Australian foreign aid scrutiny bodies scrapped, at a cost
10 February 2021 at 10:54 am
Foreign aid advocate says it’s never been more important to ensure scarce taxpayer money is spent for maximum impact
Foreign aid groups have been left stunned after discovering two key bodies that oversaw the effectiveness of Australia’s overseas aid programs were shut down without consultation and in part, to save money.
The Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE), which is an independent branch of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading reporting directly to its secretary on the effectiveness of Australia’s aid programs, was quietly shut down last August.
In an internal departmental minute, obtained on Friday under Freedom Of Information laws by This Week in Asia, DFAT’s then acting deputy secretary, Kathy Klugman, said the decision was made “bearing in mind the need to find departmental budget savings”.
The minute revealed that the department had decided to cut the ODE’s staff to just five full-time employees, down from 13.5, and merge its functions into other areas of the department.
The Independent Evaluation Committee (IEC), a body that sat above the ODE and was designed to improve the quality of evaluations of Australia’s aid program, was also scrapped, The moves are expected to cut down annual costs by $900,000.
This is the first time it has been confirmed that the decision by DFAT to close down the ODE and the IEC was in part due to financial pressures.
Marc Purcell, the CEO of the Australian Council For International Development, told Pro Bono News he was “stunned” at the decision to abolish the bodies.
“We were not consulted as part of this decision and were informed well after the fact,” Purcell said.
He raised concerns that with this reduction in resources and independent oversight, it was unclear how DFAT will deliver on the transparency and performance agenda set out in the new Partnerships for Recovery strategy.
A DFAT spokesperson told Pro Bono News however that the Partnerships for Recovery strategy had a comprehensive framework for assessing and reporting on the development program’s performance that would be reported on annually, and that over 40 independent evaluations of programs would be published throughout the year.
“The program is subject to rigorous external oversight and review,” the spokesperson said.
“Investment quality ratings are independently validated by the DFAT’s Office of the Chief Economist within DFAT.”
The move comes as the Australian government has boosted spending in the Pacific, in part to counter China’s growing influence in the region, something advocates say has come at the cost of helping other countries.
Purcell said the Australian government had rightly increased its aid budget in response to the severe challenges the Indo-Pacific region was facing, but stated that Australia’s aid program was bigger, more prominent, and more complex in the COVID-19 era.
He argued that effective development was a key foreign policy tool.
“It has never been more important to make sure scarce taxpayer money is spent for maximum impact,” he said.
“[The] ODE and IEC’s key role was to do just that – measure impact, and make sure our development dollar goes further.”
This article was updated on 10 February to include comments from a DFAT spokesperson. An earlier version of this article stated that Pro Bono News had reached out to DFAT but had not received comments.