How to Hijack an Aid Program and other musings..

The summary: this post is an attempt sketch out some thoughts and observations on recent changes to Australia's aid program. There are also some observations on how education is being recast as a form of 'soft power' under the new government. This post also focuses on how these changes bring forward concerns for disaster relief work and aid effectiveness, particularly when these rub up against military, diplomatic and trade concerns. 

I have been following developments in Australia since the recent election. The outcome was not surprising and the swing towards the right in politics was expected. It seems like a return to a very familiar theme in Australian public life, with the interests of powerful groups such as the mining lobby in Australia very prominent. That observation is better illustrated by this nice visualisation (created by the University of Harvard) showing in proportional terms what is produced and exported in Australia. 

One of the Australian government's most alarming recent announcements amounts to it 'shelving' its aid programme in its current form, attempting to shrink it into a smaller box as this interview with Peter Varghese from DFAT shows. In fact both the Canadian and Australian aid programs have gone through radical 'restructuring' after electoral wins for their respective conservative parties. So this is in not an isolated incident. It marks a dramatic change in direction, as Labour had the exact opposite approach. Effectively AusAID has been growing on a trajectory to expand its staffing and in-house expertise significantly over the last few years.

The new Australian government has generally appeared critical of aspects of the aid program. Criticism ranges from accusations about links with the Australian Labour Party and grants to Labour MP's and also the growing costs of the Australian Volunteers for International Development program. However, in general AusAID has been the traditional target of a huge amount of bad coverage from the conservative press (essentially Murdoch's business empire) for many years now.

Although AusAID has always been run under DFAT, its independence seems to have often been a target for those seeking to challenge the left in political discourse. The current changes are not a new dynamic as Jack Corbett and Sinclair Dinnen point out, it is more like 'back to the future'. AusAID's legitimacy has often been questioned in the press and it effectiveness has been held under scrutiny consistently. All of this despite the fact that AusAID has taken aid effectiveness seriously as an integral part of its business. Some might even suggest that it has been an easy target. Due to its specific expertise, managing such a lot with a small footprint and because of its high profile it may be easier to cast it as the outlier and something of a 'tall poppy' in Australian public service. 

The top issues used for making quick political ground in the populist arena often tend to be ones that people may not understand well but have instinctive and irrational reactions to. For example refugee and asylum issues were a top issue in Australia during the last elections. This post is not focusing on this, but if you want a breakdown of the more recent facts on these issues then check here. Here's a comparison between a small European country like Austria and Australia on this. Suffice to say that the controversy on this issue does not really seem justified by a glance at the figures at least.

Aid effectiveness has also featured as a topic for controversy in the news and in political debate in Australia in the past. It seems to have become something of a mantra in for AusAID in recent years. It is a few years since the OECD formulated the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness in 2005 providing a framework for aid and overseas foreign assistance to become a much clearer two way collaborative process, highlighting the shared responsabilities of recipients and donors and the need for greater transparency. The Paris Declaration aid effectiveness framework gathered 56 partnership commitments around five clear principles to build a coherent movement to improve overseas aid and development work highlighting specific virtues of greater country ownership, alignment, harmonisation, managing for results and mutual accountability. Australia and Canada's bilateral programs have consistently been monitored from the aid effectiveness perspective. It may even be that these recent changes to their programs even suggest a limit to how far certain 'screws can be tightened', or at least a problem in terms of traction for an agenda for aid effectiveness. For a much more in depth analysis of this question, see Dinuk Jayasuriya here.

The Paris Declaration was also borne out of criticisms after the 2004 Tsunami relief efforts that suggested that  donors needed to coordinate and improve their fragmented humanitarian aid during short-term disasters. This is only part of it, but this agenda had a positive impact on bilateral programs such as Australia's. It seems to have pushed government towards thinking more carefully about cooperation and country ownership particularly. AusAID has often had little choice but to run its large projects through large Australian contractors and in the past was the country for which the expression 'boomerang aid' was first coined. It was a policy of past government to demonstrate the extent through which its aid programs were geared to benefit companies resident on Australian soil.

The Paris Declaration encouraged countries to think clearly about gearing projects to make them proportionally more demand driven and to make them better fit the priorities of those that were meant to benefit from them rather than fitting the priorities of those supplying aid in different contexts. More critical discussion and academic understanding would focus much more attention to the reasons for this, and would certainly question any kind of simplistic overview of this kind. But I think it is fair to say that the Paris Declaration and the movement behind it did encourage donors to think more about supporting wider shared sector interventions and to form broader forms of alignment through partnerships in different countries. 

The aid effectiveness agenda appears to have had a positive impact on how AusAID carries out its work. Due to its independence and strong stance on effectiveness AusAID may have been able to act as an intermediary and effective negotiator within expert groups and between agencies and countries more easily. AusAID has also moved to re-organise aspects of its programs to use in-country systems more comprehensively. In recent years for example AusAID's Indonesian school building program has been delivered by in-country contractors with expert oversight and management from Australian contractors rather than running the whole project through them. These are arguably good changes to the bilateral model that Australia had traditionally embodied.

Although bringing AusAID further within the scope of DFAT's mission may have other comparative advantages in terms of generating closer ties across government priorities, there are also likely dangers. The boundaries between aid and development, trade, military and diplomatic prerogatives have increasingly been pushed aside by leaders keen to bring together the missions that they see for their countries in the world. David Cameron in the UK for example is quite explicit in presenting his vision of the UK's foreign embassies as 'showrooms' for UK trade interests and has consistently pushed for the missions of security and aid and development to be more complementary. It may be due to cost savings, but it is also clear that the conservatives have tended to present diplomacy
in a fairly mercantilist fashion. as a legitimate channel for other means. For a closer look at how Julie Bishop as the new Minister for the Liberal party in government is linking these missions together, attempting to refashion their different relationships, see Benjamin Day's insightful post on 'what is unsaid in Australia's economic diplomacy' here.

The two simple problems that jump out are these. The first is that too often the attempts to re-brand aid as 'something else' or to re-brand something else as 'aid' seem to be too focused on taking account of the 'big picture' changes but are driven by immediate short-term (often political or cost saving) considerations. The case in Australia may be one of political perogatives making policy to some extent by default but it certainly seems to have been done without their being a great deal of planning over a short time-span. It may suit the government to shelve AusAID in its current form, it will free up budgetary resources and could even bring with it some strategic positives as well as some negatives. But what is most likely to be acheived by this is mostly will be a lot of disruption in the short-term. The long-term benefits are actually not at all clear.

The second that jumps out implictly is the same problem that led to clear objective principles on effectiveness being set forward in the first place. There is a distinct danger of other priorities overwhelming the focus on these clear principles particularly in the case of large disaster operations such as the one taking place in the Philippines. By bringing aid and overseas development, poverty reduction and humanitarian missions under the flag of other missions you are shrinking the space for which these set clear agendas for themselves.

Leaving aside the clear example of bringing humanitarian workers to be seen working alongside an armed force in a conflict zone, there are also very clear problems with linking aid and development missions too closely with diplomatic or military ones. Recently due to leaked information (via Edward Snowden) authorities have alerted the Indonesian leaders to the fact that Australia and the US have been actively spying on their activities, by recording phone calls and using the Australian embassy explicitly for this purpose in Jakarta.

This is probably not a huge surprise to the Indonesian authorities. The US and Australia have always been open about clear strategic interests in Indonesia. Since a
special relationship was fostered to contain communism during the cold war, it has switched to containing Islamic radicalism and people smuggling. But the logic of containment is still present. It is unlikely to shock President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who has been part of a ruling group of those who inherited close ties with the US after the fall of Suharto many years ago. Certainly the Indonesian authorities have never been at all naive about the role played by the Australian Federal Police in working with them to fight certain forms of people smuggling particularly. But to tarnish with one brush all the work that the Australian government is responsible for in this country and throughout Asia like this is extremely damaging.

Tony Abbott has refused to apologise, which is an extremely strange and undiplomatic thing to do if you know how important losing face is within Indonesian society. Consequently, the Indonesian authorties have withdrawn their own diplomatic representative from Australia. Indonesia seems to be sending a very clear message to Australia about how it sees any future partnership working between them. However, it seems that Australia is not listening. 

In response it is not exactly quite as clear how Tony or indeed his party does see Australia working constructively alongside its most powerful neighbour through diplomatic or other channels such as trade. There are many broad statements about mutual interests, trade, people smuggling and defence concerns. Indonesia is one of many South-East Asian countries within ASEAN that Australia sees itself as having an important relationship with. This significantly has determined how it spends its aid money in the region, but it remains to be seen how shrinking AusAID at this current time could bring about any positive outcomes in this relationship. 

In some ways Indonesia might not be the partner it once was - quite possibly it sees itself as a much more powerful and significant player in a number of ways. It in now both a more active aid donor as well as being a recipient of aid, recently giving a 2 million in aid to assist the Phillipines to match Australia's 10 million pledge. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has played a very prominent role as a statesman on the global stage within the discussions of the High Level Panel on commitments for the future for aid and development. Indonesia has also shown its commitment to multilateralism though donations to agencies such as UNESCO and in short clearly sees its own as a key role within the ASEAN region. It is a growing economy that has an expanding internal market with expectations driven by middle class consumers, with a fast growth in car ownership and also a rising demand for things like private schooling and tertiary education in urban areas. For more detail here is a detailed report from McKinsey on this.

The relevant point here is that Indonesia takes its role and influence in the region seriously. It's assistance to the Phillipines is generous but also likely to be strategic. By their nature disaster relief operations are often political and an exercise and demonstration of power, requiring cooperation to operationalise military and civilian forces within a certain timeframe. Short term cooperation is hard to effectively coordinate, and it is likely to be improved by effective and consistent planning and disaster risk reduction efforts. The immediate is always more political, for example it is no accident that China has only pledged 100,000 so far to assist in the Phillipines while the US has pledged significant amounts of aid using its own military capability. Post-disaster reconstruction links naturally with other strategic and political priorities and has always been part of the whole logic of aid and development discourse since the foundation of the United Nations and the Second World War.

There's a question here for discussion about how to build better forms of longer term cooperation. What might more effective outcomes between partners in aid and development work look like in the future? Looking back to the Paris Declaration in 2005 that highlighted principles such as greater country ownership, mutual accountability, and transparency - this is still clearly very important in 2013. But certain premises possibly may seem a little jarring today. It speaks powerfully to the post-Second World War framework of redistributative multilateralism and the hegemonic frameworks through which overseas aid and development are linked to forms of power and influence. It certainly refers to a box of a certain size and shape and even a certain ontology or model of set types, properties, and relationship types. But it doesn't speak as strongly to a range of different pressures and the complex problems such as migration and climate change, which seem to fit awkwardly alongside it. One sign that the 'box' is no longer fulfilling its purpose and might need to change shape is that the OECD Development Assistance Committee is considering ideas on changing the official ODA definition, with the aim of setting concrete proposals by late 2014. There are real concerns that this process would merely water down the meaning of foreign aid.
In the field of humanitarian work there are also questions about this, as Duncan Green for example has highlighted in his blog post, asking for more ideas on ways to think more clearly about doing 'better' work in the face of the disaster efforts currently on-going in the wake of Supertyphoon Haiyan.

The previous point is worth elaborating. The same countries that have made these changes to their overseas aid missions recently have taken similarly retrograde approaches to climate change and migration. Australia's arrangements in terms of protecting its borders reflects a disregard for the spirit of the international convention on refugees to which it is party. In talks being held at the moment at the Warsaw climate change negotiations, Australia and Canada have both been accused of blocking progress and sabotaging negotiations by China and the G77. The point here is not that Australia is trying to foster different forms of cooperation, but that it seems that it is being led to avoid real cooperation in the arrangements that it makes.

So are there ways to deal in more constructive terms with this? Taking a look at how parts of the Australian aid program is changing is also in some ways indicative of how the whole architecture at least in Australia may be taking a new direction. One shift to notice is around the Australian Scholarships program which focused on funding PhD's from regional partner countries to study development and related topics in Australian universities. The future vision seems to be instead to fund Australians to study abroad in a new version of the old Columbo Plan. Australian businesses and universities certainly have applauded the move.

A short speech by Julie Bishop about it is here and a statement by the universities is here. The Liberal party proportionally represents the interests of commerce particularly and Julie Bishop and the Liberal Party's clearly mercantilist notion of diplomacy is consistent with this change. Both are likely to be mindful of the future of education as an export in Australia. It's value is greater than gold (literally) and in 2010/11 was Australia’s third largest export behind Coal and Iron, and was significantly ahead of Tourism, Gold and even Crude Oil and Natural Gas. For the record it is also worth checking out this short but insightful prediction of much of what has already occured by Professor Damien Kingsbury at Deakin University, as it makes for a good analysis.
It is interesting to me that Julie Bishop's plan (in theory) suggests that funding travel abroad to study in other countries (which at this time seems particularly to be Indonesia) might be a way to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. This is of course debatable, but the question firstly would be how and for who? For Julie Bishop it is all about Australia's 'soft power' in the region. But it is an opening to think about at least. 

One question to my mind is how Open Education initiatives could possibly be leveraged to play a useful role in facilitating postive forms of cooperation within higher education here. This might lead to ways to build capacity across partner institutions in the future. Australia has used its scholarships to foster strong relationships between Latin American universities as well as with South East Asian universities. Of course graduates who go to study in Indonesia or elsewhere could certainly do plenty to bring about changes in the places they visit and learn a lot by fostering a two way exchange process. Open education tools could help to encourage students and researchers to give permissions and open their work for others to freely build on. Technology should have an enabling role to play in connecting up researchers across countries here.

Ambassadors of this kind do have the opportunity to show how their research efforts can drive work on sustainability, human rights and poverty reduction and development. Capacity building in partner institutions also is a possible outcome. Certainly advocacy for Open Access to journals in Indonesia for academic study and setting up open platforms for collaboration (collaborative blog platforms and wiki's) and ways to cooperatively manage datasets would be a positive for those institutions. However, cooperation is never simply about solidarity or opportunity alone. It is likely that the specific institutional arrangements and links between Australian universities and Indonesian ones would also determine the scope of such efforts. 

Another starting point for academia working between Australia and Indonesia may be in the connections between think-tanks and specific study centers. In this regard the recent founding of a J-Pal Poverty Lab center by MIT in Indonesia at Universitas Indonesia is a case in point of how academic institutions can play an important role. This initiative was also funded significantly by AusAID of the last four years. Canadian academics are also playing similar roles with organisations like Academics Without Borders forming partnerships within Indonesia to build capacity in country for work on development. Further initiatives might also include the World Bank's support for academics in Indonesia particularly through the use of open data, which has the potential to open knowledge flows and drive work on development in new directions. Clearly education and development work is an important part of shifts in terms of development cooperation between Australia and Indonesia.

In general the emphasis on results management, transparency and accountability continues to be very strongly advocated elsewhere. The UK particularly within the G8 together with partners such as the World Bank has consistently sought to push for increased transparency and accountability being at the center of development work. This agenda is also a key feature in discussions about the role of open data in development. It is also reflected in the constant public scrutiny of aid budgets. Strong ideas about change being led by raising the bar in terms of accountablity and transparency also reflect strong ideas about the rule of law and governance as counterpoints in this discourse. One suggestion coming forward also in Australia from Stephen Howes and Ashlee Betteridge is for there to be more parliamentary oversight of the aid program in the future.

However, if Australia's predicament suggests anything it is that a careful analysis of the political economy of relationships between aid recipients and donors is also needed to facilitate smarter and more flexible forms of cooperation that deal better with a more complex and multipolar world. In making this argument the particular positions that have been taken by the new Canadian and Australian governments are being placed in the realm of the counterfactual here. A similar point is made about trying to better understand the 'mechanics' of these relationships by Joanna Spratt in recent blog posts here and also here. In my mind Mundy's work has touched on this question repeatedly, as does her classic paper from 1998.

In addition to this it is clear there is a much stronger focus on markets in the equation. Under the conservative government in the UK we can see a fairly clear stance at least appearing also to back more market driven frameworks for poverty reduction such as the 'Making Markets Work For the Poor' approach. This seems consistent with the World Bank's claims that in order to end poverty by 2030 we need to do more to bring the private sector in. In Australia there have been statements such as those made by Tony Abbot about wanting to do more 'trade' instead of 'aid' with partners such as India. 

But the call for results and transparency also echoes widely across different discussions. It certainly stretches well beyond the discourse of bilateral donors as well in regards to citizens and voters. A similar trend can also be seen to be reflected even within the UN itself through its attempt to steer a more open public engagement around the next set of goals for development with the World We Want processes. Although arguably this is a far more deliberative stance and important counter-balance for 'accountability' in terms of making policy knowable and discussable that a continual fixation with outcomes alone from the right generally tends to overlook. 

The effectiveness agenda is not without its critics either. It is often the case that attempts to seriously consider 'better' or 'more effective' development tend to simply fall into the trap of giving absolute priority to the means for 'better development' to take place, particularly within liberal politics. Amartya Sen has pointed this problem in his work in 'Development As Freedom' highlighting the crucial importance of individual freedom as it relates to respectively to evaluation and effectiveness, criticising the libertarian preoccupation with the proceedures for liberty alone while neglecting the consequences that derive from those proceedures. He argues for reclaiming the expansion of freedom in development as a primary end and the principal means, holding present both its constitutive and instrumental roles in the process. I think that Sen's perspective might have some important ramifications for how we approach the notion of 'openness' at least in this context.

In terms of discussions about evalutation and effectiveness it is certainly possible that some of these shifts may in their own way lead towards making forms of development cooperation more knowable and comparable and consequently at least in theory more 'results driven' and 'open'. Julie Bishop has suggested that Australian aid needs to think more about becoming more transparent, open and effective in this post by Stephen Howes and Ashlee Betteridge here.There is a possibility that such a change could be good in certain ways, but then at this point it would be necessary to ask what 'good' means, and for who and why. 

Certainly there has been a consistent call for better impact evaluations in development work and this has led to the gearing of programs towards a greater focus on results, outcomes and value for money across the board. This is particularly important in education which has suffered in contrast to social programs in health in terms of funding in development due to its tendency to deliver relatively less measureable forms of progress and less concrete outcomes. This focus on value for money has been excellently analysed by NORRAG throughout 2012 in its open blog and analysis of 'Value for Money in International Education'.

It is also difficult to remove all of this all from the tightly interwoven mechanisms of global governance and the pressures created between markets and state, the impacts of globalisation and the rise of the Neoliberal state. But with this in mind Tore Fougner's paper from Sussex University available freely here is useful reading as it analyses how the discourse of international competitiveness works to (re)produce the state as a competitive entity on a continuous basis. Arguably the logic of a drive for effectiveness, transparency and accountability derives from this movement in a certain way.

In short the future is not obvious for Australia but there seems to be something of a contradiction recently within its outward facing policies. Since finally winning a seat on the UN Security Council and making it clear that it is seeking to be engaged in Asia for the economic future, the Australian government seems to now be reeling in its own initiatives to deliver on some of its more global promises to foster international cooperation on areas beyond trade and foreign diplomacy. Together with a strongly prevalent discourse about acheiving results in development work it seems this final double squeeze has finally pushed forward the government's decision to remove a great deal of the effective autonomy and expertise within its aid program completely. If you are looking for a more in depth analysis of the matter, there is a direct comparison between these two 'case studies' here.

Personally I don't feel at all postiive about this, as it does not seem to me to be a good situation. I am also not entirely interested in the domestic politics of this either. In the past I volunteered for a number of years on refugee issues in Australia and worked teaching refugees and was really saddened by the extent to which continuous debates on refugee issues simply failed to address many of the fundamental questions, and failed to resolve actual problems. There may be bitter accrimony over spilt ideological milk in Australia post elections right now but eventually the dust will settle. I think it would be worth remembering to keep pointing out to the Australian people how important Australian aid is to the region and to making Australia a more caring, open and generous country. I also think that advocacy will play a role, and efforts should be made especially within secondary and higher education to remind people to the need for aid and overseas development to be delivered with a clear understanding of its own priorities rather than being simply coerced to bend under the agendas of trade or military strategy.

Certainly I would hope Australians might be able to make an informed choice next election about the direction of government spending rather than policy being made by default and almost after the fact. In the meantime, I would point out that with one of the worlds largest humanitarian disasters at their doorstep in the Phillipines after the hurricane, the usefulness and importance of having a capable cadre of specialists working on development and humanitarian issues within government would make itself quietly more obvious. It appears that this current shift is already beginning to undermine that effort.

In the future I will be writing some more posts to concentrate a little more on the topic of 'openness' particularly and on some ideas about 'open development' which is being examined on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog. But for those out there in this audience who prefer to be slightly more outspoken in the process of critical reflection, I have included here a quite long and detailed letter writtten by someone else who can claim responsability for this completely (Ian Smillie) - whose own use of

openess here is much more entertaining


from Ian Smillie

October 29, 2013

Dear Tony Abbott,

The day after you led your Liberal/National Coalition to a landslide victory in September, you announced that AusAID, the Australian government’s aid agency, will be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Because many have likened this move to what Canada has done in merging CIDA with DFAIT, I thought I might give you some background information on what has happened here. Think of this as a kind of “how to”guide, an “owner’s manual to hijacking the foreign aid program.”

There are three parts to this: the softening up partthe announcement, and doing the deed. I know you have skipped the softening up part, Tony, but let me go through the whole process because I’m sure it will give you useful ideas as you move forward.


Appointment of the Minister

I know in Australia you don’t have an aid minister. Lucky you. That’s one less problem to deal with. But if there had been one, it’s important to appoint someone junior who doesn’t know much about the business. If you don’t have many women in cabinet, this slot is one where you can even up the gender balance. (Excuse me for using the word “gender” here—I mean the balance between women and men. That was a slip into the old feminist lingo that Canada has banished from government documents. I won’t do it again).

Make sure the minister is loyal, someone who will do everything you say. Put some of your own people in her office and make sure they see every project before she does. Sometimes a bad one will slip through and you’ll have to pull it back, so you need people who know how to fix little gaffes by adding things like “not” into an already “approved” document.

You may have to change ministers quite frequently until you find one obtuse enough for the job. Once you’ve got her, however, keep her, no matter what she does. In the end, if she becomes a real embarrassment, you can appoint one of the used car salesmen or cops you have on the back benches to take over for a while.

Punish One, Teach Many

Did you ever see the movie Goodfellas, Tony? Or The Sopranos? The mafia has a great expression: “Punish one, teach many.” Once you start trying to get a grip on the aid program, you’ll discover that there are hundreds of NGOs and academics and bleeding heart liberals out there who’ll try to come to its rescue. (By the way, Tony, I know you head the “Liberal Party”, so when I say “liberal”, don’t take it the wrong way. In Canada, liberals are actually the bad guys. Funny old world, eh?)

What I’m getting at here is that you will have to put a few kittens down in order to get the rest in line. Find a stroppy, mid-size NGO and cut off all its funding. Make a big deal out of it. Say it’s because it funded some Palestinian terrorists, or perhaps some horrible thing in your own region, like boat people. When the NGO says it isn’t true, as it no doubt will, take the high road and say you have a zero tolerance attitude towards anti-Semitism or some such thing, and if that fails, just keep saying over and over that its proposal didn’t fit with your government’s priorities.

There is a risk here. Other NGOs may take up the cause and do an “I am Spartacus” thing. This could be dangerous, because together they do have a lot of public support. But if you’re lucky, as we were in Canada, most won’t say much. They’ll probably shove their umbrella organization out in front to try to bell the cat. What you need to do then is cut off all funding to the umbrella organization. We did that, and you should have seen the NGOs scatter. The umbrella organization lost 75% of its staff, had to sell the building it owned, and was told by its major dues-paying members to tone down its criticism for fear the government might start coming after them. Tony, you may have noticed my cat references. Here’s one more: if you want to herd cats, all you need to do is open a small tin of Meow Mix.

Getting the NGOs in line was like taking candy from a baby, Tony. There were no Spartacus wannabes anywhere in sight.

Take Down the Think Tanks

I don’t know how many international development think tanks you have in Australia, but we have a couple here. You’ve got to get rid of these, or bring them to heel as quickly as you can. If you’re lucky, they will have noticed your sacrificial lamb in the NGO community and will start censoring themselves, but that’s probably not enough. If you have any control over the appointment of board members, send in the clowns. A few crazy appointees can do amazing damage in no time flat. Human rights activists, academics and do-gooders are quickly distracted by issues close to their navels, and while the in-fighting rages, you can grab the high road and either fire a few people, or close the place down entirely. Refusing to appoint directors and senior managers, if that’s within your control, is another great tactic. And of course the best trick in the book is the Extended Meow Mix Gambit, which I’ll come to in a minute. Whatever you do, however, make sure that any surviving think tanks understand that they better think or they will tank.

The Extended Meow Mix Gambit

Tony, your greatest enemy in hijacking the aid program will be the NGOs. Even if you’re successful in getting them to be quiet, they are still hotbeds of radicalism, do-gooderism, and loony lefty liberalism. (Oh, sorry, I used that word again. Honestly, Tony, I have to ask why Australia’s true conservatives are all under the banner of the Liberal Party. What is up with that?)

Anyway, The Extended Meow Mix Gambit: If your NGOs are anything like ours, most of them get half or three-quarters of their money from the government. They should have known that was dangerous—even stupid. That said, while you can make a sacrificial lamb of one or two, you’ll have to move more softly with the rest. The first thing to do is get rid of any kind of responsive funding arrangement. No more coming to you with their own neat ideas. You develop the neat ideas. Make it like a business: call for proposals and choose the one you like best, if you catch my drift. They’ll soon enough discover what you like and don’t like. No more multi-year program funding. Announce that you’re not there to subsidize NGOs or to fulfill their entitlement fantasies. They’ll come back at you with how they do excellent work, reach people that governments can’t, how they carry the Australian flag to places that you can’t and yadda yadda yadda. They’ll say they have the support of tens or hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians (or even millions). Your MPs should expect a few visits from the local vicar and some parishioners. But that will pass. Simply cancel the responsive program, set out a few calls for proposals, and you’ll see what happens. Ever see that Frank Sinatra movie, Some Came Running? I guess you can tell, Tony, that I’m a movie buff.

Having turned the NGOs into wannabe contractors, the next step is to stall on decisions.  Tell them the funding decision critical to their survival will be made in June or December or whatever. Keep changing the dates. Stretch it out beyond the end of the financial year. Way beyond. The NGOs will start using up their reserves while they wait. You can let the money out in dribs and drabs to the friendlies, but an even better trick is to make no decision at all. You can’t imagine how destructive that is as these once-confident outfits start laying off staff. Even so, you’ll be amazed that they continue to hang around the back door like hungry puppies. Most will continue to lick your hand if you go anywhere near them. All you need to say is that you’ll get things rolling “soon”. Tell the civil servants to use that word whenever they’re asked a question about money: “soon”.

There’s another great aspect to this gambit. If you delay decisions and payments beyond the end of your financial year, you can lapse hundreds of millions of dollars. This has two effects. First, it can go towards paying down any debt you might have racked up, as we did bailing out GM, Chrysler and all those other companies in 2009. And it also helps to reduce the claims on next year’s budget because you’ve shown you don’t need the money. And the best part is that—unlike when you announce a cut in your aid budget—no one really notices. If someone does, say something virtuous like, “We don’t believe in just shovelling money out the door.”

There may be a problem with the faith-based crowd. If Australia is anything like Canada, a lot of your support probably comes from this general area. But unfortunately some of the faith-based NGOs have uppity ideas about human rights and social justice, and you may find, as we have, that some of them are antagonistic to a lot of the things you favour, such as Australian mining companies in developing countries. I’ll come back to our mining friends in a moment, but you have to handle this bunch carefully. Cut back on funding to the rights-and-justice crowd, but start throwing small bones to new, less vocal players among the faith-based organizations. If you’re lucky, a few of the secular outfits will smell smoke and cry “fire”. Maybe an academic or two will get busy with a calculator, and pretty soon you’ll have all the NGOs fighting among themselves.

A Feel-Good “Initiative”

You announced major cuts to the aid budget as soon as you were elected, Tony. Good on ya, mate. It took us a while to start chopping, but we’re getting there. If you want to confound your enemies and confuse the public as you’re cutting the budget, however, why not think of a major feel-good “initiative”? Canada created a “Mother and Child Health Initiative” and pushed it at the G8 as though nobody had ever heard of the idea before. Mothers and children: Wow! What a crowd pleaser.

There was a bit of a glitch when we started out on this because we didn’t know that some NGOs would come back at us with a lot of guff about women’s reproductive rights, abortion and such like, so if we were doing it again, we might just stick to children. But in the end we found a few NGOs that would go along for the ride and ignore the feminist nonsense, so it’s working out pretty well.

Results-Based Management

Tony, I have to tell you that results-based management is a brilliant and outstanding way to subvert, if not wreck an aid program—and you can look good while you’re at it. The Harper government didn’t have to invent this one; it was handed over on a silver platter by its predecessors.

Here’s how it works: First, get everyone completely confused about the terminology. Change the rules, the guidelines, the forms and the reporting requirements. Frequently. Demand big results in all proposals. In a tough competition, the applicants will exaggerate what they plan to do in order to win the contract. Then you can hammer them a couple of years later when they haven’t done what they said they would. Demand that all projects must show results within the lifetime of the funding, even if that makes no sense. Punish any executing agency or NGO that fails to meet targets: no second phase, no new contracts. Fund things you can take pictures of: bridges, schools, dams. You can show the snaps to taxpayers and you might even sell some Australian goods and services in the bargain.

There’s a small problem here. Andrew Natsios, who was head of USAID under George Bush—someone who should have been a good guy—has gone rogue. He says that the focus on results has turned into an “obsessive measurement disorder”. He even says that the most measurable development projects are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are the least measurable. People like that will tell you that building schools is not the most important part of an education project; it’s what goes on inside the school, and that can’t always be photographed or changed quickly. Frankly, Tony, you have to ignore this kind of stuff. Make sure that whenever your foreign minister talks about aid, she uses the words “results” and “effectiveness”, preferably in every second sentence. (By the way, I see you’ve appointed Julie Bishop as foreign minister. Great work on the gender balance—sorry, the balance between men and women.)


You cleverly announced the merger of AusAID into DFAT the day after you won the election. It took us a lot longer, but when we were ready, we did it in a similar way: we consulted almost nobody in any of the concerned departments. That had the effect of catching any possible opposition off guard, and it threw the concerned departments into a frenzy of confusion, especially because we hadn’t developed any plan whatsoever as to how the transition would take place. On top of that, we got rid of the head of our aid program, as you have, and at the same time changed the aid minister in order to sow as much confusion as possible.

Remember Tony, this is about getting a grip on that aid money and reducing the number of people who have a voice in forming policy or who understand how the money is being spent.

I see that you are still using the term AusAID. My advice is to kill the name entirely as we did with CIDA. That helps to extinguish the brand and even the idea of foreign aid. I see, too, that in Australia a lot of the media are using the term “collapsed”, as in “AusAID has been collapsed into DFAT.” That doesn’t sound too good. I would suggest you use the term that we have promoted, the one that supporters of the merger seem to like: “to fold”, as in “CIDA has been folded into DFAIT”. It’s more gentle, a bit like folding whipped cream into custard to make zabaglione, although you don’t want to draw out that analogy too far because some wag might start talking about who got whipped.


There has to be a rationale for the merger, of course. In your announcement, you said that “the Australian Agency for International Development [will] be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, enabling the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda to be more closely aligned.”

Tony, that is simply excellent! That’s exactly what the government said here, and it got a lot of applause from diplomats and academics who agreed. The dips have always wanted more money and resented CIDA because it had lots of cash. And academics, of course, especially the foreign policy wonks, think aid is a load of old cobblers. They think we should be spending more time and money on things that really matter: NATO, the United States, Europe and such like. Realpolitik they call it. They probably picked up that idea reading the memoirs of Henry Kissinger. Anyway, the merger here has even gone over pretty well with the media and the public because a lot of them just don’t “get” foreign aid. A lot of them think the money never gets there, or it’s wasted, or it’s stolen by corrupt dictators. (On that point, Tony, I suggest that you get Julie to do what our Foreign Minister does every time he gets a chance: slam the United Nations as nothing more than a debating club for dictators. It goes down very well with the know-nothing crowd and those who’ve been jollied along for so many years by all the NGOs peddling children.)

So let’s get to the crux of it, Tony. Some in the so-called development community will try to find a light in the tunnel where we’ve stashed the aid program. They’ll say that with the merger, we can perhaps stop isolating aid, and that we can now start talking about development cooperation. Let me tell you what that means. It means that with the merger, you have a better chance for a whole-of-government policy towards developing countries and development. It means that in addition to aid, you could now talk within the same department about trade issues that affect poor countries. You could address tariffs and subsidies and these could form part of your overall approach to development. You might even include security issues and immigration. All of these things have a bearing on the main point that many in the development community stress: poverty reduction.

You’ll have to nip all that in the bud. Everyone knows that poverty reduction comes from economic growth, and growth comes from the private sector. Focussing on poor people in poor countries is simply distracting. Charity has its place, but it’s not where the real action is. Poor countries wouldn’t be poor if they had a private sector like we do, and that’s why we have to get our companies over there doing what they do best. A lot of the other aid donors are pushing their private sectors too. Even the World Bank President has said that we can end poverty by 2030, but only if we get the private sector on the case. I’m sure you know the drill, Tony.
There are two things you can keep repeating in this connection: “Foreign direct investment outpaces foreign aid by a factor of ten to one.” Or “five to one” or “fifteen to one”. Just pick a big number. It isn’t the number that matters, it’s the fact that FDI dwarfs aid, so aid must be unimportant. Right?
And there’s another good one: “Remittances are ten (or fifteen or twenty) times higher than foreign aid.” It sounds terrific. Nobody stops to think about the fact that there have always been remittances, or that remittances don’t exactly vaccinate children, but never mind that. It’s the big numbers that count, showing how insignificant aid is. And our aim is to make it even more insignificant—right, Tony?
Tony, I know that Australia is big on the extractive industry, just like Canada, and if Australian mining companies are anything like ours, they could probably use a boost from government, especially with the Chinese running away with the show in Africa and Latin America. So here’s how you use the merger to good advantage: Have a look around. See if there are any NGOs getting funding from an Australian mining company, or if an NGO is helping a company to deal with a development issue around one of its mines. If you can find two or three of those, fund them and call it a policy. Say that Australia needs to get something out of the aid program as well. Dress it up with a bunch of nice looking fripperies labelled corporate social responsibility. Call it good development and say you’ll fund more. You think some came running before? Soon the queue will be half way around the block.
There’s a small problem, however. Since you’re planning to slash the Australian aid budget by $4.5 billion over the next five years, you may have difficulty carving out money for the extractive sector. Take a leaf from our book: close aid programs in eight or ten unimportant African countries and use the savings to open new programs in places where you have mining interests, as we did in Peru and Colombia. You can say it’s just better geographic focus. The OECD will love it—they tell everyone to work in fewer countries.
The issue where mining is concerned, of course, is not whether your government supports Australian companies overseas. All governments do that. The issue is whether the money should come from the aid budget or some other place. With the merger, it will be easier to fudge these things as long as you dress them up with terms like “development”, “sustainability”, “social responsibility” and the like.
There may be a crunch at the OECD when you start reporting these activities as official development assistance, but the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), I have to tell you, Tony, is a pushover. Canada’s last peer review in 2012—and I’m quoting—“commends the country’s strong stand on human rights, its co-operation with developing countries and its effective efforts in Afghanistan and Haiti.” Hah! How they got that idea about human rights is beyond me. And as soon as we got our troops out of Afghanistan, our aid program there headed straight for File 13. Where Haiti is concerned, we recently hit the brakes so hard on that one, there’s rubber all over the road. The DAC did notice that we’re cutting our overall aid and recommended that “as soon as possible”, we move towards the international ODA target of 0.7% of GNI. Maybe when pigs fly. Or when we can count some of the money we’re spending on our efforts to imitate China with the mining companies.
You may know the old story about Benjamin Franklin writing to a friend and apologizing for the length of the letter. He said, “If I had more time, it would have been shorter.” Tony, I have to tell you, this is the shorter letter.
Anyway, there it is: How to hijack an aid program in three easy steps. It’s a bit like The Poseidon Adventure: you turn everything upside down for a while and everyone staggers around in the dark and the wreckage, hoping there’s a rescue on the way. Then, after making the most incredible mess, you send the whole thing to the bottom.
In truth, it isn’t really that easy: it takes a thick skin and cold blood. But it’s a lot easier when there’s so little public reaction. The NGOs claim to have a huge public constituency for a compassionate aid program focussed directly on poverty reduction, but when you look at the numbers, they spend ten times more on feel-good fundraising than they do on public education about development. Just like the government. That’s what’s made the hijacking so straightforward and so successful. Canadians just don’t get it.
Our Prime Minister Harper might have offered to buy you a frosty Foster’s at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo, but happily for him, he won’t be attending. He’s boycotting the event because of Sri Lanka’s bad human rights record. It makes him look good with our large Tamil community, killing two or three birds with one stone. I guess you have to go to all of these meetings because your landslide win in Australia was partly based on your promise to send all the boat people to Manus Island or Nauru or Christmas Island.
Frankly, Tony, that doesn’t look very humane. My suggestion is that you turn this negative into a good-looking positive like we always do: set up a high profile, upbeat “initiative” for the boat people after they get to Christmas Island. A spoonful of the old maternal and child health might help the medicine go down.
Ian Smillie is a member of the McLeod Group. This article is satirical in nature; anyresemblance to real events, or to real personsliving or dead, is purely coincidental.


  1. A very informative read. I have deep interest in RBM and how it is killing development programs in Africa . There is an emerging trend- project target beneficiaries now seem to be dancing to the tune of 'results' -adding more glamour to the theatrical donor reports

    1. Thank you for your comment. The discussion in Australia about the aid program and this issue has been a long one I think. It is hard to see how incentives to encourage all kinds of perverse behaviour are not going to eventually arise, as you describe. There are plenty of opportunities for a sort of 'feedback distortion' like that developing over time. Clearly for systems to be managed by results alone it is a clear danger. To me in that case, it would seem logical at least to audit and also evaluate effectiveness through other approaches and channels. At least you don't risk getting such a one dimensional picture, even if it still is likely to be the kind of picture that you were looking for anyway.

  2. I found your blog very informative and chuckled at the Canadian letter. Canadians do satire well!
    It appears there are many similarities in this field between Canada and Australia. Keep us posted on developments in this area,please.