The biggest challenges for Australasian aid

A view of the 2019 Australasia Aid Conference. Photo by: Sarah Meredith via Twitter

CANBERRA — The 2019 Australasian Aid Conference brought together researchers, think tanks, NGOs, the private sector and government in Canberra, Australia, over two days from Feb. 19-20, to debate new and emerging issues affecting aid in the region.

Facilitated by the Development Policy Centre and The Asia Foundation, Devex was on the ground to bring you the highlights.

DFAT’s direction

Senior and technical staff from Australia’s Department on Foreign Affairs and Trade were very visible throughout the two days, contributing to a variety of panels to explain the department’s direction. That included the opening address from DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson, who spoke on the future of Australian aid.

Adamson said ending poverty in the Indo-Pacific region was Australian aid’s primary objective. “The reason is simple,” Adamson said. “Reducing poverty helps create the region we want … and it is a proven basis for exceptionally effective relations with partner countries.”

To help DFAT achieve this, improving the governance of Australian aid is a key priority. In 2017, Adamson established an aid governance board which was instrumental in re-allocating the responsibilities of sections and staff, and she anticipated the board would continue to influence it over the coming year.

Maintaining expertise in the aid program is also a priority. The issue was highlighted in an independent review of the AusAID-DFAT merger released at the conference by consultant Richard Moore following consultation with 75 stakeholders, including current and former staff. Among the quarter of respondents who saw the merger as negative, Moore’s report said the deterioration of skills was the largest concern.

Adamson said DFAT is working on a range of strategies to acquire and maintain staff and promote opportunities working in development. Maintaining expertise would be important in supporting new government objectives, including the Pacific “step-up,” Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, and initiatives to increase health and security outcomes in the Indo-Pacific region.

Climate financing — an Australian perspective

Financing was an important part of the conversation and a session on climate finance in particular provided insights into the global work that has been undertaken to set the rule book on climate finance and transparency.

“We’ve just come from three years of fairly intensive negotiations of the Paris ‘rulebook’ which we concluded in December,” Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment Patrick Sucking, told the audience. “A big part of those negotiations was climate finance and developing countries wanting assurance that commitments were being met in regard to the $100-billion goal.”

With the negotiations finalized, he said donor countries were “on track” to deliver that target in climate financing by 2020 and every year after to 2025.

Sucking said the Australian government has committed to putting up 1 billion Australian dollars ($0.72 billion) to integrate climate finance across its aid program by 2020, saying they were almost two-thirds of the way there.

When questioned by Devex on the role Australia’s domestic politics may take in countering the impact of climate financing and initiatives in developing countries, he said Australia was well-respected internationally and its environmental reputation was one of their “strongest areas of soft power”.

On current projections that have Australia below its 2030 emissions goals, he said he was confident that would be turned around. But Sucking made no mention of Australia’s coal policies, federal government battles with state-based renewable energy targets, or the announcement on Monday of the extinction of a native Australian mammal which was linked to the impact of climate change — all of which suggest Australia could do better on climate action at home to support the neighbors they are investing in.

Preventing conflict

In 2018, the United Nations and World Bank collaborated to produce a report on the changing nature of violent conflict to better understand the causes and enable the global community to play a role in prevention rather than response. It has seen donors such as DFAT look inward to determine how they can better transition their operations to be proactive rather than reactive.

In a session on pathways to peace in Southeast Asia, Sakuntala Akmeemana, DFAT principal specialist with the Governance, Development, and Policy Division, explained the organization’s thinking.

The new approach requires an early and sustained focus on risk and a more integrated approach to ensure any type of political and economic exclusion is identified early, she explained. For organizations such as DFAT, the transition required a “genuine paradigm shift” — including investment when times are good, rather than only when they are bad.

Despite challenges, she said the AusAID-DFAT merger had given them an advantage in focusing development and foreign policy on preventative action. “A department that integrates foreign policy and development is better placed than most,” she said. “There are opportunities for DFAT here. There are also opportunities for DFAT to work more collaboratively with other donors to share intelligence on risk, conduct joint analyses scenario planning, and define and work toward collective outcomes.”

Evaluating the AusAID-DFAT merger

Concluding the two days of discussion was the release of the 2018 Australian Aid Stakeholder Survey. First conducted by the Development Policy Centre in 2013 when AusAID was still in existence, and then again in 2015, the survey provided an opportunity to see if Australian aid had overcome the teething issues and challenges of integration into the wider foreign affairs portfolio.

The results were improved, but only marginally. Overall, 66 percent of respondents thought the aid program was effective, up from 62 percent in 2015 but still down on 70 percent in 2013. And 17 percent thought it was improving, overwhelmingly down on the positivity of 78 percent in 2013.

Explaining the results, Development Policy Centre Research Fellow Terence Wood said new focuses such as aid for trade, facilities, and innovation had been viewed negatively by stakeholders. And the view from respondents that Australia is less about providing development assistance and more about self-interest also increased a negative overall perception.

“This is not the sort of change that is going to have an impact on staff continuity or the timeliness of decision-making, but it is the sort of change that is going to have a negative impact on aid policy,” he said.

The survey is expected to provoke more debate in Australia’s aid and development sector as it looks to a new phase of aid after the federal election later this year.

Update, Feb.21, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify that the survey released by the Development Policy Centre was the 2018 Australian Aid Stakeholder Survey.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex 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 news.com.au. 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.