There is the need for greater mutual accountability between Australia and recipient country government’s to ensure Technical Assistance is used in a way that is not merely perpetuating Australian national interests, but rather, respects recipient countries’ rights to determine their own development.The role of technical assistance in the Australian aid program has often been a contentious issue[1]. An Australian National Audit Office report in 2009 found almost double the proportion (46%) of the Australian aid budget was being spent on consultants compared with the OECD average. The subsequent 2011 Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness supported growing criticisms of Australia’s over reliance on technical assistance in the aid program. In response to the Independent Review’s recommendations, the government outlined a new framework for Australia’s aid program, which included “building on the commitment to reduce the number of technical advisers by 25 percent over the next two years, and reduce any unreasonable remuneration levels of remaining advisers to maximise the return on our aid dollars”[2].

While the proportion of the program delivered through contractors has halved in the last five years[3], Technical Assistance continues to play a prominent role in the Australian aid program. Technical assistance over the last decade has accounted for 40-50% of the entire aid budget.[4]A large proportion of this aid ends up back in Australia, courtesy of highly-paid Australian consultants and firms specialising in Technical Assistance in the delivery of aid projects, also known as ‘boomerang aid’[5]. This refers to an intentional tendency to favour Australia’s commercial interests in aid delivery through funding private Australian companies, consultants, advisors and goods and services, thereby bypassing those who need it the most. As of 31 July 2010, there were 1,204 technical advisers in the aid program. According to former agency AusAID, the average cost for long-term expatriate advisers was $20,015 per month and for short-term advisers, $1,618 per day.[6] Salaries of this magnitude are unattainable for the local staff in aid recipient countries that work alongside these consultants. Technical Assistance pay disparities can cause resentment amongst local staff as well as privilege western ‘expert’ advice over local knowledge and experience.

More recent data on Technical Assistance in the Australian aid program has been difficult to ascertain, however the continued prevalence of Technical Assistance in a number of focus areas suggests it is more likely to have increased than decreased since then. Despite being criticised internationally, as expensive and yet to be proven as effective (in its stated purpose of capacity development), Technical Assistance remains a billion-dollar business funded by Australian taxpayers[7]. For a small number of firms, it has provided a taxpayer-funded path to massive success.[8] Coffey International, the Sydney-based “global professional services consultancy”, garnered over $300 million in contracts in calendar year 2009 alone. Cardno ACIL secured at least $270 million, as did GRM, a leading international development management company, while Queensland companies GHD and JTA International, both reaped over $100 million.[9] But even if technical assistance does form a smaller part of the future Australian aid budget than it has in the past, the scheduled increase of our foreign aid budget to 0.5% of GNI by 2016-2017 will ensure that a small but highly lucrative mini-industry of consultants and advisers will continue to channel aid away from recipient countries and back to Australia.

Making Technical Assistance work

“When new knowledge is not integrated into indigenous knowledge or production systems, it fails to be useful, despite its potential[10]The continued preference for Technical Assistance both inhibits the ability of the Australian aid program to deliver the maximum benefits to the poor, particularly as it can be linked to a clear push for economic reform in recipient governments. Recipient countries must be allowed to take ownership of their own capacity development, identify their own needs and determine whether these are best served with local or foreign technical assistants.

There must be a fundamental rethink of the assumption that Australian ‘experts’ are inherently more knowledgeable than those with local experience. Australian officials are not uniquely skilled simply because of their work within Australia’s high-growth economy, but can be effective only when there is a demonstrated understanding of and responsiveness to local need. An imposition of a purely ‘Australian’ way will only lead to allegations of heavy handedness and unreflective self-interest.

References

[1] Cornish, M (2011). Why rely so heavily on technical assistance? [online] Available at: http://aidreview.lowyinterpreter.org/post/Why-rely-so-heavily-on-technical-assistance.aspx [Accessed: 28 March 2013].

[2] AusAID (2011). An Effective Aid Program for Australia: Making a real difference—Delivering real results. [online] Available at: http://www.ausaid.gov.au/publications/pages/5621_9774_1073_3040_2380.aspx [Accessed: 28 March 2013].

[3] Duxfield, F., & Wheen, K. (2007). Fighting Poverty or Fantasy Figures? The Reality of Australian aid. AID/WATCH. [online] Available at: http://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/Fantasy%20Figures%20Final.pdf [Accessed: 28 March 2013].

[4] Keane, B. (2013). Who profits from our foreign aid?: the ‘technical assistance’ making business rich. [online] Available at: http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/07/12/who-profits-from-our-foreign-aid-the-technical-assistance-making-business-rich/ [Accessed: 28 March 2013].

[5] Keane, op. cit.

[6] Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Budget estimates 2010-2011; June 2010, Answers to questions on notice from AusAID, pp. 10-11.

[7] Keane, op. cit.

[8] Keane, op. cit.

[9] Keane, op. cit.

[10] Fukuda-Parr, S et al (2002). Capacity for development: New solutions to old problems. Sterling, Va: Earthscan Publications.