Fix DFAT culture to retain foreign aid skills: stakeholders

By David Donaldson

Thursday February 11, 2016

ausaid foreign aid dfat

Australia’s ability to deliver foreign aid is deteriorating thanks in part to the loss of experienced staff and a workplace culture that doesn’t appreciate aid skills, according to contractors and stakeholders to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

While half of respondents of a 2013 survey by the Development Policy Centre, a think tank based at Australian National University, saw staff expertise as a weakness of the program, by 2015 this number had become three quarters. They also say the merger of AusAID with DFAT has had a negative impact on aid staff effectiveness, due to a perceived culture of undervaluing of aid-focused skills within DFAT.

Australian aid: signs of risk is based on a survey of 461 stakeholders, a mix of senior executives from Australian NGOs and development contracting companies who were invited to respond, as well as a phase that could be completed by anyone online, including less senior NGO and contractor staff, academics, government employees and the interested public. The report — which follows the think tank’s initial research in 2013 — notes that on average both groups provided similar answers.

One respondent complained about a “marked devaluation of aid program management skills and the lack of recognition in DFAT senior management of the depth of expertise required.” Another suggested the skills and perspectives of aid staff are “not understood or valued by foreign policy/trade staff, resulting in narrowing of objectives and less time to build relationships with counterparts”.

A loss of staff expertise was the most frequent response to the question about what the most negative impact of the absorption of AusAID into DFAT had been. A large majority of stakeholders believe the merger has led to staff effectiveness becoming worse or a lot worse.

Top: two years ago 70% of stakeholders rated the aid program as effective or very effective; now it is 61%. Bottom: three-quarters of stakeholders now think aid performance has become worse over the last two years. In 2013, more than three quarters thought it had improved over the previous decade.
Top: two years ago 70% of stakeholders rated the aid program as effective or very effective; now it is 61%. Bottom: three-quarters of stakeholders now think aid performance has become worse over the last two years. In 2013, more than three quarters thought it had improved over the previous decade.

At least 90% of respondents rated staff continuity a weakness or great weakness of the aid program, though this was not a significant change from the 2013 survey, which recorded only a slightly less negative result.

It was not all bad, however — respondents who agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that the aid program manager that they dealt with for their own specific activities had been in place long enough to be effective increased from 35% in 2013 to 50% in 2015. Answers to this question were only weakly related to overall feelings about aid effectiveness, though.

Discussing the generally gloomy outlook respondents had on staff continuity, the authors said it remained a significant issue:

“It may be that respondents are reflecting on the very large changes at the senior management level of the aid program, or that they are simply more critical in general due to the budget cuts. Whatever the case, while staff continuity may have improved at the activity level, it remains a major weakness.”

The report argued that while a loss of staff expertise through departures was a “cost of integration”, the department would need to make a conscious effort to repair the damage by placing greater emphasis on aid skills:

“Those with little understanding of aid often underestimate the difficulty of providing good aid. The development problems that plague countries like Papua New Guinea, and which make it hard to give aid well in these contexts, are complex. And if the Australian aid program is to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money, the need for expertise must be recognised. Experienced staff bring this expertise, and a much greater effort needs to be made to hold on to experienced staff, as well as to replace the expertise that has been lost. This will be particularly challenging with the aid program now fully integrated into DFAT, but nevertheless needs to be prioritised.”

Graph depicting changes in aid program attributes.
In both 2013 and 2015, respondents were asked to rate different attributes of the aid program as strengths or weaknesses. The ratings are normalised from zero (great weakness) to one (great strength) with 0.5 being a neutral rating. If the dot lies below the blue line, the rating has worsened since 2013. Blue dots show an improvement, orange dots a moderate decline, and red dots a large decline (20 per cent or more than the average decline).

‘Undermining the aid program’

A range of other issues are seen to have undermined the national aid program. Budget cuts have indeed “played havoc with funding predictability”, according to lead survey author Dr Terence Wood, a research fellow at the Development Policy Centre. “Further aid cuts scheduled for this year’s budget, another $224 million, will make a bad situation worse.” But it’s more than just the inevitable gripe about having less money. One respondent argued that more than the overall reductions to the aid program budget, it was the speed and inconsistency with which they fell that was the problem:

“It is not the lower volume of aid funds that has had the negative impact — it is the way the funds were cut (final decisions only conveyed in May, issues with renegotiating contracts, massive cuts to some programs in one year instead of gradual declines to ‘exit gracefully’, more cuts to come next year but no one knows where from yet).”

The authors note that, following the cuts, one might have anticipated predictability of funding:

“… to be by far and away the most important driver of changing appraisals of aid program effectiveness. Yet, interestingly … this is not the case. Other attributes are more strongly correlated with stakeholders’ assessments of overall change. Clearly respondents see performance as more than just a function of funding.”

Stakeholder appraisals of some of the “important”  attributes of aid delivery — such as monitoring, evaluation and performance management and reporting — “suggests that performance in these areas, while worse, has not collapsed since 2013”, the report stated:

“Nevertheless, stakeholders’ appraisals still point to some deterioration (quite significant deterioration in the case of performance management and reporting, less for the other two). Moreover, all three attributes are also clearly correlated with stakeholders’ perceptions of change.”

Strategic clarity, transparency and community engagement have also gone from being strengths of the aid program to weaknesses. The report notes that:

“… stakeholders are not convinced by the government’s new aid strategy, the new aid paradigm. In 2013, only one quarter of respondents saw aid transparency as a weakness. Now three quarters do.  One said that ‘there is limited transparency — the detail in the aid budget is greatly reduced, the aid website is a shadow of what it used to be’.”

The report authors recommended improving transparency as an easy way to give confidence a lift:

“Information that used to be easily accessible on AusAID’s website now no longer exists on DFAT’s website. To be fair, information about aid on the DFAT website continues to grow after a sharp decline post-integration. And, although the government no longer talks about the 2011 Aid Transparency Charter, it does now have a strong and explicit “commitment to transparency” on that website. This is perhaps an area where much could be done quickly to improve perceptions, by first publicising and then following through fully on the published commitment.”

Political leadership is another area that has suffered. Three quarters of NGO stakeholders now view political leadership as a weakness or a great weakness for the aid program, and over half of aid contractors feel the same way.

Interestingly, despite this, some respondents saw Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as being an “isolated champion” for aid in cabinet — though many were also critical of her for failing to “protect” the budget. One stated that “Julie Bishop’s heart is in the right place, but she doesn’t seem to have much say when it comes to the allocation of funds for aid. Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott rule the roost”. Praise for Bishop’s focus on gender in aid was a recurring theme.

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