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Monday, January 10, 2011

Australian foreign aid review should explore accountability and transparency issues

Hollway is Review Panel Chair
The terms of reference for the review announced late last year of Australia's foreign aid program include no specific mention of transparency and accountability, although examination of "the effectiveness and efficiency of the Australian aid program" including performance of the program and lessons learned, the appropriateness of current arrangements for review and evaluation, and the management of fraud and risk are wide enough to encompass such issues, should the panel wish to go there.

A year ago the Auditor General in the Performance Audit Report AUSAID's Management of the Expanding Australian Aid Program identified the need for further improvement in transparency and accountability, particularly for better performance information and detailed program running costs, and the publication of review studies.

Australia did reasonably on transparency in the Quality of Aid Report last year and again in the recently released first global survey of aid transparency by the UK based Publish What You Fund, in the Moderate category, with a score of 65% and eighth overall of 30 major donor countries. However we were behind the Netherlands (score 85%) by a long way, and the UK , EC, Ireland, Asia Development Bank and Sweden. The Assessment compares aid transparency across seven weighted indicators that fall into three categories:
  • Commitment to Aid Transparency
  • Transparency of Aid to Recipient Government
  • Transparency of Aid to Civil Society Organisations
Presumably AUSAID's incoming government brief, now six months old, is buried away and hidden from public access in the Department of Foreign Affairs brief stamped SECRET and AUSTEO, despite what it might do to promote understanding and public debate of aid issues.

There has been criticism over insufficient transparency and public disclosure for example concerning aid to Afghanistan.

And on a related note, many countries we assist aren't transparent themselves. Another recent survey revealed countries that receive significant Australian aid and fail to meet accepted transparency standards in their own budgets include Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. Malaysia, Pakistan,Timor-Leste and Afghanistan are  worse. Cambodia, Vietnam and China are worst of all.

Film maker James Ricketson wrote last week in the Sydney Morning Herald about his difficulties in trying to get information on aspects of the $60 million in Australian aid spent in Cambodia. A small issue in the scheme of things perhaps, but culture usually shines through.
(Update: transparency issues featured in Crikey's Hot Topics reports last year on Who profits from our foreign aid.)

The Panel should interpret the terms of reference broadly and make sure accountability and transparency in the aid program at home, and in recipient countries, gets some attention. Submissions close 2 February.

(Further update: for more on issues relevant to the review see the Lowy Institute Blog)

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