In the SMH:
HALF the Australian aid sent to Papua New Guinea is spent on consultancies and training, rather than the nation-building programs it is intended for, an independent review has found.
I haven’t read the review yet, but I have to confess to feeling a little sorry for AusAID.
And much of the reporting hasn’t exactly been great, focusing on absolute dollar amounts, which always look huge but aren’t invariably the real story when you’re talking about an ~AU$3.8B annual aid budget. (i.e. spending $12million to build a school on the isolated island of Nauru mightn’t be good but if it’s a one off, broadly speaking, it’s irrelevant.) Similarly, the high salary of a consultant might be justified if they really make a difference. If you pay someone a million dollars and they get a $100M project working 2% better than anyone else could, that’s still an efficiency gain. Numbers make more sense when they’re placed in perspective.
And some of the reporting has been simply dire, revealing more about journalists’ prejudices than anything else. My favourite:
Around the Pacific rim, questions are being asked as to why consultants, such as Peter Kelly, who is paid $433,000 a year to supervise Vanuatu’s small road system, are paid so much. Partly it is because Australia has signed up to so-called Millennium Development Goals, which includes a commitment to gender equalisation.
That helps explain why Susan Ferguson earns $293,423 tax-free a year as “Gender Integration Adviser” to PNG.
Ah yes, because if you can’t blame women and the UN for everything, there’s just no purpose in life.
Moreover, some of these issues aren’t AusAID’s at all – they’re the offspring of the agency’s political masters (past and present). The rise in consultancies and technical assistance on governance matters has it’s origins squarely in the axis of Howard Downer. Which makes it kind of ironic that some of the same conservative commentators who praised the Coalition’s approach to foreign affairs are now busy kicking the buereaucrats unlucky enough to have been tasked with putting it into action.
On the other hand, NGOs, academics and the OECD have been raising the issue of AusAID’s spending on Technical Assistance for years, and anyone who’s sat through a few Econ 101 lectures could have warned them that having their consulting market locked up by a few big firms probably wouldn’t lead to bargain prices. And I think it’s fair to say that, even taking into account the political constraints that they work under, the could have done a lot better than they did.
Here’s hoping they do now.