Waylaid Dialectic

August 3, 2011

And in breaking news: aid workers discovered sleeping on comfy beds

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:38 pm

Still trying to make out what to think of the latest aid ‘scandal’ being broken by the Australian media.

On one hand: Is this really newsworthy? The shocking discovery that aid workers sleep on beds? And use cupboards?
On the other hand: $400,000 is a lot of money for furniture (although it’s not entirely clear from the article exactly how much furniture).
On the other hand: This smells a lot like another beat up. Particular in the comparison of the furniture cost to the basic cost of nutrition treatments. Sure those things are cheap, but they get a lot more expensive once you factor in the human cost of delivering them.
On the other hand: Why tie the aid to a furniture provider in Canberra, why not untie it and let businesses in aid recipient countries benefit.
On the other hand: Perhaps it’s more cost efficient ultimately to do it this way. Rather than waste staff time (which in itself it aid money) searching cities like Port Moresby for reliable furniture makers. Once you add this up around all the cities that aid posts are located in, maybe it makes sense and saves money in the long run.

About the only thing I am sure of is that, if aid effectiveness is the ultimate aim, the journalist involved ought to be working a whole heap of more important stories than this one…



  1. While I’d like to agree that its a beat up… but… furniture? seriously? I know the AUSAID staff presence in Kenya is pretty small at the moment, though set to grow markedly. But to imagine there is no procurement capacity in the whole of the High Commission in Fiji, or Moresby, or Nairobi, to source some furniture… geez. Hope they’ve got some kind of convincing response.

    Comment by Cynan Houghton — August 3, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

  2. Well, the comparison with the cost of nutrition treatments is kind of aid agencies being hung from their own petard. And I’d bet furniture isn’t that hard to find in Port Moresby, or Fiji or Kenya. Given agencies have slammed the practice of sending aid as material, rather than sourcing it locally, I reckon AusAid deserves some stick over this. (and vastly exaggerating a criticism in order to discredit it – as in your headline – does tend to suggest the actual criticism has merit)

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 4, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  3. Hi there Cynan,

    I’m definitely offering an unqualified defence of AusAID here. But I do think that the article’s a beat up in the sense that the scale of the problem, if it is a problem, is trivial compared to the overall aid budget. And that, if you were looking for real issues with the Australian aid programme you could find much more important ones than this.

    I’m sure it would be possible to source furniture in the relevant countries but it still seems possible to me that it *might* be more cost efficient, once you factor in the staff costs and time, to outsource in the way AusAID has. If this sounds unlikely consider the following: security protocols for anyone working for the Australian government in Port Moresby are pretty strict (and rightly so – it’s a dangerous city by all accounts), so getting around’s not that easy. Contract enforcement law’s probably not great either, nor is consumer protection law, and in Western Melanesia anything that can go wrong often does go wrong, meaning that you want a reliable supplier. Such a supplier no doubt exists, but they also likely cater to the wealthy expat market so, ultimately, mightn’t be much cheaper once you find them. And by then you’ve wasted a bunch of time in an already time poor agency. Or, on the other hand, maybe the savings would be real and worth having pursued.

    In other words, I’m not sure about this one…

    Comment by terence — August 4, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  4. C’mon Terence, this is furniture. You just go to a shop and buy it. If it was IT equipment your comments about reliable suppliers, consumer protection and contract enforcement might have merit.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 4, 2011 @ 10:56 am

  5. Hi Sam,

    Maybe. But I’m not so sure. Equipping a house in Honiara, to use the city that I’m most familiar with, wouldn’t necessarily be that easy. Particularly if you take into account the fact that procurement requirements may well require an aid agency to get a range of quotes. Add all these headaches up around the world and maybe it turns out that it’s more efficient just to let one contract back home. Or maybe not. I’m not racing to AusAID’s defence here; I’m just highlighting my own uncertainty.



    Comment by terence — August 4, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

  6. It’s a shame your piece reads like a list of excuses for AusAid, rather than an exploration of the issues. It reads like you are adding complexity to a simple issue in order to let AusAid off the hook. And the ‘procurement requirements’ angle just sounds really weak – “We’d love to buy locally, but subsection 34b of our operating manual/holy book doesn’t allow it, so there’s just nothing we can do about it, what a shame…”

    The bigger problem is the response of the aid industry to recent attacks is to get all defensive and refuse to admit any wrong-doing, which is ruining its credibility.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 9, 2011 @ 7:58 am

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