Sounding off on the new Australian aid paradigm

The announcement made by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop about a new aid framework has garnered a lot of attention in the international development community. Photo by: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY

Last week, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced the country’s new foreign aid framework, which sets performance benchmarks for aid partners and highlights many of the current themes in global development, such as innovation and partnership with the private sector. Australian NGOs say they welcome the new policy but wonder about the ability of the Abbott government to implement it.

“Benchmarks to measure performance and focus on results are welcomed,” Plan Australia CEO Ian Wishart told Devex, “but we would point out that many of these result systems already exist in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, yet the ability of government to interpret and use them to adjust program and funding allocations has not been that evident in the past.”

Among Devex readers, Bishop’s announcement drew mixed opinions.

A few applauded it.

The decision represents a turning point in the history of development aid, with Australia making “a bold entrance into the aid environment in a rather unique way,” according to Charles Aheto-Tsegah. The direction the Australian development cooperation plans to go is now clearer, he added.

Others, like Elvira Beracochea, believed the move sets an example for other donors. She pointed to the high tolerance for projects that do not deliver promised outcomes.

“Contractors and grant recipients can make excuses for how things did not work out, but it is best to monitor regularly if activities are delivering the expected outputs and outcomes and find out what is not working and take corrective action,” Beracochea said.

She then listed three “cardinal questions” that contractors and grant recipients should ask themselves every month to be accountable for sustainable results: Is my project or organization improving the country’s programs and the delivery of health services? Does my project or organization report to the country’s information system, account for results and share lessons learned with all relevant stakeholders? Does my project or organization have an exit strategy to move on to another region or a higher level of work?

But Gary J. Andrews argued that much like recipients, donors play a huge role in the success and failure of development initiatives.

“With this theme of shared responsibility for good performance in mind, I would like to see an independent agency have responsibility for the external monitoring and evaluation of development assistance program performance rather than the donor itself,” Andrews said. “Only in this way will donor, recipient and contractor be equally and fairly held to account.”

Beracochea agreed that donors need to be accountable for designing projects that are not aligned with the recipient country’s needs, but stressed that contractors and grant recipients must realize they are responsible for what they promised they would deliver.

“We contractors must be professional enough to find ways to deliver in spite of these challenges and mitigate them,” she said. “Otherwise, what are we paid for?”

For Robert Letchford, the success of a development project hinges on three parties: the contractor, the beneficiary and the funding agency, all of which should be monitored and evaluated, but that’s not always done in a productive or systemic way.

Letchford thought the new Australian aid approach is interesting but could be perceived as being a bit simplistic, as many of the problems contractors face when implementing projects are political. He said a better approach would be to set targets for relevant governments and their departments which often request and sign up for projects but rarely does the Australian government hold them to account.

“The truth of the matter is aid and development is a complex business, not a simple one,” he said.

That’s true, Marianne Schumacher chimed in, calling development as “chaotic and not as linear as the log frames…tend to reflect.” She added that it’s “almost impossible” to prepare realistic five-year plans and budgets for grassroots organization and even national partner organizations and that outputs don’t necessarily lead to desired outcomes so “funders should stop financing numbers,” as well as suggested that it’s a challenge to spend time and effort to understand the “what” and “why” that happens on the ground before implementers offer their solutions.

Beracochea agreed with Schumacher’s view. She said there’s a need to better communicate, collaborate and coordinate on the ground.

“I have seen too much waste of resources due to duplication of efforts and lack of the three Cs. I believe it is our job as development expert to simplify (not easy job, though) how we works to ensure efficiency and lasting impact,” she said.

Some readers had more cautious views about the new Australian aid paradigm.

At this point, details on what the new policy actually means at the country, program or project levels are lacking, and the real question is how the benchmarks will be informed, said Tess Newton Cain.

“What we don't want to see is aid practitioners being constrained to do (or not do) things in order to comply with a benchmark rather than in order to progress a development outcome that is appropriate in a given context,” she wrote. “More concerning is the focus on short-term gains rather than longer-term goals. The former makes for nice reports, the latter is what's required to effect meaningful change.”

The reality, said a reader named Kino, is “there is no verifiable evidence on the extent to which development aid has improved the overall well-being of recipients,” because when pressed for results, implementers can only provide outputs — such as the number or percentage of people provided with support — not impact. Kino wondered then whether this new policy would be able address that challenge now.

For Diana Rose Cammack, the Australian government may be going in the wrong direction if the new policy would generate a more rigid development approach. And like others, she calls for more detail on the policy.

What do you think? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Currently based in New York City, Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.