How Effective is Australia’s Aid?

Recent criticisms of Australia’s aid program in major newspapers have highlighted the huge sums paid to contracting companies on big projects (Daily Telegraph and other News Ltd papers, 24/05/2010).  Particular note was made of the wages of a few senior consultants, with cries that some individuals earn more than the Prime Minister. It was also suggested that the aid, as a percentage of the national budget should not be increased. There was no mention that the increase to 0.5% has bi-partisan support, or falls well short of the international goal of 0.7%.  Despite a proclaimed interest in ensuring taxpayers’ money was not wasted, in an election year one can’t help but suspect a more political agenda to the articles.

That the majority of Australia’s aid budget goes through private consulting firms, with some individuals receiving exorbitant salaries, is undoubtedly of concern.  Palms Australia has raised concerns about this approach before.  It creates distance between people rather than build relationships, promotes negative stereotypes about “the others” on both sides, encourages cronyism and rorting, and buys into notions that development is a simple project outcome rather than a dynamic, and often unpredictable, process of mutual change.

Important questions were missing from the discussion and they go to greater concerns about our society’s priorities – something the media is less interested in seriously critiquing.

Why do we hold our aid workers to different standards to those set for people working in other fields? It seems that people are prepared to accept the existence of high wages in the private sector, but become offended when employees in “compassionate sectors” are paid well.  Teachers, nurses, social workers – the traditionally female roles – are also regularly undervalued despite the importance of maintaining a professional and skilled workforce in these areas.  While it does make one bristle to hear of a $400,000 “aid consultant”, we should be concerned that anyone in any industry earns this much while others struggle for subsistence. A salary cap on socially essential jobs, while private rates are allowed to inflate wildly bringing the cost-of-living with them, risks causing an exodus from the sector and a degradation of our social services. The willingness of our volunteers to give so much of themselves actually makes them more effective, but to expect an entire aid sector to make such sacrifices is unrealistic.

If a major works project was conducted in Australia, it would probably be contracted out to a company with the required expertise, which would charge the market rate. A similar project conducted overseas can be expected to cost more. There will be added costs of transport, shipping, allowances to compensate employees living away from home, specialist expertise required for infrastructure in areas prone to natural disaster and, hopefully, local community engagement and training as part of the project.  The people working on these projects are perhaps not rightly considered aid workers.  They are contractors paid to “get the job done”.  If there are flaws here, they exist in all contracting out by government departments, including defence, education, health, transport, infrastructure, police, etc. If it is so scandalous that Australia’s aid program follows the pattern of the privatised corporate society we have built, isn’t it time to have a greater discussion about that society? If these flaws exist in all departments, then the issue of the percentage given to aid is unrelated. The issue is much bigger.

Of course, Palms Australia would much prefer one less consultant if it meant that our program was suddenly fully-funded, covering not only our staff of four, but also thirty volunteers in the field.  Certainly the effects of our volunteers are more real to our partner communities and, through our emphasis on skill exchange, more effectively empowering in the long-term.  $10 million spent on a building project will undoubtedly have less effect than the over 2800 years of labour and training provided by Palms Australia’s volunteers for less than this amount.

Australians should ask questions about why aid money overwhelmingly goes to “technical assistance” programs run by corporations while hard-working NGOs like Palms rely solely on donations. We should expect our aid money to be used in the most effective way possible and seek a bi-partisan commitment increasing the percentage spent through development NGOs. We should not pretend, though, that this is a simple problem of a single government’s policy. It stretches back decades and requires that we ask some difficult questions of our own society.  Interestingly, it is probably our returned volunteers who are both best equipped and most willing to ask such questions.