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Naive Australia should dump grand governance aid goals

Howes_StephenSTEPHEN HOWES | Australian Financial Review

CANBERRA - In a recent opinion piece, former foreign minister Alexander Downer commends the opportunities now available to Pacific islanders to work in Australia. But, when he was minister, Downer publicly opposed the introduction of a Pacific farm labour program.

Instead, the Liberals gave rich-country backpackers generous visa incentives to work on farms, meaning that today, even though there is now a Pacific seasonal farm labour program, most of Australia's fruit is picked by the young people of distant rich countries, rather than the young people of our poor neighbours.

Downer viewed the Pacific too much through an aid lens. In his Financial Review article, he defends successive Australian governments against the accusation that they haven't taken the Pacific seriously enough by referring to our large Pacific aid programs.

But that has been precisely the problem. We have been too slow to promote integration with the Pacific through non-aid instruments.

Yes, AusAID was committed to the Pacific, but it carried little clout with the rest of government. From that perspective, the absorption of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been a huge positive, because DFAT has taken up the cause of the Pacific.

Having both more clout with the rest of government, and being more sceptical of the value of aid, DFAT has been more successful at introducing non-aid instruments for the Pacific. And of course now it can play the China card, which gets everyone's attention.

This, combined with strong ministerial championing, explains the recent progress on Pacific labour mobility, and, just in the last few weeks, visa simplification.

And what of our aid to the Pacific? Has it really been as well designed as Downer claims? The former foreign minister might have changed his tune on labour mobility (and on the Solomon Islands intervention he earlier publicly opposed and now defends), but he is nothing but consistent in his views on development and aid.

The two-part argument in his article – that "good governance is the key to economic development" and therefore that aid should focus on training – constitutes what could be called the Downerist approach to aid. The first argument is as orthodox as it is correct. But the second is as naive as it is wrong.

If training and advising (together, technical assistance) could fix problems of governance, the Pacific would be the best governed region in the world.

But poor governance is not due to an absence of skills. It has its roots in dysfunctional politics, like the way politicians get elected, and their tolerance for corruption. Aid is notoriously uninfluential when it comes to influencing domestic politics.

It is not just that technical assistance is so often a waste of aid. It can do actual harm. There is a workshop culture in the Pacific, with key officials so very often out of their office – often out of the country – on training programs or international gatherings. Aid, especially Australian aid, must take a large chunk of the blame for this.

The continuing focus of the aid program on fixing governance through technical assistance is as much part of Downer's legacy in the Pacific as is our slow and late start on Pacific labour mobility. "Governance" became the leading aid sector under Downer's reign.

To its credit, Labor gave greater prominence to education. But Bishop cut education hard and, for all her rhetoric about the private sector, restored governance to the dominant position it held under her Liberal predecessor.

An effective aid program needs to accept the uneasy truth that donors have little influence over what, as Downer correctly says, really matters for development: the strength of domestic institutions.

Of course, we should try to make a difference where we can, and no one would argue for a technical-assistance-free aid program. But, as a first approximation, we should do things that make sense given the current state of a recipient's institutions.

China doesn't always get it right, but one thing that makes its aid so attractive is precisely the pragmatism that it displays, which stands in stark contrast to the hubris we often show with our grand and patently unconvincing plans to strengthen institutions and crackdown on corruption.

Whatever one thinks of China's spreading influence, there is reason to hope that it is reducing Downer's residual influence on our Pacific and aid policy.

First, our desire to remain relevant is reducing the extent we view the Pacific through an aid prism rather than looking for alternative and more effective tools, such as labour mobility. And, second, the perception that China is winning the aid popularity contest may mean that we start taking a more pragmatic and less Downerist approach to our aid program.

Professor Stephen Howes is director of the Development Policy Centre at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy


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Martin Auld

"Educating PNG people in Australia is all very well but what happens when they return to a totally different mindset?"

They're often seen as a threat and don't get promotions.

Sometimes educating foreign students in Australia backfires badly. This Indonesian academic now establishing himself as a voice of military/security hawks is a product of Flinders University. Here he is on Manus, obviously pitching for a job -

"Responding to the steps of Uncle Sam's country, Indonesian Military and Defense Observer Muradi reminded the Indonesian government that this was not good news. Therefore, he also said that Indonesia must respond by building similar facilities in Papua."

"It has its roots in dysfunctional politics."

Both Mr Howes and the approach he criticises are faulty. Politics is determined by the cultural values held by politicians and those who elect them. No amount of aid will change primary cultural values, at best it can help to support individuals who are critical of and want to reform secondary values.

If there's a critical mass this could be done in a generation. But successful aid begins with individuals not institutions. If governing institutions are to promote values different to those held by the community, conflict will ensue.

Police are placed in situations where they have to enforce laws not accepted by communities and corruption, where none had existed previously, is inevitable.

The approach of the Catholic missionaries, who changed secondary cultural values with a whole of family approach that was inherited by successive generations has a far better record of success than Australian aid.

But then those missionaries were willing to live and die with their project. They were and are committed in a way that secular DFAT, Australian aid, and 21st century Australians are not.

Paul Oates

The nub of the issue is that it’s essential to decide on the objective before you start the journey. Not only does this methodology determine an objective approach, it also allows effective measurement of how far you have gone or have to go to achieve the stated objective. In other words, effective management.

Therein lies the rub of Australia’s aid program. What really is our overall objective and is it achievable?

In this I suspect I have been guilty as the next person in believing that one important aim was to achieve responsible and accountable government. Clearly, in order to receive aid money however, a recipient government merely has to give lip service to that aim in order to turn on the tap.

It’s a bit like a gap in translation or in fact a credibility gap. “Yes, yes, em gutpla tru’, the receiver can say knowing full well nothing will change. Afterall, if the donor is stupid enough to believe in an unobtainable objective, why would the recipient bother to argue?

Both can then be happy in the moment of agreement believing each understands the other.

Stephen Howes' article is a very timely reminder of the lesson that many of us, who worked at the kunai roots level, found out the hard way. What was agreed to and what happened were often two entirely different outcomes.

Educating PNG people in Australia is all very well but what happens when they return to a totally different mindset? Gross dissatisfaction is often the case since the locally accepted objective is often so different from the one that has been previously stated.

‘Strongim gavaman’ programs in PNG have floundered on the same stumbling block. The donor’s objective is different from that of the recipient.

So are aid programs not worth the effort? Wrong. The problem is in the design and implementation phases. Those who are designing the programs aren’t actually the ones responsible for their implementation. Clearly Canberra and a PNG village are poles apart.

How do you bridge that gap? Examine what has worked and what hasn’t.

The problem in that approach is that it could cause some embarrassment in high places in both the Pacific and Australia. So far, it’s just easier for Australia to boast about coughing up other people’s taxes and ignore the results or lack thereof.

It’s also far easier for the recipient to play the game and ignore the lack of results.

Hey! If it works for you, why try to fix it?

At least the Chinese are pragmatic enough to design potentially achievable aid programs.

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