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Masking false assumptions in Australia's aid delivery

By Deb Chapman - posted Friday, 28 May 2010


It is an important element of our right to transparency and accountability in governance that there is, rightly, outrage both in Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) about the recently publicised, disgustingly high, rates of tax free dollars that are used to remunerate “consultants” in Australia’s aid program.

On a number of levels I find the “valuing” of work in this way obscene. We don’t value, and therefore remunerate, community and family care for children, differently abled, older people, and many others in our community, or indeed in PNG, in a comparable financial way. Yet we could argue that this work, which is dominated by women and girls, is of more value to the way our countries actually function day-to-day than the terms of reference for many of these aid consultancies.

What is also disturbing is that those consultants pay no tax either in Australia or in PNG. Do they not drive their cars on PNG roads? Who pays for that upkeep? Do they not use government provided, taxpayer funded services in Australia? Why are they exempt from paying tax to support those services? Many people have tried to explain it to me but I just don’t understand it.

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However, let this not mask a deeper and more menacing problem.

In a similar way to many other sectors, Australia’s aid program has been increasingly commercialised and commodified in the last 25 years. As the scourge of neo-liberalism has seen publicly controlled roles such as prison management, local government building surveying regulation, public transport, and public roads all fall into private hands, so has our overseas aid program. And in private hands the motive, make no mistake, is to make a profit.

And so the system peddles one of many false assumptions in aid delivery … that people commanding big bucks will run the aid program better than those demanding less. Where does that leave the bulk of Papua New Guineans? Implicit in this practice is the notion that because they cannot compete for these kinds of consultancies, their knowledge is not valued, or of use, in the delivery of Australian aid.

And where is the accountability of those commanding the big bucks? It is to the shareholders of the commercial aid contractors, not to the taxpayers who contribute to the aid agencies’ coffers.

So commercialism muddies the accountability of what gets done, and by whom. It actively excludes the people with whom we should be engaging. International research and wisdom tells us time and time again that the people who have to live by the consequences of the decisions, should be involved in making those decisions. This is established and documented as being good development practice everywhere and is actually common sense (if you can disentangle the dominance of the neo-liberal paradigm). It ain’t, as they say, rocket science.

Now we find ourselves in a kind of double whammy in PNG. The aid that we do, and have done, has really not had the kinds of impacts or contributed enough to improving life on the ground in that country, that we in Australia and PNG have a right to demand or expect from the billions of dollars spent there. Not only that, but we have also further undermined local development efforts by affecting the context in which aid is carried out in that country, including such things as exorbitant salaries paid to consultants.

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Ask any Papua New Guinean, employed or otherwise, who is trying to live in Port Moresby about housing costs. We think we have it bad here! Perks such as housing provision for expatriate staff in both the considerable aid and development sector and the private sector, have driven prices up in the relatively small rental market in Moresby so that it is simply out of reach of the vast majority of Papua New Guineans. (Goodness knows how the influx of expatriates as part of the LNG project will further exacerbate this problem.)

You can begin to think through for yourself the kind of repercussions this situation brings: law and order issues, food security, infrastructure pressures, a city increasingly divided along class, race and sex lines … but hey, we don’t have to live by the consequences of these decisions. Papua New Guineans do.

So not only do we not “do” aid very well, and it costs us an arm and a leg with such things as obscenely high consultancy costs, but we also don’t even “do no harm”. Our aid program actually makes things worse for local people. Papua New Guineans have plenty of their own issues to deal with. Let’s not give them another job cleaning up the mess that our aid program leaves behind.

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About the Author

Deb Chapman has been a domestic and international community development worker for 30 years, including 10 years in Papua New Guinea. She currently lectures at Victoria University in Melbourne, and is poorer, but happier, that she has never undertaken an AusAID consultancy because she doesnít like the power dynamics and accountabilities underlying that kind of work.

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