In Canberra on Wednesday, Parliament House was a hive of activity with Senate Estimates, allowing the upper house to scrutinize government expenditure, examine operations of government, and push their key agendas.
For Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the Australian aid program was the top of her agenda with two new announcements — one of which has the potential to change the aid budget and the way aid programs are developed and monitored.
Using Australian aid to fight violent extremism
At the Australasian Aid Conference on Feb. 15, Bishop declared the importance of using the aid program to build a stable Indo-Pacific region free from political and economic turmoil. And as part of the strategy, she announced to the audience that countering violent extremism would become an important focus of the aid program moving forward.
On Wednesday, this new policy framework for the aid program was officially launched.
“The framework will ensure development assistance considers countering violent extremism in targeted and sensitive ways, including across education, civil society, governance, livelihoods, justice and the rule of law,” Bishop told media.
Read our Q&A with Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells:
Violent extremism, Bishop said, not only affects the ability to effectively deliver humanitarian and development assistance, but it impacts the economic and political stability of the Indo-Pacific region. And regional stability has been highlighted as an important focus of Australia’s aid program by both Bishop and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific
What is the policy framework?
The new policy framework, a document five pages in total, provides high-level guidance to assist the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its aid program partners in identifying and implementing actions within the aid program in support of the U.N. secretary-general's Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.
The new policy identifies an approach that can identify risk factors nationally (socio-economic and political trends), within groups (extreme religious or ethnic ideas) and at the individual level (psychological risks or individual susceptibility to becoming radicalized). The policy also acknowledges that currently, there is no consensus on factors or circumstances that lead to violent extremism.
Risks, strategies and monitoring will be different for all regions where the Australian aid program operates, but three key principles state: interventions should not risk workers or exacerbate extremism; programs to counter extremism should be based on robust analysis; and partners are an important part of the solutions, including nongovernmental organizations.
Response of the development sector
Australian NGOs recognize research showing that addressing issues of poverty and inequality can assist in reducing violent extremism at its roots and aligns closely with existing global development practices. But as to understanding its impact on the aid program and the role NGOs will play, it is a wait and see situation.
Nicole Breeze, director of policy and advocacy with UNICEF Australia, said despite a lack of content and detail, the policy was a positive development. “There is no detail yet on what implementing this looks like for Australia, but the minister clearly aligned yesterday [announcement] with the U.N.’s framework, which we feel is important,” she told Devex.
For UNICEF, the new policy will play a key role in protecting children who are at risk of extremism. “Children and young people are especially vulnerable to violent extremism when they do not have adequate social and economic protection,” Breeze explained. “Education is really important. What we see from UNICEF’s role with children and young people is that investment across the lifecycle — from child survival through to adolescence — is a key protective factor.”
And she has offered to work with DFAT to turn their brief document into programs that will deliver on countering violent extremism.
The impact of the policy on Australia’s aid program
A revision last year of rules from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on official development assistance, supported by Australia, makes non-coercive efforts to counter violent extremism eligible for inclusion.
The upcoming 2017-2018 Australian federal budget in May will see the impact of this changed reporting in detail — both in funding and programs.
But the document allows efforts to counter violent extremism to be part of every aspect of Australia’s aid program. Practical guidance provided by DFAT says that, as a core, it should be determined if countering violent extremism is relevant to programs within a country. Detailed analysis will follow on national key drivers of extremism. And possible programs to address the drivers can then be developed with monitoring and evaluation activities.
DFAT’s new policy shows countering violent extremism will be a requirement of all aid program assessments, but a range of questions still remain — including responsibility for developing and monitoring programs, its impacts on funding applications and program reporting, and the role of NGOs, researchers and the private sector in this policy.
And there are further questions on whether Australia’s ODA will increase with definition changes or if funding will shift from other programs or regions, potentially impacting on a range of other critical development outcomes.
It is a space Devex will be watching.
Humanitarian assistance for South Sudan and Somalia
In addition to the policy to counter violent extremism, Bishop announced new funding to help support the response efforts in South Sudan and Somalia following the declared famine.
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Australia will provide 20 million Australian dollars ($15.3 million) to assist more than 13 million people in South Sudan and Somalia who are suffering from critical food shortages caused by conflict and severe drought.
“Australia's assistance will provide emergency food and nutrition, health services, water and sanitation, and agricultural livelihoods support to vulnerable communities, particularly women and children,” Bishop told media. She said Australia would be working with partners including the World Food Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization and NGOs in responding to the crisis.
The announcement was met with strong support from Australia’s development sector, who said it would help ensure aid agencies can respond quickly to the unfolding crisis.
“It will assist us to scale up our nutritional centers where we are feeding children and their families who are suffering from severe, acute malnutrition in both Somalia and South Sudan,” Nichola Krey, the head of humanitarian response with Save the Children, explained to Devex. “What we are also seeing in Somalia is a cholera outbreak, so we have set up cholera treatment centers in Somalia as well on top of our famine response.”
The announcement of support to South Sudan and Somalia was in line with current Australian approaches to aid — the funding takes Australia’s humanitarian assistance in South Sudan and Somalia to more than 120 million Australian dollars ($91.8 million) since 2014.
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