• The Complexities of Overseas Aid

    Posted by Cecilia

    16 April, 2014

    Overseas aid is a $5 billion slice of Australia’s $376 billion federal budget. It’s not the magic bullet to end poverty by any means, but it can play a powerful role in supporting essential services and life-saving assistance where resources are low or non-existent, as well as building capacity and opportunity to help households and communities make sustainable exits out of poverty.
    Ever since the government announced its plan to change the focus of the Australian aid program, to focus more on “economic diplomacy” and “aid for trade” there has been increasing public discourse about what makes aid effective. 

    Looking at some of the country aid performance reports for 2012-2013 released recently by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, gives some ideas about what effective aid looks like.

    Poverty, of course, is multifaceted with a wide range of causes, many of which are country specific and may change over time.

    Australia’s aid programs seeks to help address issues such as health, education, food security, infrastructure, water and sanitation, law and justice, governance, peace and conflict, gender equality, and disability. Unsurprisingly, this is not an easy task and requires great sensitivity to local contexts.Photo courtesy of Angela WyliePhoto courtesy of Angela Wylie

    For example, In Burma, rapid political and economic reforms have taken place since 2012 with the country opening up for the first time in 50 years. In order to support reform, good governance and to address the long term civil conflict which has existed in the country, Australia has focused on health and education and increasingly on peace and conflict issues.

    Changing circumstances can make the process of poverty reduction challenging and there are many factors that influence how aid can be implemented. In Papua New Guinea, for example, the low capacity of the public sector, lack of or weak institutions, and bottlenecks in financial systems are just some of the major challenges which hamper development progress and make a difficult environment for effective aid. 

    Dealing with such challenges across multiple sectors means that aid can be used to support action at national, sub-national, local and provincial levels. It may involve many different actors such as various levels of government, civil society, businesses, universities and research institutions, multilateral and bilateral organisations and other donor countries. 

    Even through, these complexities, however, Australia’s aid supports governments and communities in many powerfully transformative interventions.

    In Timor-Leste, Australia assisted the government to improve planning and budget processes which led to a 40% increase in budget allocation for food security. The Seeds of Life program, which distributes improved seed to farmers, provided an additional 11, 792 farmers with seeds leading to increased crop for 90% of the farmers. In the area of law and justice, support was given in the form of grants to civil society organisations engaged in preventing violence against women and ensuring that those affected had access to justice and support services. In the education sector, Australia commissioned research on education in Timor-Leste to inform new education and scholarship designs. 

    Often there are no quick wins, but slow and incremental contributions to improving circumstances. However, it is no surprise that aid objectives are not always met. Thankfully regular, rigorous and honest monitoring and evaluating of the aid program provides information on what is working and what is not, resulting in changes in approach, strategy and focus. 

    In Bangladesh, despite efforts to raise awareness about violence against women and increase access to legal and counselling services, there was a lack of evidence of positive change regarding women and marginalised groups. In response, the aid program there has recommended clearer indicators of progress need to be tracked, and a stronger focus needs to be placed on new partnerships with civil society in the health and education sectors.

    Delivering effective aid involves a continual process of learning and adapting, taking into account of and respecting the local context. Poverty is complex and aid has a role to play in helping countries build the expertise and resources to achieve sustainable poverty-reduction. And, while economic growth certainly can contribute to poverty reduction and human development, a poverty-focused aid program can help to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised groups of a nation are fully included in the social, political and economic spheres of that nation.

    Cecilia Ng is the Political Engagement intern at Micah Challenge for 2014.