unload emergency relief supplies. Photo by: Owen Martin / AusAID / CC BY

CANBERRA — A new report on Australia’s humanitarian program has recommended an increase in funding by $200 million Australian dollars ($136 million) and a rise in assistance where needed, not just within the Indo-Pacific.

But these recommendations are unlikely to be supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade according to James Gilling, DFAT’s newly appointed humanitarian coordinator.

“I find all of the recommendations to be sensible and plausible — in principle.”

— James Gilling, humanitarian coordinator, DFAT

Given the limitations of the budget, no changes will be expected, Gilling told Devex. “In other words, it is very likely to be constant.”

Precedents set in the budget would, he said, suggest that any new initiatives are likely to come at the expense of funds from elsewhere. But other areas of the report could provide a valuable set of insights for the humanitarian program to take on board to improve its impact.

The report, “Fit for the Future: Priorities for Australia’s Humanitarian Action,” was launched by the Australian Council for International Development on Feb. 17 as part of the 2020 Australasian AID Conference, providing recommendations from the ACFID Humanitarian Reference Group on how Australian assistance needs to change to adapt to increasing global need.

“In 2020, there are over 167.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance — this is one in every 45 people around the world,” said Marc Purcell, CEO of ACFID. “‘Fit for the Future’ is quite a pragmatic series of propositions, primarily to the Australian government, on how it might direct its policies and programs and to better assistance people in the greatest need, and also to support the commitments Australia made with other governments, United Nations agencies, and NGOs at the 2015 World Humanitarian Summit.”

Purcell said responding to humanitarian need will be an ongoing priority for ACFID as a partnership between its members and the government, as well as with the Australian public as donors to humanitarian responses. But he said that calls for an increase in funds and focus on Australia’s humanitarian program should not come at the expense of development expenditure.

“Increasing politicization of aid and stringent counter-terrorism measures is increasing the diversity of actors involved in humanitarian response, and making humanitarian action more contested and complex than ever before.”

— Megan Williams, senior humanitarian adviser, World Vision Australia

Improving Australian humanitarian assistance

It has been five years since the ACFID Humanitarian Reference Group last developed a humanitarian assistance policy report with recommendations to the Australian government — and a lot has changed since then, including the political landscape.

“Essential to the overall report is the call to maintain principles at the center of Australia’s overall humanitarian action and engagement,” said Megan Williams, senior humanitarian adviser at World Vision Australia. “Increasing politicization of aid and stringent counter-terrorism measures is increasing the diversity of actors involved in humanitarian response, and making humanitarian action more contested and complex than ever before.”

Programs, funding decisions, and overall structure must uphold and strengthen humanitarian principles, she said.

“Humanitarian decisions, especially related to funding allocations, must be made independently of other political, economic, or other military motivations,” Williams said.

With the changing political landscape, ACFID Humanitarian and Human Rights Advisor Jennifer Clancy said there needs to be a recognition that humanitarian action doesn’t happen in a silo. And this means a stronger commitment for Australian to take a whole of government approach to crises is required.

“This approach should assess the root causes, contributing factors and any enabling factors that might accentuate a crisis,” she said.

“In the report, we highlight the example of Australia’s support of military sales to Saudi Arabia, and other coalition forces involved in the conflict in Yemen while Australia also provides humanitarian assistance. Developing whole of government approaches to humanitarian crises would ensure its policies, engagement, and funding don’t work against one another,” Clancy said.

Recommendations also focus on ensuring policies on risk management such as counter-terrorism financing don’t undermine the ability of humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to those who need it — an area of increasing concern where policy prevents action.

Investing in multiyear responses to better support protracted crises has been a “consistent advocacy ask” among humanitarian organizations that will continue, Williams said they know the positive impacts having a long-term approach can have.

But the report also highlights the need for humanitarian assistance to increasingly work in preventing crisis — whether this is by natural hazard or violent conflict.

“The report recommends action to further embed disaster risk reduction across all Australian aid investment, and to review DFAT’s capabilities to support conflict prevention and reduction programs, with a view to scaling up Australia’s engagement and effect change,” Williams said.

DFAT’s response

DFAT’s Gilling said that in the humanitarian space, things are changing rapidly across the world — including in complexity and demand. Because of this, he said it was important to take a considered approach to understand the changing needs and interventions and determine how resources within DFAT can make an impact.

“I find all of the recommendations to be sensible and plausible — in principle,” he said.

But Gilling said acknowledging the benefits will not necessarily translate into policy action within DFAT.

“We all know one of the challenges we face is funding, and we all know the government has taken a decision on the size of funding it believes it can afford to see,” he said. “What that means is that we need to deliver the most cost-effective product that we most possibly can.”

Key to achieving that, Gilling believes, is stronger partnerships and stronger localization that “gets better results”. But he also said the work of the humanitarian sector is helping to make an impact on internal discussions to improve Australia’s humanitarian impact.

“There are areas where we are making progress, and some of that progress is happening as a result of the conversations they have been having with you,” he said.

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 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.