'Right' performance benchmarks can improve Australian aid — contractor

A pallet of humanitarian relief supplies for Solomon Islands with the Australian AID logo. A new monitoring and evaluation scheme will soon be enforced to make Australian development programs more effective. Photo by: Tony Bransby / DFAT / CC BY

The new performance benchmarks soon to guide Australian aid efforts are going to affect all stakeholders — particularly traditional implementers like NGOs and private sector contractors.

For the latter, the reforms introduced by the Abbott government and announced on Wednesday by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop are an opportunity to not only engage private firms, but also make development work better in general, according to Mel Dunn, vice president for international development at URS Australia and also chair of IDC Australia, a representative body for private sector implementing partners to the aid program.

However, he cautioned that benchmarks need to be the correct performance standards and properly adapted to program, country and strategy realities on the ground.

“It’s about … finding the right benchmark … keeping it in check, and monitoring and making sure that everything is progressing toward achieving the described and set targets,” Dunn told Devex on Friday. “If they are the right benchmarks and are achieved, then this hopefully evidences that development is working.”

Bishop’s reforms, in his opinion, are generally positive “from the perspective that there is a willingness to engage new thinking” and to nurture “more mature partnership conversations” between all parts of the private sector and other aid stakeholders and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“It’s important that we recognize we’re all in this together, [that] we all want aid and development to work better,” he said. “None of us are the total solution, but together maybe we can make something better.”

Definitely, this is just the initial framework, and further details about how it will be implemented are expected.

“There’s a lot of thinking around that still that needs to be worked through,” noted the URS vice president of international development, who took part a few months ago in the Senate hearings that yielded a detailed report with a full list of recommendations on how to make Australian aid more effective, efficient and impactful without undermining humanitarian priorities.

He also commented that private sector implementers are looking forward to discussing with DFAT specifics on the performance benchmarks to understand how they impact their work.

“What you’ve got [now] is the overarching concept. More work needs to be done on … what are the particular targets and dimensions of the performance framework … at the country level, at the activity level, and this all feeds into the whole policy objective,” said Dunn, recalling how he suggested the government draw more on the experience of contractors to help guide aid strategies when he appeared before the Senate commission on foreign assistance.

In addition, he added, Bishop’s stated goal of achieving more value for money in Australian aid is a great opportunity for changing the nature of the debate over aid effectiveness within the country’s development community from the overall budget to how those funds can be leveraged.

“Often we’re not asking the right questions [and] the conversation takes us into the debate over how do we spend AU$5 billion, instead of how to make that [investment] work so much better for the industry and reduce poverty,” Dunn said.

Do you agree? Are you a private contractor working with Australian aid and have further suggestions to improve the effectiveness of the country’s development programs? Please let us know by leaving a comment below or sending an email to news@devex.com. Stay tuned for an upcoming Google Hangout with Dunn.

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About the author

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    Carlos Santamaria

    Carlos is a former associate editor for breaking news in Devex's Manila-based news team. He joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE ,and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York, and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.