Photo: Yvonne Green DFAT

Gauging change in Australian aid

29 March 2017

The Aid Stakeholder Survey has revealed interesting insights into both the current state of Australia’s aid program and how it is changing over time, write Terence Wood, Camilla Burkot, and Stephen Howes.

Gauging aid quality is a perennial challenge facing aid and development researchers. To date, most attempts to systematically measure aid quality have focused on using publicly-available information, including donors’ official aid data, information available on aid donor websites, and surveys of donor practices typically conducted by the OECD. While these methods provide insights, especially for making cross-country comparisons, they also strip out important contextual details.

In our new paper published in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, we make use of another method of measuring aid quality, one that pays much greater attention to detail and the subtleties of context: the Aid Stakeholder Survey. Using this survey, which gathers stakeholder perceptions about key aspects of aid program functioning, we examined the effects of changes in Australian aid enacted between 2013 and 2015. The stakeholders we targeted were individuals who had significant and sustained engagement with the Australian aid program: senior managers and representatives of NGOs and development contractors.

By surveying these stakeholders in 2013 and again in 2015 – an interval during which there was a change of government, the re-integration of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the launch of a new aid policy paradigm – we are able to develop a nuanced picture of the perceived impacts of these policy and organisational changes on the quality of Australian aid.

Overall, in both 2013 and 2015, the majority of respondents rated the aid program as effective, though the share of respondents who gave this response fell from 68 per cent in 2013 to 60 per cent in 2015.

More striking was stakeholders’ perception of the trend in quality: whereas in 2013 more than three-quarters of our respondents thought that the aid program was becoming more effective, by 2015 three-quarters thought that it was becoming less effective.

And when we asked stakeholders to indicate the relative importance that reducing poverty, advancing Australia’s strategic interests, and advancing Australia’s commercial interests have in guiding Australian aid, most felt that reducing poverty was less important as a driver of aid program decision making in 2015 as compared to 2013. The majority of respondents in 2015 also felt that the aid program put too little emphasis on spending in education, health, and resilience and humanitarian aid, and too much on infrastructure and trade – a reversal of findings from the 2013 survey.

As well as surveying aid program ethos and focus, and overall effectiveness, we also asked participants about specific aid program attributes. We did this to understand what was driving overall changes. The attributes we chose were ones identified in the 2011 Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness. Stakeholders’ ratings of nearly all of these attributes had fallen by 2015 as compared to 2013, though the degree to which they fell varied.

Predictability of funding suffered the largest decline. Given the unprecedented cuts to the Australian aid budget announced in the 2015 Federal Budget, this is unsurprising. Respondents also indicated transparency had diminished significantly – while less than a quarter of stakeholders thought transparency was a weakness of the aid program in 2013, 58 per cent did in 2015. This subjective assessment fits with our own research on changing Australian aid transparency.

The rating for staff continuity, which was the lowest scoring attribute in 2013, changed little, while staff expertise saw another drop off an already low baseline score. The decline in staff expertise was also raised repeatedly in responses to open-ended questions in the survey, where respondents attributed this decline not only to the departure of a large number of AusAID staff following the merger of AusAID and DFAT, but also as a consequence of the failure of DFAT senior management to value the importance of development expertise.

Running an aid program is not an easy task, nor is assessing its quality. Aid programs are multidimensional enterprises, driven by a blend of policy choices, management decisions, and organisational culture. Our research shows how one type of evidence – the perceptions of key stakeholders – can make an important contribution to understanding not only the current state of aid programs but also the extent to which programs are changing over time. This is not the only type of evidence that should be used, but for a phenomenon as complex as aid, the view of insiders and experts are indispensable to inform not only academic debate but also policy-making.

This article is based on the authors’ article in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, Gauging change in Australian aid: Stakeholder perceptions of the government aid program. Read and download it for free here. It is also published by Policy, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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