AusAid could tell you, but then they’d have to…
When you think of Canberra’s more secretive agencies, Australia’s spy agencies – ASIO and ASIS – usually come to mind.
It’s likely that the agency responsible for delivering bikes to poor Aids ravaged Africans, in a country with little or no public transport like Namibia, is not top of the list.
Yet as today’s News Limited investigation shows, AusAID is an agency with a secretive culture that rejects the accountability and transparency it demands of aid recipients such as the Bicycle Empowerment Network.
Within the countries where Australia is a major aid donor some of the more questionable practices such as paying consultants $250,000+ tax-free salaries, or contracting to Australian firms who send much profits home (commonly referred to as ‘boomerang’ aid) has been an open secret for years.
Increasingly resentment of these practices is growing, especially in the Pacific; with stories emerging of AusAID consultants living on these large salaries yet showing little respect for local sensitivities.
In February, when The Australian first ran a story citing these massive salaries – comment across the region exploded.
Pacific media outlets republished the story and were inundated with outraged letters unable to fathom how consultants sent to help and ‘share their expertise’ could be pocketing more in one year more than most of those they were helping could expect to earn in a lifetime.
The public reaction among our aid recipients is understandable but slowly the outrage continuing to build.
Negative stories and gossip are emerging, such as the story of the consultant on one Pacific Island who demanded someone from his real estate come and replace a single light bulb, sparking outrage across the island nation.
For the record, the outrage this rumour was based not just on the idea that the Australian consultant wouldn’t change the light bulb, rather that they wouldn’t pay for the light bulb - despite their salary…
Stories like this, whether true or not, have the serious potential to irrevocably damage our relationship with our neighbours and leave AusAID and Australia appearing arrogant and out of touch with the Pacific region.
It was within this context that News Limited began a 2 month investigation of how AusAID spends its budget.
News Limited, National Political Correspondent Steve Lewis and myself soon discovered AusAID could well give our spy agencies a run for their money.
The starting point was the document listing all current contracts, as of 31 December 2009 over the value $100,000.
At 28 pages, it makes for some very interesting reading.
The documents listing everything from the $185,866.34 AusAID spent on its African Communications plan to the $12.8 million that, Australian firm, Reeves Construction and Services is being paid to redevelop Nauru Secondary school.
It was, perhaps, naïve to expect AusAID to willing discuss these expenditures – obviously the failure to purchase property for AusAID staff in Port Moresby at a cost in rental accommodation around $2500 a week is not an issue they are eager to discuss.
But what was surprising was the stranglehold that AusAID has on those who receive its funding.
When recipients of Australian aid were contacted the response almost invariably came back that “you have to talk to Ausaid, we can’t comment”.
Now we weren’t asking complicated questions or let alone asking them to be critical of the agency – rather the focus of our questions were about establishing facts - like how many ‘Lapdesks’ the $113,000 Australia spent in Mozambique bought.
For the record the answer is 4,500 desks in a program that is completely revolutionising education across the African continent.
Frustrated News Limited turned to AusAID to go on the record and discuss its practices and spending with public.
It quiet simply chose not to. When Lewis emailed seeking an interview with the AusAID chief Peter Baxter, he was told that a “tentative” date had been pencilled in, to be confirmed after a set of questions were received by the agency. And this a full week before the interview was even slated!
When requests for briefings from on the ground bureaucrats, were made, News Limited was told written requests could be filed with Canberra and that once ‘appropriate information’ on the stories that were being written was provided these application would be considered.
These tactics and demands while familiar to journalists, in say a country like China, are increasingly becoming the mainstream within government in Australia.
And the Australian aid agency AusAID is making an art form of them.
Today’s investigation by News Limited is extensive and well researched.
Yet it would have been far more well rounded, and thus the public better informed, had the agency being willing to discuss the findings of the investigation on the record with the media.
For an agency that is about to see its budget double to $8 billion-plus and is asking for structural separation from the Department of Foreign Affairs, it surely not too much to ask that it meet the same standards openness and transparency that it demands of its aid recipients.
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