The Australian Agency for International Development, AusAID, officially ceases to exist today - just a few months shy of what would have been its 40th birthday.  
By
Erdem Koc

Source:
1 Nov 2013 - 2:08 PM  UPDATED 1 Nov 2013 - 3:12 PM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The Australian Agency for International Development, AusAID, officially ceases to exist today - just a few months shy of what would have been its 40th birthday.

It comes following the federal government announcement the qgency's work would be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

But there are concerns it could result in a significant reduction in the level of aid provided to developing countries.

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Within a few hours of being sworn in as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott announced a significant reorganisation of several government portfolios.

One of the more controversial decisions was to collapse AusAID's standing as an independent statutory body, and merge it with DFAT.

It's a move which was met with fierce criticism.

One of AusAID's non-government partner organisations, ActionAID, says the abolishment of the agency will have a detrimental effect on millions of people worldwide.

Its executive director, Archie Law, says the Coalition has turned aid into a political football.

"It seems to be a political decision because you can't see the strategic benefit of it. And we can hear all the talk about the aid program being aligned with Australia's national interests, which, I think Australia's national interest in this realm is all about enabling people to escape the ravages of poverty. And I would have thought that's in our national interest."

Archie Law says there's now a great deal of uncertainty on how organisations like his own will be able to deliver its projects without a direct government body to report to.

"It becomes really problematic because there's such a good working relationship with AusAID, which is a very critical engagement, you know - it's certainly not smooth-sailing, I don't agree with everything AusAID says and they certainly wouldn't agree with everything I say, but it is a good critical relationship that's been built up, in our case, over 40 years. So there's the unknown."

The government has announced a taskforce within DFAT to determine what the new arrangements will be.

But details of the direct effect of the merger are limited.

In recent years, aid has been at the centre of budget cuts.

In government, Labor twice pushed back its target of spending 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income on aid.

Deakin University's Professor Matthew Clarke, who specialises in international development, says while budget cuts are one thing, changing the administrative burden of aid is another.

"Well it does send two messages. It sends a message to the countries we provide aid to, that aid is no longer necessarily always going to be given priority for humanitarian purposes. In the past, it's always been understood that Australian aid does serve two purposes: humanitarian interest, but also Australia's national interest, and that's perfectly fine and understandable, but it may seem now that that priority has been shifted and that Australian national interests are taking priority. The second message it gives is to the Australian public, that the Australian aid program perhaps hasn't been as efficient as it could be and therefore allows it to be more open to financial cuts in any budget revisions that might occur."

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has said she will be reviewing Australia's aid program.

Ms Bishop gave a speech to an aid conference recently, from which the media was excluded.

Her office says the re-alignment of the aid program will focus Australian assistance on our region, and consolidating aid efforts to reduce fragmentation and improve efficiency.

But ActionAID's Archie Law says the government is not being consultative over its plans.

"It's interesting these decisions are made, you know, government restructures, cut a billion dollars from the aid program, there's not a single voice from a human being living in poverty, particularly a woman, that's been asked to input into this process. It's just a government clean-swipe. It's almost like 'let's a take a swipe at the Labor government' because AusAID and the aid program was one of Kevin Rudd's pet hobbies."

Professor Clarke from Deakin University says the Coalition has not been consistent with its approach to aid.

He says while it had always flagged budget cuts, the indication was there'd at least be a minister responsible for aid, particularly because it had a shadow minister for international development while in opposition.

"They had that shadow spokesman right through, right up to the election, so the expectation was that there would be a minister for international development and that again was a shock but that no longer is the case and AusAID is going to be merged into DFAT."