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All things to all people: The report on Australia’s aid program

Oates PaulPAUL OATES

SOON after Australia’s election was called – and too late for it to be anything but an historical document – the Australian parliament released the Senate report on the delivery and effectiveness of Australia's bilateral aid program in Papua New Guinea.

You can read the full report here.

As I started to read this extensive document my eye was drawn to a sub paragraph that spoke of a matter near and dear to my heart: (g) establishing realistic performance benchmarks to assess aid outcomes against set targets and to improve accountability’.

That’s a point strangely familiar, I thought, very similar to the collective suggestions submitted to the Senate by Keith Jackson on behalf of PNG Attitude readers. There might actually be something in this report other than public service motherhood statements, so I read on.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Performance Report for PNG in 2014-15 provided an overview of the development challenges facing PNG:

Over three million people – or 40 per cent of the population – remain poor and/or face hardship:

- Malnutrition rates are high (45 per cent of children stunted and 14 per cent wasting).

- Around 80 per cent of the population reside in traditional rural and remote coastal communities and secure their livelihoods from subsistence farming, fishing and small-scale cash cropping.

- Life expectancy is only 62 years (compared with 60 years in 2005) and infant mortality is 47.3 per 1,000 live births (compared with 51.5 per 1,000 in 2005).

- Women and girls suffer unacceptably high death rates related to pregnancy and childbirth, and the majority experience sexual and family violence.

- It is estimated that around 15 per cent of the population has some form of disability.

Crumbs, I thought, those statistics seem to fly in the face of current statements by the PNG government and their PM.

A DFAT assessment of Australian aid noted that six out of seven program objectives in PNG in 2013-14 were classified as 'at risk'.

Then the news got even worse:

Mr Paul Flanagan's recent analysis has highlighted deep cuts to core development sectors: The 2015 [Final Budget Outcome] reveals that overall domestic expenditure reductions in 2015 amounted to 14.3%. However, the cuts in particular sectors are particularly worrying. The largest cuts were to health – an extraordinary within year cut of 37.1%. Infrastructure was cut by 36.0%, and Education by 30.3%. This pattern of cuts is the opposite of what the government claims are its priorities and the areas that would be protected. These are frightening figures for service delivery in PNG, as well as investment in human resources.

If those savage cuts to essential government services had occurred in Australia the government would have been tossed out on its ear.

Dr Karl Claxton and Mr Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) commented:  Australia is served by a stable, confident, active and prosperous PNG, given its proximity and location across our direct approaches; historical and personal bonds; consular responsibilities; our trade and investment links; and expectations we'd assist if Port Moresby requested our help.

However, Dr Claxton and Mr Jennings cautioned that as PNG population 'climbs toward 15 million in 2030 and up to 30 million by 2050' questions have been raised regarding whether a crisis in PNG could overwhelm the capacity of Australia to respond. They argued that 'anti-poverty and security-enhancing measures needn't be incompatible but rather overlap significantly in places like PNG.

Another observation made in the Report said:

Different delivery partners bring unique strengths and expertise to the provision of aid programs. The aid program must achieve a balance between supporting government, the private sector, multilateral institutions and civil society, so as to maximise the strengths of each sector and reflect its ability to achieve results and deliver sustainable development outcomes.

Yet later in the report it notes tellingly:

The committee was surprised by the fact that only four per cent of the Australian bilateral aid program to PNG is delivered by NGOs (compared to 58 per cent by commercial suppliers). The committee accepted the consistent evidence that NGOs often have the better reach into the most disadvantaged and isolated communities in PNG. The relatively small base of funding allocated to churches through the PNG Church Partnership Program also appears starkly at odds with the range of education and health services provided by church organisations and the cultural influence of churches in the lives of the ordinary people in PNG. The committee notes that the A Lost Decade report recommended that given the superior performance of church-run schools and health clinics, existing partnerships with church education and health service providers should be expanded.

In the view of the committee, a balanced Australia aid program should include increased support for the work of NGO partners in PNG.

Wow! That’s telling it. But predictably, Coffey International said:

…that in performing their roles in PNG '’advisers may require assistance to be "politically conscious" especially in environments of corruption and poor decision-making around spending public funds'. It had found that 'overt activity or reporting by advisers may jeopardise their position or compromise the trust of their PNG counterparts…

So is this a ‘given’ for advisors going to work in PNG? Apparently, this is a new idea and concept for some service providers, bureaucrats and commercial concerns. Technical assistance versus ‘conducive’ leadership.

Reading between the lines of bureaucratic ‘tokples’, it seems there may be some recognition that simple ‘technical advice’ may not be the way to go.

CARE Australia also noted that 'Australian aid program's approaches have largely relied on technical assistance, by placing advisers and Australian Government officials in PNG Government agencies in long-term positions'. It stated:  Technical assistance can effectively contribute to development outcomes, especially when advisers play a facilitative role and where there is strong local ownership and leadership. Sometimes, however, there is an overreliance on technical assistance at the expense of other more promising approaches.

A number of commentators have highlighted that expectations of what technical assistance can achieve are unrealistic, given that change is complex, slow and gradual and requires conducive leadership, incentives and political economy. Some have concerns that technical assistance sometimes promotes technical solutions that are not appropriate to the context.

Cracks have appeared in DFAT’s Strongim Gavaman program:

As a review of DFAT's Strongim Gavman Program found, there are also risks that technical assistance can undermine local capacity when advisers take a more capacity-substitution role.

Logically of course, those who have a vested interest in providing commercially available aid programs responded differently:

In contrast, Coffey International defended the value of technical advisers in the Australian aid program, noting a study from November 2014 found that 'counterparts, stakeholders and senior managers in the PNG Government commonly expressed views about, and reported instances of, the success of the (adviser) placements.

It (the Committee) recommended:  While it is important to adopt a range of practical and flexible aid modalities in PNG, technical assistance and advisory support is important for sustaining and improving the core functions of government. The Australian government should continue to fund such assistance as a complement to other support options.

Coffey International also observed:

A large number of advisers from Australian Government agencies work in PNG as part of the Strongim Gavman Program (SGP).

DFAT noted: 

The PNG Prime Minister announced plans to remove all foreign advisers by 31 December 2015. After that date, Prime Minister O'Neill indicated that all advisers would be recruited and employed directly by the Government of PNG…Australia currently has a total of 217 advisers deployed in PNG funded directly out of the aid budget, made up of 34 Strongim Gavman Program advisers, 110 contracted advisers and 73 Australian Federal Police personnel.  In preparation for these discussions DFAT is actively considering options for moving advisers to in-line roles, including through consultations with staff who have worked on previous aid adviser reviews and with academics, think tanks and other agencies.

There may be positive development benefits to shifting to inline advisory support in some contexts, and Australia will be discussing these in detail with the Government of PNG.

Mr Kimberley from DFAT told the committee:  We agree that it is important that PNG agencies have a greater role in managing advisory resources. We do, however, have concerns about the transition time frames that have been proposed. We have suggested to PNG that the transition period needs to be longer—something more like 1 July 2016.

So what about the stated aid object of: (g) establishing realistic performance benchmarks to assess aid outcomes against set targets and to improve accountability’, one could well ask?

A PNG national was quoted as saying:

We have had Australian development practitioners work with us in PNG. Their role is to provide support to our internal policy development process, strategic plans, targets etc. They merely facilitate. We decide whether to accept their advice or not. We set the agenda and have the final say as to what is good for us.

Australia’s national interest then was briefly discussed:

A significant recent change has been increasing development assistance by China to PNG. Research by the Lowy Institute's Dr Philippa Brant has shown that China’s aid to Papua New Guinea has become more significant in recent years. Over the period 2006 to 2014, cumulative Chinese aid to Papua New Guinea has totalled US$440.3 million, making China the second largest bilateral donor in PNG. To put this in perspective, Australian aid over the same period (on a cumulative basis) totalled approximately US$3 billion.

The Manus Island situation came up:

Dr Howes argued that 'Australia has lost leverage over the PNG aid program because of the Manus regional agreement relating to asylum seekers'. He cautioned: 'Australian leverage in relation to the aid program is important not because Australia knows best or should throw its weight around. But there is the risk that Australia will not say "no" when it should, and will end up taking responsibility in areas beyond its capability.'

Australia’s position as regards the Torres Strait:

Dr Butler from the CSIRO described the Torres Strait; Western Province, PNG; and Papua Province, Indonesia as 'probably one of the most complicated social or political areas of the world':  One of the big questions that is emerging is the rapid growth of both the population and the economy in Papua Province is placing enormous pressure on the communities on the New Guinean side of the border and therefore, by association, with Australia as well. At the moment the Torres Strait Treaty, being a bilateral treaty, does not really cope with a lot of those pressures that are coming from just a few kilometres away, literally, across the border.

The CSIRO stated:  Although Indonesia and PNG are connected by land, Australia has not succeeded in integrating Australia-PNG-Indonesia trilateral initiatives. This is of critical importance to Australia's northern border of the Torres Strait, where current arrangements under the PNG-Australia Torres Strait Treaty can only manage environmental, fisheries, health, biosecurity and border security issues relating to these two countries.

However, the PNG-Indonesia border also adjoins the Torres Strait, and the rapid development of Indonesia's Papua Province is driving new pressures on the border region, such as illegal trade, people movements, biosecurity and environmental impacts. Consequently, a tri-partite approach to managing the Torres Strait Western Province-Papua Province border may be necessary, supported by collaborative research and development to analyse trans-boundary issues and solutions.

The Torres Strait Treaty between PNG and Australia, signed in 1978, governs the sovereignty over the islands in the Torres Strait and establishes maritime boundaries, and seabed and fisheries jurisdiction lines.

The Gizra Tribe, located in the Western Province of PNG, argued that developmental issues for economic sustainability could be addressed through the Torres Strait Treaty. They held the belief that through the review of the Treaty 'bilateral aid to Western Province can be easily channelled through these arrangements without any interference from corrupt bureaucrats in Port Moresby'. The Gizra Tribe requested this matter be the subject of a separate parliamentary inquiry.’

ACFID's view that such a large and rapid shift in itself presents serious risks to the wellbeing of vulnerable groups in PNG. This is particularly the case given current issues with governance and institutions in PNG and the low levels of government service provision. ACFID emphasises that any transition that does occur must be appropriately staged in a manner that accounts for the current lack of government capacity, and be supported with strong and sustained investment in local capacity building and systems strengthening. Appropriate safeguards must also be put in place to ensure this transition does not pose a risk to the most vulnerable in the short or longer term.

The committee’s views and recommendations in summary overview:

Development assistance to PNG cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of Australia's aid program. The committee has previously identified a lack of strategic clarity in the Australia Government's approach to foreign aid. This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent changes to the funding to Australia's overseas aid programs.

Despite earlier bipartisan commitments to the goal of increasing Australia's overseas aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI, Australia's foreign aid budget has been the subject of substantial reductions. The 2015 OECD DAC assessment of overseas aid identified Australia as a country with one of the 'largest decreases recorded'. Australia's ODA/GNI ratio was 0.27 per cent in 2015, down from 0.31 per cent in 2014.

My reading of this report is the usual all things to all people and that a government of the day may well only accept the report and then bury it like so many others. But this report has appeared during a ‘caretaker’ government in the middle of a general election.

What chances are there it will ever get any traction or rubber of the road?

Comments

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Chips Mackellar

No chance at all, Paul, I would suggest. Thanks for your excellent summary. However, I would think that only an absolute disaster across the Torres Strait into Australia, like the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, a flood of refugees, illegal drug smuggling and so on, would prompt the Australian government to do anything more than what it is doing now.

Paul Oates

I have received the following answer to my query about what response the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had to this Report?

'The below statement may be attributed to a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:'

“The department welcomes public scrutiny of the Australian aid program and thanks the Committee for its work. We are considering the report's recommendations closely and will provide a detailed response in due course.”

Since the Report has taken the best part of a year to produce, perhaps we better be careful about how long we should expect hold our collective breath before launching a query about our queries.

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