The machinery of government: on being a person in the turning cogs of aid

By Laura Jean McKay | 19 May 14

About 500 women in south and central Iraq were about to be chosen for job training. These women are the heads of their households – their husbands have died, divorced or become disabled by war – and they survive in an unstable country by doing different sorts of cash work every day or by relying on their extended family. Finding better or more stable employment would really change things. I don’t know these women, they don’t know me, but I do know something they don’t: they were supposed to be the recipients of a job skills program funded by the Australian government’s aid program. Now, because of funding and policy changes, it probably won’t happen.

This story is not new. Everyone in the aid industry – from organisational directors to recipients – has experienced the sometimes ridiculous, often devastating effects of funding changes, cuts, new rules and adjustments. The restrictions that donors put on the money they give can make a mess of the most well-designed project and have dire consequences for the people the project was supposed to help. I remember a co-worker running into our dusty office in northern Cambodia with a ruler and making us laugh by doing a hammed-up show of measuring how far our keyboards were from the edges of our desks – USAID (the US Agency for International Development) had just made ergonomics a requirement of continued funding.

In 2007, I was writing stories for an aid organisation in Cambodia. They run fantastic programs, and one day I went to visit one of them – a water and sanitation project focusing on HIV. Along with my co-workers, I filed into a thatched sugar palm house to talk to a young boy who was one of the recipients of the funding. The boy was HIV positive – a fact that wasn’t discussed openly in the tiny village. I didn’t speak Khmer (the national language in Cambodia) but got the strong sense, through scraps of translation and reserved body language, that the family were uneasy with our presence. The huge white four-wheel drive filled with aid workers made things difficult.

One of the project officers handed the boy a small but important element of the project – a sanitation kit with soap, toothbrush, face washer and other things that would help him avoid infections that could be life-threatening. The boy’s mother gestured to her other children and asked if there was something for them as well. I glanced at the three or four kids sitting on the floor of the one-roomed home. I didn’t know where the funding was coming from for this project, but I did know that the other children in the family weren’t HIV-positive, and that the project was only for kids who were.

My job, as a communications aid worker, was to sell stories to donors. “I can make a feature out of three quotes and a good pic,” I used to say. But behind the gung-ho, ambulance-chasing, wannabe-journo exterior, there is usually a person who genuinely wants to help where it is needed most. And on the receiving end of mother-knows-best Big Aid there is an Iraqi woman who has lost her husband and is trying to make do. This story is about what happens when a large funding body makes a change and how this affects people at both ends of the process. It’s also about how an industry that at its most basic level is supposed to “help people” actually operates in a zone far removed from that ideal.

Welcome to the machine

Author Angela Savage had a 12-year career in international development in the 1990s and early 2000s before she started writing. Savage ran reproductive health projects in Laos and recalls the days when the World Health Organization were spending up to 80 per cent of donor dollars on administration. “It’s such a fraught industry,” she says. “The UN is a great big machine with terrible overheads.”

It is rare these days to think in terms of machines. Images of loud and dangerous moving cogs have been replaced with more nebulous terms such as “clouds” and “servers”. But the structures of government are still referred to mechanically – vast, continuous engines maintained with varying degrees of competence. Former AusAID (the Australian Agency for International Development) staff member Annmaree O’Keeffe describes the aid sector in one article as a huge ship: “Once it is heading in one direction, it takes a lot of energy, money and time to turn it around.” Thinking in these terms makes an otherwise overly complex system physical. We may not know how the ship stays afloat, or even what it is carrying, but we can see it and wave it goodbye with a handkerchief from the docks.

That’s what 2,124 government service workers did to AusAID recently as what is known as the Machinery of Government (or the process of government) reabsorbed the agency back into DFAT (the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) after only a few years of independence. The decision was one of the very first made by the Coalition Government. The merger was announced (along with a number of other changes) just a few hours after Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and other Coalition MPs were sworn in during a jovial ceremony in a flower-filled room in Yarralumla, Canberra, on 18 September 2013. The media release of the same day explains that the change will enable “the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda to be more closely aligned”.

The atmosphere at DFAT, however, has been far from jovial. The merger was described behind the scenes as a “hostile takeover” and minor havoc ensued. Five hundred DFAT redundancies will be made of full time, mostly former AusAID, staff and Peter Baxter, Director-General of AusAID, resigned. Stories appeared about a DFAT worker miming machine-gun fire from a first floor balcony over AusAID staff who were attending a briefing in the foyer below. More recently, The Canberra Times reported that a sports style rivalry had sprung up between the two trade union teams of DFAT Barton (the RG Casey Building that headquarters DFAT) and DFAT Civic (the old AusAID offices) over everything from gym membership to car parking.

It’s the type of hi-jinx usually reserved for Parliamentary Question Time, not the sort of thing thought to happen amongst those working in international aid. The media coverage of the merger makes both DFAT – the conservatively coddled diplomat of an older child – and AusAID – the righteous, rebellious and irresponsible younger sibling – look silly. But Australia’s international aid program is serious business. Even with May’s budget announcing a 7.6 billion cut in foreign aid over the next five years – representing over 20 per cent of the total budget savings – the aid program is still a (now capped) five billion dollar contribution that focuses its assistance on Asia-Pacific regions that many other donor countries forget.

So how does international aid actually work? Starting small, lets think of an average aid organisation as a vending machine. When you put a dollar in and select what you want to buy, say a clean water well for a village, the dollar doesn’t arrive whole at the village. It goes through a process. Unless you say specifically where you want the dollar to go, it is cut up and divided to cover administration costs and then shared out amongst the programs – often including the ones like HIV projects that aren’t as popular as wells in villages and school books for kids.

With big governmental aid the process is similar though the machine is far bigger. Most big aid operates in the realm of “bilateral aid” – government-to-government assistance from one country to another. Australia uses what might be described as a tailored approach, meaning that it delivers aid according to different needs but broadly and very roughly speaking, the mechanism runs like this: AusAID/DFAT works out what is needed with the government of the country requesting aid then researches and designs a suitable program (or, more likely, employs contractors to do it). Major programs are tendered out to commercial firms or aid organisations that AusAID/DFAT staff oversee. Smaller slices of programs then go to volunteer schemes, to “multilateral” global aid organisations (such as The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund and the World Health Organization), “non-governmental organisations” (aid agencies) and emergency assistance.

The key word to remember in this approach is “bilateral”. This is governments working with other governments, all of whom are dictated by political concerns as much as humanitarian ones. Aid Watch, an organisation that monitors the Australian government aid program, also points out that because donor countries like Australia set the guidelines for aid, “this allows donors to artificially inflate the amount of aid they claim to provide by including items which do not contribute to poverty alleviation”. In Australia, these items include scholarships (of which I have been a recipient), loans to countries in need (which are required to be paid back) and debt cancellation for debts sometimes accrued in dubious circumstances.

As we can see, Australia’s big aid program isn’t as big as it makes out and the recent budget cuts mean the pool is even smaller for organisations trying to get money for their projects.

With the merger of AusAID and DFAT, Australia has withdrawn much of its aid program from South America and the Middle East, focusing instead on South East Asia and the Pacific regions. In terms of political and humanitarian agendas such as best use of resources and regional interest, this is a sensible decision. For projects that were already supported by the Australian government in South America and the Middle East though, the decision is devastating.

A bitter pill

In February this year Michael Bates, country director of the Danish Refugee Council in the Kurdish region and greater Iraq, received an email. It was from DFAT, the donor that was supporting 70 per cent of their programs in south and central Iraq, regretting to say that they were pulling out. They gave one month notice – as per the contract.

While Bates tells me over an unexpectedly clear Skype connection that the email came as “a shock”, the retreat of the Australian aid program wasn’t much of a surprise.

“As disappointing as it was to lose the money from AusAID or DFAT, I think they have also been an incredibly good donor,” says Bates. “Interests do evolve elsewhere and I can’t single out the Australian government for neglecting a country that still needs to be supported because Australia is not the only one. Most governments, if they haven’t already, are still pulling out. It’s a bitter reality.”

Australia is one of the last of many countries that has been withdrawing funding from Iraq, often to focus on the situation in nearby Syria and the millions of refugees who have escaped over the boarder into Kurdistan – where the Danish Refugee Council also has operations. But while the situation in Syria plays out in the world’s media, 350,000 Iraqis have been displaced from internal sectarian conflicts that are killing 1000 people every month and there are real fears that the country is close to civil war.

Bates and the head of operations Zinnah Kamah successfully negotiated a longer period for the last of the programs that DFAT was supporting – vocational training and income generation for female headed households affected by conflict. The project will now end in June this year.

“We had some good stories of people whose lives have been transformed by this project,” says Kamah from the Danish Refugee Council office. “Women were doing different vocational training programs, some of them related to agriculture production training, some of them sewing, some of them mobile phone repairs, and some setting up small shops. Different kinds of things. Along with the training we gave them a small grant to start up businesses.”

A woman doing training in farm work or phone repairs can be a challenging sight in a traditionally male-dominated society such as Iraq. Bates explains that it’s not easy, and sometimes the effect is small, but it’s better than nothing.

“We’ve advocated at the ground level and also with the government and a lot of the working groups – female groups, religious leaders, government leaders as well. It was quite productive and extremely necessary. Some places were much more challenging than others, yes, but that was part of the work.”

Kamah adds, “in an electrical installation class we had five women. Men couldn’t believe that a woman would have such a career. We told them that, yes, it was a strange situation but we thought it was working. It was accepted.”

The next step was to get this recognised in the wider community – as Kamah points out, there’s no point in doing the training if women aren’t allowed to work in these fields or have a hard time doing so.

“It’s a process,” says Bates. “I don’t think we’re going to change the perception across the board immediately. But I think with small inner circles we can make some changes – and it’s got to start from somewhere.”

When I ask whether this process of change has now stopped because the funding has been withdrawn there is silence over the other end. The connection buzzes. I assume that it has cut out but then Kamah finally murmurs, “it’s hard to say”.


It’s hard to get people in Australia to talk about what happened with the AusAID/DFAT merger. One contact who won’t go on record laughs nervously as we meet in a dim Japanese-themed bar, a far cry from anything that would resemble government or aid, and we exchange trade secrets about what is now sheepishly referred to as “WasAid”. In April, new protocols were released by the Coalition Government warning that civil servants who spoke out against government individuals or administrations on social media could be sacked and suggesting a “whistle blower scheme” for colleagues to dob each other in. While this reeks of cover-ups and scandal, the sad reality is that most of the facts are probably already out in the open: I can’t speak to people who are (or were) receiving aid because they are usually in vulnerable or frankly dangerous situations that won’t be helped by my story. Meanwhile, people in Australia and overseas will lose their jobs over the merger and even those who have resigned or become unemployed don’t want to ruin their chances in the sector by bad mouthing it on record. It’s all pretty standard. In fact, the new budget statement for DFAT’s portfolio is scarily transparent, stating upfront that “the objective of Australia’s foreign, trade and investment, development and international security policies is to advance Australia’s national interest – the security and prosperity of Australians and promoting prosperity, reducing poverty and enhancing stability with a particular focus on our region, the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific.”

“Pulling out significantly affected our operation,” says Kamah in Iraq. “We [closed down] three offices because of this so you can imagine the size of the impact on our work.” The impact goes further than the women and their families who were going to benefit from this project. It also affects local staff who have been working for years in these offices and are now out of a job.

“To be brutally honest I think people just see it as a fact of life,” says Bates. “Even our staff understand that you have a contract now and tomorrow it might not be there.” This fatalistic attitude is one that I identify with from my time as an aid worker and one I encounter again and again in others, from senior ex-AusAID staff and country directors like Bates, through to Australian volunteers.

In Canberra, Robin Davies, who was a Division Head at AusAID for nearly 20 years, confirms this, telling me that “local staff have become quite fatalistic but they’re one of the greatest assets of the aid program because they often stay in position for their entire careers. They see us come and go with a sense of weariness. I think it must be deeply frustrating for them. At least until recently they knew they would remain in position and could probably weather the changes. But with the merger of AusAID and DFAT there is a question about the job security of those local staff.” AusAID employed over 500 locally engaged staff overseas. But as Davies points out, DFAT already has its own local work force.

One of my bosses – a hardened aid worker herself – always told me, “everyone is replaceable”. As the moving parts that drive the industry, beneficiaries and staff are constantly caught in a cross-fire of decisions made by individual personalities, organisations and governments. The big white four-wheeled-drive rolls in to the village and departs again, leaving aid and also bewilderment. The bumper sticker for international aid is, it seems, not “magic happens” but “shit happens”.

In Canberra, Davies explains that “you’re working within a large bureaucracy with short term objectives and eventually it gets you down”. Davies, who now works at the Australian National University in Canberra, laughs when I suggest that the three year cycles of government must wreak havoc on programming. “It would be nice to think that even a three-year horizon was dominant.” He tells me about a DFAT funded “Knowledge Sector Initiative” that has just started up in Indonesia – a program that aims to support public policies that begin to address the situation of 120 million people living in poverty.

“In principle it is a very large program which will be in place for 10 years – sounds good. In practice whenever that happens the thing gets reviewed within an inch of its life every 18 months and it’s constantly changed and downsized and personnel are pushed out and others brought in and the result is something very short term, very projectised and rigidly controlled with objectives that shift with every change in who is managing the thing.”

Davies has experienced this first hand as a Project Manager for AusAID in Indonesia, where he set up projects and then found that new people with different ideas had ended them before they could take off. “It’s deeply unsatisfying when you look back and find that everything you’ve done is over,” he says.

If a program with its sights on 120 million people looks set to choke on red tape, it’s almost no wonder that a small project working with women in Iraq didn’t make it. As World Vision’s Tim Costello has suggested, the recent aid budget cuts ensure that it will be the world’s poorest people who will now be footing the bill for Australia’s financial problems.

On the good ship DFAT

Look up the AusAID office on Google Maps and you will be advised in angry red lettering “AusAID CLOSED”.  In reality the office – now known as DFAT Civic – is far from closed, but rather in flux. The building is a plain-looking structure jollied up with bright lettering. Walking past the windows is like going to see the department store displays at Christmas time. The Millennium Development Goals the first window announces, Australia working with the world to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Each window after that demonstrates through pictures and text how exactly Australia, and indeed AusAID, will work to halve poverty by next year. End extreme hunger; universal education; gender equality; child health; maternal health; fight disease; environmental sustainability; global partnerships. The final window is the entrance to the building and while I’m standing there the doors are flung open and 40 to 50 well-dressed and lanyarded workers stream out. The mood is cheery – not quite office Christmas party but perhaps a loved team-mate’s birthday or at least a successful or informative meeting. The catch cries of “organisational-wide” and “sustainability” can be heard from their ranks as the afternoon traffic zooms by.

A bus pulls up nearby and I decide to see if it goes over Lake Burley Griffin to Capital Hill where the DFAT offices sit. The bus driver repeats “DFAT” when I ask and waves away my offer of payment. It is only once the bus has taken off that I realise I have accidently hopped aboard the internal DFAT bus filled with DFAT people who are having internal conversations all around me. I push my notebook deep in my bag.

Compared to the old AusAID offices, pulling into DFAT is like entering the circular drive of a quite expensive and well-guarded hotel. The workers file in past ASIO-looking guards and into the tinted-glass foyer, while I put my phone to my ear and pretend I have a Very Important Phone Call, making for the cigarette-littered park over the road. The joyous and productive Millennium Development Goals that adorn the windows of AusAID aren’t present at DFAT Barton. Gold lettering simply states R. G. Casey building. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In fact, the May budget indicates that Australia is abandoning its commitment to the Millennium Development Goal target entirely – in which the world’s governments, including Australia, committed to put 0.7 per cent of their gross national incomes towards foreign aid by 2020. Even without the recent budget cuts, it’s unlikely that Australia would have honoured this. Currently, Australia’s commitment to foreign aid is half that: 0.33 per cent, predicted to fall to 0.31 per cent by 2018.

Foreign aid or “Official Development Assistance” is broadly defined as “a voluntary transfer of public resources, from a government to another independent government, to an NGO, or to an international organisation … one goal of which is to better the human condition in the country receiving the aid.” In its last annual report before the merger, AusAID’s key objectives reflect this, saying that “the fundamental purpose of the Australian aid program is to help people overcome poverty”. DFAT narrows this definition though, defining Australia’s aid program in terms of the promotion of “Australia’s national interests through contributing to economic growth and poverty reduction” (my italics). The department’s goals are clear. There is no pretending any more that this is only about the people on the receiving end of aid. DFAT’s mandate is about Australians and this is the environment that ex-AusAID staff – and the international community supported by Australian government funding – must now navigate.

In 2009 I visited the Australian Embassy in Cambodia, trying to find funding for an Australian/Cambodian writers’ festival in Phnom Penh that I hoped would help to revive the country’s decimated literary scene. I was told very clearly that the festival needed to be advancing Australia’s interests for the Embassy to be involved. If I was naively surprised by this back then, what the merger makes clear to me now is that the focus on national interests is a lens through which all Australia’s aid work is viewed, from where the aid will go through to who will be employed in the countries where we work.

Davies maintains cautious optimism about the merger, predicting that it might positively influence DFAT. “If budget stability is maintained, that hugely reduces the scope for politicians to cook up announcables and increases the scope for DFAT to actually manage the activities that it has and make choices based on real competition,” he says. “When you’ve got a rapidly rising budget you can allocate resources to pretty much everyone that knocks on your door. That almost happened. There were way too many funding partnerships with multilateral organisations and international foundations. These days it’s a much more competitive environment.”  There is the sense that AusAID was getting too big for its boots and too free with its aid. Now aid organisations who took it for granted that their projects would be supported must compete in an environment with much less money and stricter guidelines.

Marion Orchison, who works for the Danish Refugee Council currently seconded to the UN in Geneva, recalls in AusAID an agency that, with all its faults, had an impact.

“The overwhelming sense I got from people was sadness that a really positive donor was going away. From a field perspective, although [AusAID was] very small compared to ECHO [Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department of the European Union] and USAID, they were a very effective donor. They were a very sensible donor. There wasn’t a lot of money but they listened … It’s not as though there were never problems because that’s the nature of the relationship with donors but we got the sense that they had trust in us and were willing to listen.”

Savage had a similar experience working in Laos in the 90s with Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia. “My experience had a positive beginning in the sense that the decision to fund HIV work had been done in response to an identified need, there was commitment to funding ethical projects and the funding did come through,” she says.

Alongside this, though, Savage also remembers how changes to reproductive health policy in Australia dramatically affected her work.

“We weren’t even permitted to provide information on emergency contraception or termination of pregnancy,” she says, adding that emergency contraception is now considered essential by the UN in conflict situations. “There was at least one case where a publication that was developed preceding that policy shift was pulped because it still contained information about those services.

“It was very interesting to me how that program became politicised … It was telling that this was being determined on purely ideological grounds in Australia. It had nothing to do with need on the ground.”

Value-for-money aid

There are a lot of ideas on how Australia’s international aid program, and aid programs globally, might be better run. As well as funding, most of the people that I speak to seem to seek two things: a partnership that extends further than the office walls and into the countries and communities of the people in need of aid; and donors and policies that honour commitments beyond changes in government. Not impossible asks, but ones that lie behind seemingly insurmountable peaks of bureaucracy. In April this year Julie Bishop announced that the Australian Government would be embracing “a new paradigm” for the delivery of aid. Known as “aid for trade”, the privatisation of the aid industry promises more jobs for Australians and the growth of Australian businesses here and overseas using a “performance-based” approach. “There will be a strong focus on the results from our investments and value-for-money,” Bishop said in her parliamentary speech.

In keeping with the seemly transparent “this-is-how-it-is” style already firmly established at DFAT, Bishop admits that “the private sector is – of course – primarily concerned with producing profits for its shareholders. It is not primarily concerned with the world’s poor, although many corporations play a vital role through a commitment to social responsibility. This does not detract from the fact that a strong private sector will deliver higher growth and more jobs – which is central to reducing poverty.”

Some, such as Michelle Higelin from ActionAid Australia, argue that this is not such a new paradigm at all. Higelin told the ABC that AusAID already used “performance-based aid”. “I’m not sure that it’s anything different, it’s just new language,” she said.

In Iraq, Bates is as matter-of-fact about the political nature of aid as anyone who has spent time in the industry, but he finds the whole thing no less perplexing.

“Some of my bigger frustrations will be the big players in this pulling away,” he says of the steady withdrawal of funding in a time of increased conflict and displacement. He tells me that both Iraqi and Western businesses made a lot of money from the conflicts. “The country has potential, but it’s just not going to happen because of the violence and the corruption – it’s one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And it’s in a state of war.”

In Australia, DFAT and aid organisations are reeling over the 7.6 billion dollar cut to foreign aid, which will hold far-reaching impacts here and overseas.  At what Orchison describes as “the pointy end” of aid – a village in Cambodia where a child has been diagnosed with HIV; a house in Iraq where a woman is in charge for the first time of making ends meet – many people remain unaware of the intricacies of the machine. Given government changes, political agendas, budget cuts, endless policy redrafts and internal bickering, this might not be a bad thing. As an aid worker I was relatively unaware of where the money came from, or the changes that could make or break a project. I only knew the feeling of climbing back into the air-conditioned car and wondering how on earth I was going to make a story with no quotes and no photographs because the child I’d been interviewing was considered too vulnerable. I was dimly aware, as I settled in to the seat and looked at the hot little village outside the window, that somewhere a donor would be expecting a story. And that without the story (a requirement of the funding), the money wouldn’t come.

As for the 500 women in Iraq who won’t receive training – there is no story. At least, not one that will be told by the aid industry any time soon.