Last man standing

8 April 2011

By James Brown, Military Associate, Lowy Institute

Michael Yon is a former US Special Forces soldier turned photographer/blogger who runs a highly influential blog simply named Michael Yon Online. His images of Southern Afghanistan are extraordinary and he has a long history of travel throughout the country – both with military and non-military groups.

His latest dispatch, Last Man Standing chronicles a journey he took in the last week through Uruzgan province. Michael travels from Tarin Kowt to the Chora valley with the Central Asia Development Group, an AusAid implementing partner. He discusses the difficulties in contracting in remote areas like Chora and singles out AusAID for mention.

 Men working with pick-axes and shovels provided by AusAID.

Yon’s post is essential reading for two reasons.

Firstly, he has been writing about Afghanistan for long enough to distil the issues in a single area very well.

Michael Yon: I asked the guy in the middle where he got the Aussie camo and he said he interprets for the Australians. “Are the Aussies good to work with?” Yes, he said, he likes them...."Do the Australians do good work?” He answered that the Aussies are great and do very good work.

Secondly, his images give an insight into the country like no other photographer. He creates a gigapan image in this post, automatically stitching 19 separate photos together, to create a panaoramic view of a single scene in which locals stare at a dead Taliban fighter left on the side of the road.

A haunting image and a timely reminder of the difficulty of delivering aid in Afghanistan as the spring thaw approaches.


All images are from Michael Yon Online Magazine and taken from his most recent dispatch 'Last Man Standing'.

Aid effectiveness for whom?

7 April 2011

By Marc Purcell, Executive Director of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID)

Civil society and development might be ‘the new black’ in development terms, but it was Alexis de Tocqueville in 1828 who:

 "...stressed volunteerism, community spirit and independent associational life as protections against the domination of society by the state, and indeed as a counterbalance which helped to keep the state accountable and effective…"

ACFID has asked the aid review panel to go back to first principles on this point. Development effectiveness should be judged from the perspective of the person and community we are seeking to benefit, and success measured against their capacity to claim their rights as citizens. The best way to see sustainable change in achieving rights and demanding better governance at the local level is through supporting local civil society.

Our key recommendation is that sustainable development is not possible without a strategic approach to the contribution and capacity of civil society as a development actor. The Government should adopt such an approach, and create an enabling environment for community-led aid, including in-country civil society organisations and Australian NGO partners, that focuses on respect for diversity, partnership, policy dialogue and predictable, long-term funding.

Australian aid is too heavily skewed towards one approach: bilateral aid
Without a clear framework for engaging civil society in Australia and in the countries where the aid program operates, aid will fail to achieve the results that the Australian public expect from it.

The Australian government’s current approach is weaker for not systematically incorporating civil society as an essential part of effective and sustainable development. The Australian aid program is heavily weighted towards bilateral relationships and working with national governments to reduce poverty primarily through technical inputs around capacity building of government agencies. Important as this is, such approaches are all too often weakened or bypassed by indigenous cultural, social and political dynamics which override and erode the effectiveness of Australian aid interventions. DFAT and AusAID’s own evaluations and country analyses point to these facts.

Why an active civil society is critical for sustainable development
Civil society harnesses the power of citizens to participate in decision-making processes that will affect them and demand governments fulfil (and are responsive to) their rights and needs. The role of civil society in supporting elements for the development process is undeniable, particularly by empowering citizens to demand their rights and hold governments to account.

Civil society organisations (CSOs), supported by the not-for-profit sector, are key agitators for positive change and contribute to social capital. Australia’s Productivity Commission (2010) highlights that the not-for-profit sector in Australia (over 600,000 organisations) promotes an active civil society and delivers essential services not undertaken by the government or the for-profit sector and contributes substantially to the value of the community.

In developing countries CSOs work in a variety of distinctive ways to improve the conditions of those living in poverty, including by striving for better governance and improved services for the poor and marginalised; by empowering citizens to demand their human rights and strengthening democratic processes, as well as fostering the ability of communities to hold their governments, aid agencies and private sector actors to account. For several decades it has been generally recognised in developed countries that governments are not capable alone of delivering all services to citizens, mediating interests, and ensuring sustainable economic human development and respect for human rights. So, for sustainable development to occur it is imperative that CSOs and NGOs are involved in AusAID program and policy development processes.

Part 2 of this blog will be published next week. 

Image by Flickr user Horia Varlan.

Small is beautiful, but big is sometimes better

6 April 2011

By Stephen Grenville AO, consultant on financial sector issues in East Asia and Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute

Who envies the task of the aid review panel? They have to make sense of an extraordinary cacophony of views and arguments.

Let’s take just one example, Garth Luke's recent blogs (part1, part2), Senior Researcher for World Vision. Cutting through what The Economist would call NGOish, the central argument seems to be that the aid program should seek out the poorest women in the world, ask them what they want in the way of ‘essential services’ and provide these in an accountable and transparent way which can be assessed in terms of ‘the number of lives saved, the number of children given access to school, the number of people with toilets’.

Garth says that one of the ‘big dangers’ for the program is that ‘it will focus too much on broad-based economic growth (which we don’t really know how to assist).’ 

This is a big call.

After all, the most stunning reversal of poverty is in China, which three decades ago changed from addressing specific problems directly in the way Garth suggests, to facilitating overall growth in general. Of course foreign aid can’t do much at the macro level (and certainly takes no credit for China). But there are other examples where it did play a pivotal role.

The ‘Berkeley Mafia’ can claim most of the credit in raising Indonesia’s growth rate from the 2-3 per cent typical of the Sukarno period to 6-7 percent under Soeharto. Compounding 6-7 per cent over thirty years did far more to alleviate poverty and provide essential services than any micro effort. It is difficult to dispute (or ignore) the enormous impact of the training these economists received thanks to the Ford Foundation program.

Of course this in not to argue against micro-level efforts to help specific groups and provide essential services. What is wrong here is the categorical rejection of the opportunities which come along, from time to time, to help with the bigger picture: growth provides the means to address poverty. This exclusive micro focus seems to fit the Mencken dictum:

‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong’.

Image by Flickr user tinou bao.

How to deliver a doubling aid program?

6 April 2011

By Associate Professor Matthew Clarke, Head of School, School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University

The current aid review provides an opportunity to consider a range of innovative delivery mechanisms that will assist in ensuring that the rapidly increasing Australian aid program is effective and inefficient. Whilst the real increase in the aid program is substantial, it is necessary to remember that the funds available will still not be sufficient to address the needs of the developing countries. In this sense, aid dollars will always be scarce. It is incumbent therefore on Australia (and other donors) to ensure these scarce resources are allocated efficiently.

Aid effectiveness literature has increasingly focused attention on 'absorptive capacity' which refers to the ability of recipient donors to efficiently utilise increased levels of aid. Within fragile states, absorptive capacity may be constrained for a number of reasons, including inefficient public policies, poorly functioning public institutions, low levels of economic growth, limited export opportunities, low levels of skills and education within the workforce, and (often) civil strife. Given that humanitarian needs will remain greater than that which can be addressed by increased aid, it is necessary that donors and recipients continue to focus on the efficiency of their aid programs.

While the humanitarian needs of fragile states are significant, donors must weigh the ability of recipient governments to transform aid into improved levels of well-being within these countries with other competing demands on their aid programs. The primary focus on issues that constrain absorptive capacity relate to inadequacies of the recipient government. While this is proper and appropriate, there remains scope for donors to seek innovative delivery mechanisms for increased aid budgets outside traditional delivery mechanisms to ease absorptive capacity constraints faced by fragile states.

The aid program of the Australian Government is planned to increase to 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015. This represents an almost doubling of aid in real terms over a five-year period. The majority of Australia’s aid program is delivered to the Asia Pacific region, including to a number of states that can be characterised as fragile. To ensure aid efficiency, it is necessary for Australia to address issues of absorptive capacity when working with these nations. In addition to addressing traditional weaknesses (listed above), the Australian Government can also assume additional responsibility by seeking innovative delivery mechanisms to ensure this aid is spent efficiently.

In addition to traditional delivery mechanisms – bilateral, multilateral – the Australian Government has more recently piloted small partnerships with churches in the Pacific (referred to here on this blog). The Church Partnership Program in PNG (and more recently Vanuatu) is premised on the realisation that in certain Pacific countries, the churches have existing, functioning and well regarded national networks and close links with local communities. Many churches have long histories of implementing a range of development activities focusing on a range of issues, including gender, sustainable livelihoods, employment training, education, health and microfinance. In this sense they are ideal partners for the delivery of effective aid. There are of course consequences for the churches and their communities from this influx of aid money and changing activities. However, AusAID is right to pursue this innovative delivery mechanism in partnership with the churches in this region as they have arguably been underutilised in the delivery of aid.

It is also unclear if this partnership could be extended to non-Christian religious faiths in other countries (such as Islamic nation-wide organisations in Australia’s largest aid receiving nation - Indonesia), and so whether it can be replicated outside of the Pacific. The aid review provides an opportunity for this innovative delivery mechanism to be more fully investigated and, if appropriate, rolled out to countries other than PNG and Vanuatu.

Image by Flickr user bigyahu.

Aid & development linkage

5 April 2011

By Danielle Cave, Editorial team, Interpreting the aid review

  • Interpreting the aid review will come to an end on Friday 15 April. We will be jam-packing the blog with a diverse range of great content over this final fortnight. We are always happy to accept last-minute pieces so get blogging before this unique and open avenue for discussion and debate on Australia’s aid program disappears.


  • This Guardian article urges aid agencies to begin listening to the people they’re helping. How? By eliciting feedback (polling, focus groups, social media tools) and then responding to it. (thanks Gobie)


  • Cynthia Banham easily convinces me that the independent aid review should be putting women at the centre of Australia’s aid strategy when the review is completed later this month. (thanks Susan)



  • Something I actually sourced myself, the Global Dashboard, a fantastic blog on development and emerging global issues, looks at the future of international aid. This ‘think’ blog piece raises some important questions for donors and it’s worth scrolling down and flicking over the comments.


  • Finally, a trailer for a new documentary about Internet usage in Indonesia (in Indonesian with English subtitles). The documentary is by ICT Watch, a NGO in Indonesia focused on Internet and technology issues (via @CSEASUCB)


China: The Pacific's new banker

5 April 2011

By Fergus Hanson, Director of Polling and Research Fellow, Lowy Institute

The Lowy Institute today launched the fourth in a series of reports on China's secretive aid program in the Pacific. China still refuses to report the details of its aid program, so we went to Pacific governments who provided us with the figures. The reports now cover the five year period from 2005 to 2009 and, absent official Chinese figures, provide the most detailed picture available of China's aid program.

Over this five year period some trends and patterns have emerged.

First, China is now one of the Pacific's largest aid donors, a position it has gained in a very short timeframe. However, it is still a considerable way behind the region's largest donor, Australia.

Second, China has now become a major lender to the region and probably needs to start giving greater consideration to the sustainability of the loans it is making to Pacific countries. Over the five years covered by these reports, China has pledged more than $US600 million in concessional loans to the Pacific. In the case of Tonga, loans from China are worth the equivalent of one third of its GDP.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with loaning money to Pacific countries, provided they go towards productive uses that will improve a country's capacity to repay them. But sometimes loans are used for less worthy projects. The Cook Islands took out a loan from China to build sporting facilities for the Mini Games only to have Standard and Poor's downgrade its credit rating, reportedly in part because of these loans.

Third, China appears to be somewhat responsive to requests to tweak its approach. China seems to be allowing Pacific workers to participate in building a few Chinese sponsored infrastructure projects and there were modest indications China is looking to improve the transparency of its aid (although a lot more needs to be done).

Fourth, diplomatic competition with Taiwan has been the primary driver of Chinese engagement in the region. With the election of President Ma in Taiwan and the ensuing (unofficial) diplomatic truce, the destabilising 'dollar diplomacy' that used to be the hallmark of both China and Taiwan's aid has eased. Concern about a return to diplomatic competition still looms large, but the truce has allowed China to pull back from its overblown support for the regime in Fiji and perhaps even begin to consider a broader approach in the Pacific. 

The full report, co-authored with Mary Fifita, is available from the Lowy Institute website.

Follow @FergusHanson and @MaryFifita

Photo by Flickr user Fab o lens.

Is there an Asian approach to development cooperation?

4 April 2011

By Anthea Mulakala, Country Representative in Malaysia and Regional Advisor Donor Relations, The Asia Foundation

Over the last several months, the Korea Development Institute (KDI) and The Asia Foundation have held dialogues on Asian approaches to development cooperation. The idea for the dialogues, which brings together development experts from Korea, China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, grew out of concern over the absence of perspectives from Asian development partners in the international discourse on aid effectiveness and aid architecture.

The Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Ghana in 2008 recognised the increasingly complex and crowded development cooperation arena of the 21st century. The Accra Agenda for Action advocates for a more inclusive approach to the diversity of actors, particularly those involved in South-South cooperation, and encourages them to adopt the Paris Principles. Countries like China, India, and even Malaysia have been engaged in South-South cooperation and technical assistance for decades, yet the global aid architecture is largely a product of the consensus among OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors (members listed here) around what aid is for, where it should be directed, and how it should be managed. For some rising Asian donors, this consensus is not always shared.

First, though often characterised as new or emerging donors, many of these countries have a long history of development cooperation that for many years has simply fallen under the radar of traditional aid frameworks. India, for example, has been providing technical assistance and training to third countries since 1964. China has been aiding Africa since the 1950s. Malaysia’s Technical Cooperation Programme has been in operation since 1980.

Second, these countries share the unique experience of being both aid recipients and aid donors, often simultaneously. This experience provides them with a unique understanding of other developing countries and has shaped the partnership philosophy and delivery of aid by these donors. In particular, these Asian countries emphasize the importance of country ownership, country-led development cooperation, and respecting the sovereignty of their partner countries with few conditionalities or strings attached. They view their approach as distinctly non-western and free from a colonial psyche.

Third, these countries wish to share their own success as an alternative path for developing countries. They place an emphasis on shared and sustained growth through infrastructure, trade, industry, and human resource development, as well as responsive and responsible governance. Since 1950, there have been only 13 economies that have grown at an average of 7 percent a year or more for 25 years or longer. Except for India, all of the Asian countries represented in the recent dialogues are in this group (Commission on Growth and Development 2008). Korea’s “developmental state” model used Official Development Assistance (ODA) to help transform the country from one of the poorest in the world to an Asian tiger. Similarly, Singapore’s investment in human resources transformed the natural resource-poor city state into an economic wonder in the two decades following its independence in 1965. As a result, training as capacity-building is a common type of bilateral assistance across these countries. All six development cooperation programs invest heavily in providing training and technical advice that draws on the experience of their own development success.  Importantly, however, they do not propose that that there is an Asian development “model.”

Fourth, development cooperation tends to be more explicitly tied to economic and foreign policy objectives with these Asian partners than it is with traditional donors, such as the UK, whose development agenda is clearly poverty focused. “Prosper thy neighbour” is a shared cooperation objective of these countries. Not surprisingly, the largest recipients of Indian assistance are Nepal and Bhutan. Thailand has concentrated its assistance on its neighbours as a tool for foreign policy and regional integration. Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, used the country’s technical cooperation program as a means of strengthening the collective self-reliance of southern countries as a counterweight to western influence. In the 1990s, China expanded its geographic focus and made an explicit choice to focus its aid on African countries, to promote both African development and mutual economic benefits. This multi-objective orientation has resulted in complex “aid management” in these countries. While Korea and Thailand have dedicated “aid” agencies, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and China do not. With or without dedicated agencies, cooperation is often managed through multiple government departments.


Getting with the program: AusAID and Innovation (part2)

1 April 2011

By Michael Hutak, Director of OLPC Oceania, the regional arm of the global non-profit, One Laptop per Child Foundation

Part 1 of this blog can be found here.

We know Australia’s development assistance focus on poverty is guided by the Millennium Development Goals. But Goal 8 – Develop a global partnership for development – appears to be the MDG that everyone thinks will just happen of its own accord. This is especially the case with MDG-8, Target F:

“In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications.”

If for no other reason than to contribute to this crucial MDG target, Australia needs to develop a substantial, coherent, and overarching digital strategy with respect to both the delivery of its programmes and the conduct of its activities and processes. In this endeavour, Australia is literally years behind organisations like the Pacific Islands Forum, which put in place its Pacific Regional Digital Strategy in 2006 and which is now up for review!

It’s not like there’s a shortage of local talent in this area already at hand within the Australian government. We’ve seen Prime Minister Gillard herself drive a Digital Education Revolution in our schools when she was education minister. We’ve seen ACT Senator Kate Lundy’s ground-breaking work in the last Parliament on Gov2.0, Open Data and Open Government, which has seen Australia acknowledged as a global leader on developing new thinking and practice on the interface of social media, the public sphere and better governance. Australia’s own Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy is forging world’s best practice on a daily basis both at home and abroad: next month it will sponsor a high-level UN conference in Bangkok on ICT Applications in the Asia Pacific. Where is AusAID in this space?

This is not to suggest that AusAID drops everything and starts handing out iPhones in developing countries. USAID Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah, may have called the mobile phone “the most powerful development tool we’ve ever seen,” however as Clay Shirky has famously argued, progress will be incremental and “environmental”, rather than instrumental. There is no one “killer app” which will deliver a more effective aid program for Australia, but before we can answer the question, ‘where will Australia lead?’, this is one area where we urgently need to start catching up.

If within five years AusAID could achieve something approaching parity with its peers in social media and technology innovation, in terms of policy development, technical capacity, and programme delivery, then it will have made a great leap forward on the status quo. It will have sandbagged the broader aid programme; played itself into collaborative participation in the booming ICT-for-development sector; built its own capacity to better collect, store, monitor, analyse and share data; and vouchsafed its own effectiveness via the institutional obligation to transparency, accountability and collaboration that accompanies the embrace of technological openness and “citizen-centric” services.

If the prospect of new investment in our aid program can be coupled with new thinking, then all of this is possible.

Image by Flickr user *christopher*.

Non-DAC donors & aid transparency

31 March 2011

By Kerry Smith, Programme Officer in the non-DAC donor government workstream, Development Initiatives.

The Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme (run by Development Initiatives) supports the aid transparency agenda and advocates for improved access to aid information. Without access to detailed, timely and transparent information it is impossible to say how much aid is being given, by whom, where it is going and when. An inability to answer these simple questions limits our potential to evaluate the impact of aid. There are many initiatives committed to making aid more transparent, such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). IATI, which currently has 18 signatories, aims to make information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand through the development of a standard.

Non-DAC donors, a group of donors that sits outside the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) member group, are often considered to provide limited aid information which is difficult to access; they are not subject to the same reporting obligations as the OECD DAC donors. However, a number of non-DAC donors do report to the OECD DAC and have done so for a number of years (see figure 1).

In recent years the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken significant steps to make its aid more visible. In 2008 it established the Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid (OCFA), an independent body whose role is to support the delivery and implementation of UAE’s development and humanitarian aid. OFCA’s primary task is to collect, analyse and report all aid flows from the UAE since 1971. In 2010 it reported its 2009 aid information to the OECD DAC  separately from the ‘Arab countries’ grouping and is the first non-DAC donor to report disaggregated data to the OECD DAC Creditor Reporting System (CRS). This means that a detailed breakdown of the UAE’s aid can now be analysed. For more details on the UAE’s aid flows see a recent blog, ‘The United Arab Emirates reports to the DAC: one step closer to aid information?’

Despite this, we do not have an accurate figure for the aid expenditure of many non-DAC donors, let alone detailed data on their humanitarian aid contributions. To fill the gaps we currently rely on the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service (FTS), a real-time database containing humanitarian aid data from a number of donors, including non-DACs. In 2009, 90 non-DAC donors reported their humanitarian aid information to this database.


Getting with the program: AusAID and Innovation

31 March 2011

By Michael Hutak, Director of OLPC Oceania, the regional arm of the global non-profit, One Laptop per Child Foundation

"Development is hard, it is risky, and some projects will fail. Sometimes it will fail because sometimes it will work.”

So former Secretary for International Development Assistance, now Australia’s Special Envoy to Africa, Bob McMullan, told the ANU’s recent Doubling Aid Conference. “The question (for the independent review),” Mr McMullan asked, “is where will Australia lead?"

This view does not excuse failure, rather it validates risk and recognises innovation as prerequisites for success. It underlines that risk and innovation are no less crucial to success in international development than in any other arena, essential to securing both sustainable human development outcomes and efficient, effective programme implementation.

But innovation has also become a catch-cry of the modern managerial mindset; a buzzword often applied to mask the absence of effective action or policy coherence. With an independent review underway, it is not surprising to see AusAID focus attention on its corporate commitment to innovation. The arrival of the “I” word in its public discourse indicates that even before the aid review has wrapped and reported, AusAID mindsets are undergoing gentle prodding, if not yet major alteration.

 AusAID’s NGO Innovations Fund is now in its second year of operation; a new strategic partnership with USAID was announced in 2010 which will “focus on agricultural research and innovation” and some modest forays into social media like Twitter and Youtube have finally been added to its corporate communications toolbox.

The patina is undeniably on message, but action still errs on the side of risk aversion.

Consider that the Innovations Fund is capped at a miserly AUD$1 million per annum, projects must not exceed budgets of AUD$150,000, and applications are restricted to those NGOs already accredited with AusAID. This focuses innovation outside AusAID itself, yet corrals it within its preferred network. Those innovating organisations still outside the loop must take their chances with AusAID’s normal, presumably “innovation-neutral”, funding channels. We would do better to emulate USAID’s recently established Development Innovation Ventures program which in 2010 delivered grants to “innovative partners without a previous history of USAID support”.

As for the baby steps into social media, Twitter (which turned 5 this week) is clearly still a riddle for AusAID, and we are still waiting for an official Facebook presence – which is rather telling considering 'the social network' is already clogged with content from AusAID’s partners, stakeholders, beneficiaries, regulators, and bilateral counterparts. From the most resource-starved NGO to global actors like the World Bank, DFID, USAID, UNICEF, UNDP - just about the entire global development and not-for-profit universe - has discovered Facebook. (For a benchmark, The Gates Foundation Facebook page is a masterclass in social media strategy and interactive design).

Still we’ve made a start, one might argue, better late than never, and after all we’re only bit players in the international system. But as former World Bank Vice-President Mark Baird told the Doubling Aid gathering:

"Australia will be the dominant bilateral donor in Indonesia within 5 years."

With national security frequently cited as the key driver of, for instance, Australia’s large investment in Indonesian schools, one would think getting a handle on the social media tools that Indonesian kids have been/are/will be using would be an urgent priority for Canberra. The World Bank reports that:

“Technological progress has lifted more than 10 percent of the world’s population out of poverty since 1990, making it the biggest driving force behind economic growth”.

While agencies like the World Bank rapidly scale up their engagement with information for communications technology (ICT) for development, we note in our submission to the review that Australia's contribution to global efforts on bridging the digital divide has been insufficient. We make the case that:

"From the perspectives of humanitarian aid, human development and human rights, contributing to global efforts to bridge the digital divide needs to become an urgent and central priority of Australia’s aid program."

Part 2 of this blog will be published next week. 

Images by Flickr users Asthma helper and cambodiaforkidsorg.

Using the military to deliver development assistance?

30 March 2011

By Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia

An article in The Australian this month revealed that $252 million of Australia’s aid budget was spent through the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan over the past four years. On its own, that figure may not be surprising, yet only $37 million of that went into actual projects such as schools, hospitals and wells.

The remaining $215 million was spent on additional costs that the Department of Defence describes as “ADF personnel, support and associated costs”.

Whether this was the most effective way to have used $252 million of Australia’s aid budget to deliver lasting benefits for the people of Afghanistan is an important question – but one that’s very difficult to answer as the ADF is not required to report or evaluate the impact of its aid projects.

When you also consider that between 2007 and 2009 more than half of Australia's official aid to Afghanistan was spent by the ADF, the need for this gap in accountability to be examined by the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness panel becomes self-evident.

This is not to suggest that all Australia's military-delivered aid is being implemented ineffectively. But if the primary objective becomes more about winning ‘hearts and minds’ than helping those most in need, then that risk looms large. Without adequate accountability there is no way of knowing whether that aid is working effectively.

Even more worrying is the risk that poorly conceived military programs can have the opposite outcome, turning beneficiaries and aid workers into targets for attack from insurgents and dangerously blurring the line between civilian and military activity.  These risks are explored further in a recent Oxfam report, Whose Aid is it Anyway?

The report acknowledges that the military can play an important role in the immediate aftermath of a humanitarian crisis, particularly through providing transport and creating a secure environment. But it maintains that relief agencies are best positioned to directly provide food, medical care and support for people caught up in disasters.

In our submission to the aid review, Oxfam argues that where aid is being delivered by the military, the military should be required to meet the same reporting and evaluation standards as other government departments that deliver aid.

Any review of the effectiveness of Australian government aid needs to evaluate the work of all departments that deliver aid, including the Department of Defence.

At a time when our aid budget is under increasing scrutiny, it becomes even more important that every dollar of Australia’s international aid contributes to real, positive and lasting impacts on the lives of people living in poverty. The aid review provides a unique opportunity to make this happen.

Image by Flickr user Aust Defence Force.

Aid scale-up: five critical steps (part 2)

29 March 2011

By Garth Luke, Senior Researcher, World Vision Australia

Part 1 of this blog can be found here.

3. Focus on the poorest and weakest

This means allocating our resources more in line with need and less in line with geographic distance from Australia. Australia’s first responsibility is to our closest neighbours, however that is not where our responsibilities end.

We need to guard against giving too much support to neighbours that already receive high or very high levels of per capita aid (i.e. the Pacific receives US$184 per capita on average in total aid) and giving too little to others that may have much bigger problems (India gets US$2 and Indonesia $5 per capita from all donor nations).

We can have an aid program that focuses mostly on our region while at the same time also assisting those most in need. Providing much more finance through effective multilateral agencies (at least 30% of our ODA to multilateral core contributions, and more in partnership arrangements) is a requirement to efficiently achieve this and also necessary if we are to further improve coordination and harmonisation of aid.

Focusing on the poorest within countries is also essential – our other key recommendations to provide essential services and to increase accountability to communities will help to ensure this.

4. Increase accountability to communities and partner countries
As several ODE reports (the Office of Development Effectiveness monitors the quality and evaluates the impact of the Australian aid program) have pointed out, AusAID needs to broaden its notion of risk management and focus on the risks for the poor as much as on fiduciary risk to the Australian Government. Accountability has to be to poor communities, partner governments and the Australian Government. Accountability to poor communities will involve much more active communication with communities and civil society in partner countries – something with which  Australian NGOs can help. 

As part of greater community accountability, gender equity must be given much greater focus – AusAID needs to lift its efforts for women even further and make sure that women not only benefit from the aid program but also are equal partners in shaping it. The aid program needs to actively support the needs and rights of women, and mechanisms need to be established within AusAID to ensure near-equal gender representation in planning, implementation and review of the program. The development discourse is currently dominated by male economists despite 70% of the poor being women.

5. Ensure coherence of development policy and greater international leadership by Australia
Aid is not the only way that Australia can support international development. To maximise Australia’s effectiveness as a development player it is critical to increase the coherence of government policy and to ensure whole of government support for development. The position of developing countries and their fortunes are shaped by a wide range of international arrangements in the areas of trade, environment and finance.

Australia is an influential middle-level power with significant respect from other nations and is a member of several important international bodies such as the G20, APEC, the Commonwealth and the East Asia Summit. We are also one of the leading donors to the Asia-Pacific. Australia is in a powerful position to promote greater international action on development and to encourage more effective coordinated action to reduce poverty and assist developing countries.

Important actions could include: encouraging full funding by all donor countries for effective multilateral aid bodies; supporting greater action to reduce international corruption and illicit financial flows; ensuring that intellectual property laws do not damage growth prospects for developing countries; providing opportunities for seasonal workers to work in Australia; making better use of Australia’s research infrastructure to address developing country needs.

There is a big risk that come 2015 we will look back and wonder just where all that extra money went. However, if the Australian Government and AusAID take these five steps then we will be able to say that Australian aid has made a large difference and that millions of people’s lives have been saved and improved by our efforts.

Image by Flickr user duncan.

Australian aid to West Asia

28 March 2011

By Anthony Bubalo, Program Director, West Asia, Lowy Institute

The Arab uprisings, the West’s military intervention in Libya and the activist role played by Foreign Minister Rudd on both issues have thrown Australia’s development aid to West Asia (the Middle East, Central and Southwest Asia) into sharper relief. 

Less than a decade ago, Australia gave a relatively small amount of aid to the region - some $9.9 million in 2001-02 on the Middle East and $4.5 million on Pakistan. According to the government’s budget estimate, in 2010-11 Australia’s aid to West Asia will have grown to $273.8 million (and that is not counting the recent announcement of $15 million for Libya).

There are two obvious explanations for this spectacular increase: Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan. Both account for the bulk of this assistance, although there has been a steady increase in aid to the Palestinian Authority as well.

It is fair to say that much of this growth has been contingent and reactive. We found ourselves, for foreign policy reasons, engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and our aid policy tagged along for the ride. 

Of course, a lot of foreign policy, and I suspect, a lot of overseas development policy, gets made this way. Nevertheless, we have gone from sending a nominal few million to West Asia, largely by writing cheques to the UN and NGOs, to spending more than 6 per cent of our total ODA budget.

This begs a couple of questions: is such spending justified in terms of our overall foreign and aid priorities? Is there a strategy or even some relatively coherent medium-term plan associated with it?

At the risk, indeed in the hope, of incurring howls of protest from the ‘we should be focusing on the Asia Pacific’ crowd, let me argue that, however we got to this level of aid, it is entirely justified by our interests in the region. In fact, I would argue we will probably need to spend more.

Foreign Minister Rudd has done a decent job at spelling out why this is the case. He is right to argue that the future socio-economic and political evolution of the Middle East (but I would also include Southwest Asia) will impact on everything from the price we pay for our petrol, to the terrorist threat we face, to refugee and people trafficking flows and to the pace of the global economic recovery. 

Australia is never going to be a decisive player in West Asia, but as a reasonably wealthy, fairly well-educated, technically capable, outward looking country we have the capacity and resources to make a meaningful contribution to the region’s development.

Indeed, the Middle East’s current political upheaval offers that possibility of transforming the West’s - and Australia’s - relationship with the Middle East. For much of its modern history the West's engagement has been a negative one. That is, we bomb, sanction and peacekeep, because of something that is going wrong in the region. Now, there is an opportunity for a positive engagement with the region based on something good that is happening in the region.

Take for example the West’s military intervention in Libya. It may have been necessary and right (even if I am not sure it is smart), but we will still cop flack for having double standards (when we don’t do the same or similar in other countries), or for killing civilians - and that’s even if the thing works. By contrast, if we support the democratic transition in Egypt with money and expertise we provide a more positive example of the West’s engagement in the region as well as having a greater impact on the region’s potential transformation than Ghaddafi’s removal will ever have (much as I would like to see that too).

As Rudd rightly notes, Australia has the added advantage that in supporting these transitions we do not carry the colonial baggage of other western countries in the region. We also have experience of supporting Indonesia’s not dissimilar political transition to draw on - particularly the role played there by the Australian Electoral Commission. All of this would seem fairly uncontroversial except for the fact that the suggestion that Australia has interests and a role in the Middle East has pretty consistently drawn everything from quiet to dismissal to open scorn from many of our foreign policy practitioners and observers.

This is hardly surprising given that most in this group have made their careers focused on the ‘Asia Pacific’. But it is also reflects the dearth of official thinking about where West Asia fits into our foreign, security and aid policy landscape.

Which brings me to the second question. By definition, the reactive and contingent nature of these aid disbursements means there is probably not much of a West Asian development strategy - but correct me if I am wrong.

This is understandable. It echoes what has happened on the military and foreign policy fronts, as our presence and engagement in West Asia over the last decade has developed so rapidly that there probably has not been a lot of time to catch our breath.

Nevertheless, as we look to the future, as we try to make some coherence out of this patchwork of programs, and as the Arab uprisings, in particular, make new calls on our aid budget and our stretched diplomatic resources, it is time we defined our aims and means in West Asia, including where they sit in our overall foreign, defence and aid priorities, not just for today, but in years to come. 

Image by Flickr user Oxfam International.

Aid & development linkage

25 March 2011

By Danielle Cave, Editorial team, Interpreting the Aid Review


  • With emerging and new donors littering the international aid architecture, the growth of China, Brazil and India changing the world's economic landscape, climate change, conflict and corruption potentially bringing on greater development fatigue, the rise of globetrotting celebrity campaigners, the onset of e-diplomacy and the push for greater donor transparency - what will aid look like in 2031?


  • News Limited took to Australia’s aid program this week with a string of articles attacking the program for $3.4million of fraud over a 7 year period (amounting to *0.017% of the program's budget over this time). It was good to see that this sparked a two-way dialogue on Australia’s aid program. As an engaged follower, I am craving a more informed and deeper discussion than what has been rolled out by News Limited papers so far.


  • A useful blog for Australia’s international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) – 10 pointers for meeting the challenges presented by a changing global context




* EDITOR'S NOTE: The originally stated figure of 0.17% was wrong. The figure is in fact 0.017% and has been rectified above (thanks Lisa)  

Flickr image by hiyori13.

Poverty in Numbers

25 March 2011

By Laurence Chandy, Fellow, Brookings Institution

How many poor people are there in the world today? The official answer to this question is 1.37 billion, based on the most recent estimate of the World Bank, the agency responsible for measuring global poverty and the established authority on this topic. The problem with this answer is that it is for the year 2005. In a period when developing economies are expanding rapidly and many are undergoing transformational change, enough to cause a clear shift in the global economic balance, 2005 feels like an awfully long time ago.

In a recent paper, my colleague Geoffrey Gertz and I attempt to provide a more satisfactory response to this question. By combining the most recent national survey data with the very latest estimates of private consumption growth, we are able to generate poverty figures that apply to the present.

The number we arrive at is a little less than 900 million. This means that between 2005 and 2010, the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion. Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history: never before have so many been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time. The prime target of the Millennium Development Goals – to halve the rate of global poverty by 2015 from its 1990 level – was likely achieved around three years ago. Somewhat ironically, the UN MDG Summit that took place last September was spent discussing the risks to progress against this goal, when it was the perfect occasion to celebrate the goal’s early accomplishment.

In contrast to previous periods, poverty rates are falling across all regions. The largest reduction by far is occurring in Asia – no surprises there – but our estimates for Africa are also encouraging, with the number of poor people on the continent falling for the first time since official records began.

Given such good news, it is tempting to ask how close we might be to realizing the ultimate goal in global development, emblazoned at the entrance to the World Bank’s headquarters: a world free of poverty. We aren’t so naïve as to attempt a direct answer to this question. Moreover, our research highlights at least one of the obstacles to achieving this goal given the rising share of the world’s poor that are accounted for by fragile states. These are countries where the prospects for development typically remain bleak and where there is little understanding of what can be done to help by outsiders.

Nevertheless, we do offer an answer of sorts. Building on the growing enthusiasm for cash transfer schemes as a tool for development, we believe that the notion of a global social safety net, one that could guarantee each person in the world a minimum income of $1.25 a day, is rapidly becoming feasible. There are two obvious constraints to this proposal: affordability and logistics. The affordability of a global safety net is improving as poverty diminishes and global aid flows (include private giving) rise. Based on poverty gap calculations, we estimate that the cost of a global social safety net in 2010 would have been $66 billion. That’s around half of global ODA flows, or a third of public and private aid together. Meanwhile, the recent introduction of cash transfer schemes in some of the world’s most difficult environments, making use of advances in identification technology such as fingerprint and iris scanning, demonstrates that logistical challenges may be surmountable too.

In 2005, G8 leaders met in Gleneagles and expressed their deepened resolve to see poverty eliminated. Six years later, that goal has moved a little closer to reality.

This blog post was first published here on the Development Policy Blog. The Australian National University, through the Development Policy Centre, is hosting a seminar on ‘Poverty in Numbers and Scaling up Aid’ on 28th March in Canberra. If you would like to attend, more details can be found here.

Aid scale-up: five critical steps (part 1)

24 March 2011

By Garth Luke, Senior Researcher, World Vision Australia

It’s great to see the debate on the Aid Review and the future of Australia’s overseas aid program and The Lowy Institute’s focus on this important area. It is also encouraging to see the considerable improvements that have been made to AusAID’s program in recent years.

For many of us who have worked for years to make a better and bigger aid program, the commitment to lift aid to 0.5% of national income offers great hope to help build a better world. The extra $4 billion dollars each year may be a relatively small amount in a global economy of $60 trillion, but if applied well it can make a very positive difference to tens of millions of people’s lives each year.

However, there are considerable risks that we won’t make maximum use of these additional funds. Given the history of the Australian aid program I think there are big dangers that:

  • Much of the extra money will not reach the poor, but will go to Western firms, consultants and well paid Australian military, police and academic employees;


  • It will add to the burden on developing country governments by failing to be sufficiently coordinated with other donors and harmonised with developing country systems;


  • It will damage the culture and communities of some countries by promoting inappropriate economic development models;


  • It will fail because of short-term and poorly informed strategies;


  • It will not provide a sustainable benefit for the poor because it fails to sufficiently include them in program planning, implementation and review;


  • It will focus too much on broad-based economic growth (which we don’t really know how to assist), while failing to ensure that essential services are provided for the poor.


Given these risks, World Vision has proposed in our final submission to the Aid Review five critical steps to maximise the benefits of Australia’s increased investment:

1. Increase openness and transparency of the aid program
Allow Australian civil society a real-time picture (as some other donors do) of where and how money is allocated in order to open up the program to greater constestability. The data is there it just needs to be made available.  Also allow developing country civil society  and target communities to be much more involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation of Australia’s aid programs to ensure that our efforts are well informed by local knowledge and really do focus on the greatest priorities of poor people.

2. Make access to essential services the foundation of the Australian aid program
The MDGs focus on the essentials and so should the Australian aid program. More...

Does Japan need your donation?

24 March 2011

By Laura Freschi, Associate Director, Development Research Institute, New York University and blogger on The Aid Watch blog

Many aid bloggers and journalists are doing a good job communicating a nuanced message about how to respond to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

From Stephanie Strom, writing in the New York Times:

The Japanese Red Cross…has said repeatedly since the day after the earthquake that it does not want or need outside assistance. But that has not stopped the American Red Cross from raising $34 million through Tuesday afternoon in the name of Japan’s disaster victims…

The Japanese government so far has accepted help from only 15 of the 102 countries that have volunteered aid, and from small teams with special expertise from a handful of nonprofit groups…

…[M]any of the groups raising money in Japan’s name are still uncertain to whom or to where the money will go…

Holden Karnofsky, a founder of GiveWell, a Web site that researches charities, said he was struck by how quickly many nonprofit groups had moved to create ads using keywords like “Japan,” “earthquake,” “disaster,” and “help” to improve the chances of their ads showing up on Google when the words were used in search queries.

“Charities are aggressively soliciting donations around this disaster, and I don’t believe these donations necessarily are going to be used for relief or recovery in Japan because they aren’t needed for that,” Mr. Karnofsky said. “The Japanese government has made it clear it has the resources it needs for this disaster.”

Robert Ottenhoff, president and chief executive of GuideStar, a Web site that provides charity tax forms and other resources for donors, said donors themselves were to blame for the fund-raising frenzy.

People who really want to support charitable organizations and good works, Mr. Ottenhoff said, should base it on a desire to support something they already understand and believe in. 

The Japanese are world-renowned experts in disaster preparedness, relief and recovery, and Japan is the third largest economy in the world. There should be no mistake that the Japanese government and Japanese organizations are well-equipped to take the lead.

Our best advice for people who feel moved to give by the tragedy in Japan: Give generously, in cash, to an organization that you trust, and don’t restrict your donation. This way, your charity can use the funds for Japan if it turns out they are needed. If not, then it is free to use your donation for another purpose, like the dozens of under-reported, large-scale disasters that CNN isn’t featuring today.

This blog post was first published here at The Aid Watch Blog on 17 March. The post was re-published with permission from the author.

Image by flickr user Dominic's pics.

Double the bang for your aid buck

23 March 2011

By Edward Rees, Country Director Timor-Leste, Peace Dividend Trust

The previous blog posting 'Focused Aid - Less is More' got me thinking. Why not get more value for the aid dollar - through changing aid spending habits?

The word procurement conjures up something which is deathly boring for most of us, but in the context of the international aid industry its actually terribly sexy.  Those of us who started Peace Dividend Trust some years ago have admittedly got something of the procurement 'bug'.

Reforming the aid industry's procurement practices means that we can in fact get double the bang for the buck and spend the development dollar twice.

In 2005, and in partnership with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, we started looking at the economic impact of peacekeeping missions around the world. An Australian was largely the brains behind the effort, and Australian taxpayer dollars paid for much of it. The pilot study occurred in Australia's back yard - Timor-Leste.

Many urban myths were confirmed and exploded by the study's results.

One of the most striking observations of the study was that the international community's aid response in the wake of disaster and conflict (but also in the context of longer-term development efforts), can act as engines for economic recovery. UN peace operations, UN Agencies, bi-lateral donors and implementing partners often have large budgets. However, much of these funds never arrive. Money spent "on" Timor-Leste, Afghanistan or Haiti, is rarely spent "in" these countries, or others like them. While much of this is structural, and to some extent unavoidable, simple decisions can maximise the impact of the aid dollar.

One way to maximise impact is to spend the development dollar twice - by using local businesses to provide goods and services to carry out development work. While aid funding can provide new schools, deliver essential services and assist in rebuilding infrastructure, the international community can simultaneously create jobs, generate revenue and build the domestic marketplace – all of which can contribute to long-term peace and stability.

Who has endorsed this approach? AusAID, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, Senior Advisory Group to the Secretary-General, United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNMIT & UNAMA), UK Department for International Development and Ministry of Defence, Pentagon and the US State Department, NATO, and President of Timor-Leste and Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta.

Why? Because local procurement is key:


Call for Pacific to have its say on Australian Aid

23 March 2011

By Jemima Garrett, Pacific Beat, Radio Australia, ABC  (@RAPacificBeat)

The Sydney-based Lowy Institute wants more contributions from people in the Pacific to its aid blog.

The blog was set up to promote public debate around Australia's aid program at a time when there are big changes afoot - not the least of which is a doubling of Australia's aid budget over the next 5 years.

To help guide the changes, the Australia government appointed an independent panel to review the aid program.

With just one month to go before the panel completes its review the Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward-Jones, says now is the time for the Pacific to get blogging.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Jenny Hayward Jones, Director of the Lowy Institute's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program

The full interview can be heard here.

Lowy lecture - Courting Reform: Indonesia’s Islamic Courts

22 March 2011

Western perceptions of Islam in Indonesia are often dominated by images of radical minorities seeking a shari’ah state. In reality, however, mainstream Islamic institutions have played an important part in the post-Soeharto process of democratisation and institutional reform. Among them are Indonesia’s Islamic courts, the Pengadilan Agama or Religious Courts.

In the first of the Lowy Institute’s Food for Thought Canberra lectures for this year, Cate Sumner and Tim Lindsey will discuss how the Indonesian Islamic courts have embraced reform within a judicial system notorious for corruption and incompetence, taking the lead in efforts to deliver decisions that are more accessible, transparent and fair, especially for women and the poor.

Indeed the courts have become models of socially oriented judicial reform, for both non-religious courts in Indonesia and also for Islamic courts elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Cate Sumner has worked for twenty years in the Middle East and Asia for international organisations and bilateral development agencies, focusing on access to justice, human rights and judicial reform. She is the author of a number of recent publications on the Indonesian Religious Courts focusing on access to these courts for women and the poor.

Tim Lindsey is Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Asian Law Centre in the Law School at the University of Melbourne. He is also Foundation Director of the Centre for Islamic Law and Society and has worked as Senior Technical Adviser to AusAID’s Indonesia Australia Legal Development Facility. He is a founding editor of The Australian Journal of Asian Law.

Cate and Tim are co-authors of the recent Lowy Institute Paper, Courting Reform: Indonesia’s Islamic Courts and justice for the poor.

Date: Wednesday, 30 March 2011
Time: 12:30pm for 12:45pm presentation – 1:45pm
Place: Canberra - Lecture Theatre 2, Ground Floor, Hedley Bull Centre (building 130), Corner of Liversidge and Garran Road, The Australian National University, Canberra (see map)

RSVP: Before 5.00pm on Friday, 25 March 2011 to

[Please note, a light sandwich lunch will be available]

The Lowy Institute would like to thank the Australia-China Council for their generous funding that has made this event possible.