Performance of Australian aid: 6 key insights from the 2015-16 report

Relief supplies provided by Australia and UNICEF Pacific for communities in Tailevu, Fiji. Photo by: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

The newest cut of 303.3 million Australian dollars ($223.2 million) to Australia’s aid program, announced in the federal budget on May 9, adds to the growing difficulty of supporting and funding global development and humanitarian needs.

In the aftermath of the budget, Devex delved into the latest Performance of Australian Aid report, released the week prior to the budget, to assess the existing challenges facing the aid program.

The report, an assessment of Australia’s aid program by an independent evaluation committee, highlighted a range of program strengths as well as weaknesses that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade needs to address to make their aid program efficient, effective and responsive to the diverse needs of the people in development countries.

Here are six key takeaways.

1. The hardest target is the weakest link.

The report lists 10 key targets for the aid program to monitor and assess the aid program’s effectiveness. These include promoting prosperity, reducing poverty, private sector engagement, empowering women and girls, Indo-Pacific focus, delivering on commitments, working with the most effective partners, value for money, increasing consolidation and combatting corruption.

Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Centre, told the audience of the 2017 aid budget breakfast on May 10 that there had been criticism that the targets of the aid program were “soft” and changes had been recommended to drill better into the effectiveness of the aid program.

The recommendations from the report’s evaluation committee had not been implemented in this review. And this made it easy for all targets excluding one to receive positive status classifications of “achieved” or “on track.”

The sole target not achieved was the hardest target — the gender target. It gives the aid program a very difficult task of ensuring 80 percent of all aid program, investments, regardless of their objectives, effectively address gender issues. But it only just missed the target. For the 2015-16 financial year, the report said 78 percent of programs effectively met this target. It is anticipated that the 2016-17 financial year will have exceeded this target.

2) Programs targeting agriculture, fisheries and water need more support.

Despite making up just 8 percent of official development assistance funding for priority area investments, programs targeting agriculture, fisheries and water were more likely to struggle in achieving outcomes.

According to the report, Australia’s investments in the agriculture, fisheries and water priority “highlighted the need for strong improvements.” Aid quality checks for 2015-16 scored the area below the aid program average for all but one of the seven evaluation categories assessed against, with only monitoring and evaluation an area worthy of praise.

Only 70 percent of programs were deemed “effective” and 42 percent of were not effectively targeting gender equality.

More concerning was that programs targeting agriculture, fisheries and water were the highest performing investment area for aid in the previous year.

Education of program managers is a strategy DFAT are implementing to tackle the concerning drop in quality and effectiveness, and strategies to empower women in overcoming barriers to participation in the sector is being included in new investment designs.

But close monitoring, greater support and wider engagement to target new partners and ideas is required to ensure targets are improved and do not continue to slip.

Click here to view the new Devex interactive visualization of the Australian aid budget for 2017-18.

3) Wanted: partnerships with disabled peoples’ organizations.

Despite strong policies from DFAT targeting disability-inclusive development, the report demonstrated that the aid program was struggling to both address barriers and priorities to people with disability. Overall, only 60 percent of all aid programs in 2015-16 were satisfactorily meeting this aim.

Worse was the ability of the aid program to engage disabled peoples’ organizations in planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. For the overall aid program, only 53 percent of programs were rated satisfactory in this area. And three priority investment areas has less than half of programs properly engaging disabled peoples’ organizations — agriculture, fisheries and water (28 percent), infrastructure and trade (30 percent ) and effective governance (44 percent).

In the 2017 federal budget, disability maintained its level of funding of 12.9 million Australian dollars ($9.5 million). But to be effective across the aid program, greater investment could enable improved education and support for areas that were struggling to support disability inclusiveness.

4) Innovation has not been widely adopted in the aid program.

DFAT's innovation resource facility: What it means for Australian aid

InnovationXchange provides support for innovation across the Australian aid program and has launched a new resource to assist with its mandate of improving the impact and value for money of the Australian aid program: the Innovation Resource Facility. Devex discovers how it works and whether it can provide a more effective Australian aid program.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been vocal in encouraging the growth of innovation in the aid program, including establishing the InnovationXchange unit with DFAT to assist with this.

In the Performance of Australian Aid report, achievements for InnovationXchange were highlighted — including a range of external partnerships to improve approaches and delivery of aid. The United States Agency for International Development, Google and ConservationXlabs were amongst the range of new partners.

But internally, the implementation of innovating programming is still a struggle for the traditional arm of the aid program.

Overall, 63 percent of aid programs applied innovative programs. And only 48 percent were successful in applying new approaches to aid delivery that had not been used within a country or region.

Effective governance was the poorest performing investment area for innovative approaches, followed by education, building resilience and health.

The establishment of the DFAT’s new innovation resource facility aims to overcome these challenges by providing information, analysis and support to innovative approaches targeted at traditional aid staff.

5) The World Health Organization again shows itself to be an underperformer in the eyes of donors.

Following on from the Department for International Development’s review of multilateral development late last year rating the World Health Organization as “adequate” in organizational strength, they again received a less than stellar review by their Australian aid partners.

Results and impact, relevance and alignment, value for money, partnership behaviour and organizational governance were rated “adequate.” For organizational capacity, they were rated “less than adequate.”

It was the poorest review of the multilaterals assessed in the report.

The review identified “high global expectation of WHO’s role and performance, complexities of the Ebola outbreak, and resultant delays in progressing WHO’s reform agenda” as issues impacting their performance. But it noted that WHO had publicly acknowledged its shortcomings, and acceleration of reforms gave confidence in their future capacity.

But with the election for the new director general of WHO just around the corner, it is a timely reflection on external perceptions and where WHO needs to direct its attentions.

6) Strong performance and high funding are not necessarily linked.

In the 2017 federal budget, Papua New Guinea was easily the highest regional recipient of Australia’s aid program — it will receive 546.3 million Australian dollars ($402.6 million) from ODA in the coming year.

But the Performance of Aid report showed this funding was delivered despite being high risk and underperforming. Only two out of eight program areas were assessed as being “on track.” Inability to scale programs, governance programs not achieving intended outcomes and gender and disability falling well below expectations were reasons for the region’s poor performance.

Overall, it was a difficult region to work in to achieve effective aid programs.

At the aid budget breakfast, Howes suggested that cuts to the aid program since the 2012-13 budget have lost some of the better performing program impacting the overall effectiveness and quality of Australian aid. And the poor assessment of PNG raised the questions as to whether future budget should allocate greater funding to better performing regions, or risk the annual performance reports being simply a tick in the box of government administration.

For more information on the results of Australia’s 2017 federal budget on the aid program, engage with our new Tableau interactive.

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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 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.