Australia overhauls aid framework

The Australian government recently released a new aid framework based on the results of the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness – the first review of Australia’s aid in 15 years. Following a public consultation process to which DARA contributed, the new aid framework will work to address many of the issues suggested in our Humanitarian Response Index 2010 assessment of Australia’s humanitarian aid. However, the government’s response to the review findings, while on the whole very positive, falls short in a few areas. Here are a few suggestions on how to move forward with the review’s recommendations with the aim of ensuring that Australia’s humanitarian assistance has the maximum impact for people affected by disasters and conflicts.

Under the new framework, the government has made humanitarian and disaster response one of it five strategic areas, and sets an objective of “enhancing disaster preparedness and delivering faster and more effective responses to humanitarian crises given the increased frequency and impact of natural disasters in recent decades.” At the same time, the government agrees in principle with the review’s recommendation to increase the share of humanitarian and emergency assistance – currently less than 10% of its official development assistance budget for humanitarian assistance – and to increase its funding to Australian NGOs, so that they have the capacity to deliver on a more ambitious aid agenda.

However, the government should ensure that there is a corresponding increase in the capacity of AusAid to monitor and manage an increased humanitarian aid portfolio. One of the conclusions from the Humanitarian Response Index is that in recent years, government humanitarian agencies are overstretched and under resourced, making it difficult to monitor needs and support the work of their partners to delivery aid effectively, including advocating and providing support for important issues around overcoming barriers to access to crisis-affected populations.

The government’s commitment to increase efforts to mainstream gender equality in its programmes is also commendable. This is particularly important in situations of humanitarian crisis, where our research shows that all too often, the specific needs of girls and women and boys and men are not adequately taken into consideration. Donor governments can exercise an important role in promoting and monitoring that their humanitarian partners are addressing the issue. Donor governments can also play an important advocacy role in crisis situations where gender and sexually-based violence are prevalent, calling for stronger measures to ensure respect for human rights and protection of civilians.

Another positive step is the government’s commitment to implement a Transparency Charter for its aid programmes. One of the major findings of the HRI 2010 is that donor governments are not transparent enough about where and how they are allocating their humanitarian and emergency assistance, and despite the attention to accountability to domestic taxpayers, are not doing enough to be accountable to the people humanitarian aid is intended to serve. The new Transparency Charter is a step in the right direction to ensuring that humanitarian aid efforts can be tracked and monitored by all stakeholders – civil society, humanitarian organisations and aid beneficiaries.

Perhaps the most important issue in the government’s response to the review is the missed opportunity to reaffirm the importance of maintaining humanitarian assistance neutral, impartial and independent from other objectives, and based on needs alone. Last year’s Humanitarian Response Index showed an increasing politicization of humanitarian assistance by both donor governments and governments in crisis-affected countries. The report stressed the need for donor governments to keep their humanitarian aid independent, and warned of the dangers of mixing political, economic or military objectives with humanitarian aid. The end result is often that humanitarian needs are subordinated to other aims, depriving populations of the aid they need and deserve.

In its response to the aid review, the government states that humanitarian assistance allocations will be based, in part, on national interests. There is a risk that national interest could be misinterpreted in ways that undermine principled humanitarian action in complicated crises like Afghanistan and Pakistan – both countries where Australia has a strong aid and military presence. Mixing humanitarian objectives with other aims can compromise the safety and security of humanitarian workers who depend on being perceived as neutral and impartial, and not linked to any government agenda. The affected population itself can be targeted simply because they have received aid from countries perceived to be part of the conflict.
But there is still time to address this. The Australian Government and AusAid could follow the example of the recent review of emergency assistance by the UK Government, which emphatically and categorically stated that the basis for allocating humanitarian assistance should be on needs alone, and in full respect for humanitarian principles. This would be a major step in the right direction.