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Coming to terms with ‘capacity’ constraints

A recent review of AusAID yields some telling insights into the organisation of Australia’s aid program. PAUL OATES presents the first of a series of articles on the review.

IT SEEMS that the engagement of overseas consultants and advisers in PNG is referred to as ‘capacity building’.

And how goes this euphemism? Well, according to a recent report on AusAID, “there are strong indications that the ‘capacity building through advisers’ model is not working."

The reasons for this situation (which exists despite the continuing expenditure of truly huge amounts of money) are given as:

absence of political and senior executive leadership

lack of genuine [my italics] political and managerial commitment to reform

absence of a clear strategy and unequivocal ownership [ownership a piece of jargon presumably used to connote ‘responsibility’]

poor levels of organisational leadership, capacity and knowledge

low levels of corporate knowledge within a declining knowledge base [an admission that managerial acumen is declining in PNG]

erosion of public sector values and capacities through the politicisation of the public service

poorly trained and experienced appointees to senior positions, especially at the head of agency level

disrespect for the rule of law among many politicians and senior public servants [a damning indictment]

limited enforceability of accountability and appropriate sanctions

political interference with due process [another damning indictment]

loss of institutional and process credibility

So after itemising this grim list of factors affecting the PNG public sector, what conclusions can be reached? The review quotes a statement from Kathy Whimp in 2009:

It is hard to see how the provision of advisers can help address any let alone solve all of these problems (to which we would add, absence of and rapid turnover in counterparts).

And another commentator put it:

Failure to hold others to account is one of the chief weaknesses of the PNG public sector. This reluctance is unlikely to be remedied with the application of a thin layer of capacity-building, and more likely will require fundamental evolution of the political system.

In such circumstances, it seems hard to imagine how any integrated program in the PNG public sector could be successful.

Local observers have been saying for some time that, if AusAID money is to achieve real gains, it must fund an entire program. Given what this must entail – there has to be responsibility and accountability - it seems unlikely the PNG government would comply.

Could a PNG branch of an Australian department (say Education or Health) be tasked as an outsourced provider to the PNG government?

That would enable an Australian Minister and Department Head to be responsible and to be held accountable for expenditure and achieving results.

‘Virtual office’ computer systems these days allow geographically remote office administration with personal visits as required.

If this proposal was accepted, the recruitment and management of operational staff would be administered by a responsible body that could be held accountable for the achievement of results.

After an agreed level of operational effectiveness and proven efficiency, this 'capacity rebuilding' could be progressively localised.

Let's face it, this proposal has a better chance of achieving results than anything tried by AusAID so far. It might actually get results at the kunai roots as well.

You can link to the Review here …


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It is good to have "capacity" but does the AusAID program have both the "capability" and the will and goal to build "PNG capability"?

Paul Oates

To sum up, the 2010 Review of AusAID essentially echoes the 2009 AusAID Annual Performance Report.

The conclusions drawn from both voluminous reports are that it is not possible to achieve or measure any results from
the nearly half a billion dollars worth of annual Australian aid given to PNG because the funds and efforts are jumbled up with PNG government programs.

PNG government programs that are essentially non productive, are not effectively monitored and achieve very little.

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