Parsing the overall aid objective: a critique and a suggestion

Written by Stephen Howes

The sparsely-written set of principles released last week by the taskforce to guide the re-integration of AusAID into DFAT at least began in the right place: with an articulation of what the overall objective of Australia’s aid program should be:

(A)   “Australia’s aid program will promote Australia’s national interests through contributing to international economic growth and poverty reduction.”

This was, as we commented at the time, a return to the formulation of the aid program’s overall objective devised by Alexander Downer as foreign minister in 1996:

(B)   “Advancing Australia’s national interest by assisting developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development.”

The language is almost identical. While, as Robin Davies has argued, a return to the Downer model of aid organization would be a sensible solution to the reintegration of AusAID into DFAT (AusAID as a semi-autonomous agency within DFAT, with direct reporting to the Minister), we can surely do better than return to this Downer formulation for the overall aid objective. (I use this somewhat clumsy term “overall aid objective” throughout to avoid confusion with various individual aid objectives.)

There are two problems with the Downer 1996 formulation. It manages to give too much weight to the national interest as the motivation for supporting development, and too little as an objective for the aid program.

What the Downer formulation implies is that we are going to give aid only to support development, and that we support development only because it is in the national interest. This is wrong on both counts.

Are we really going to say that we only support development to advance Australia’s national interest? This is what the formulation implies: we give aid to reduce poverty and promote growth, but this is simply a means to pursuing what we are really interested in, our national interest.

But how far is Australia’s national interest served by the immunization of children in Africa? Hardly, if at all. And do we give $500 million to support development in PNG every year only because it is in our national interest? Or do we also actually care about the suffering of our closest neighbour? We try to do something about regional and world poverty not just because it is sometimes in the national interest, but also because of what might be called national compassion: we care enough as a nation to provide a tiny fraction of our public resources to the poor of the world.

The Downer-taskforce formulation, by making the advancement of the national interest the sole motivation for giving aid, is not only inaccurate but demeaning (to ourselves). And it invites unnecessary suspicion, and searches for hidden agendas. “Why are you maintaining our roads? It must be in your national interest. There must be something in it for you.” That was why Downer changed the objective in 2006, to put the national interest at the end of the overall aid objective, and thereby downplay it slightly:

(C)   “To assist developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development in line with Australia’s national interest.”

It was a nice try, but ultimately a cosmetic change, as the logic of both formulations is so similar. (‘I will advance X by doing Y.’ is hardly any different to ‘I will do Y “in line with” X.’)

That’s the first problem. The second is that the taskforce’s and Downer’s various formulations give too little weight to the national interest as an actual objective of the aid program, alongside and sometimes competing with development, rather than something which is only pursued indirectly through support for development. They  fail to recognize that the national interest is an active and direct shaper of the aid program, the pursuit of which leads to choices that we wouldn’t make if our sole objective was a developmental one.

The Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness put it directly: “Australia also has interests in activities that directly impinge on us such as people smuggling or illegal fishing.” And we have specific interests in specific regions. These interests have in the past influenced what we do with our aid – they have influenced where we give aid and what we give aid to. And they continue to today, as Annemaree O’Keefe reminds us here.

Do we really give aid to the Kokoda trail region or to Manus Island because we have worked out that is the best way to reduce poverty in PNG? Of course not.

I mention the Independent Review because Sandy Hollway, our Chair, was determined to do a better job of explaining the role of the national interest in the aid program. We came up with this formulation for the overall aid objective:

(D)  “The fundamental objective of Australian aid is to help people overcome poverty. We work to improve the lives of those living in conditions far below what Australians find acceptable. We focus our resources and effort on areas of national interest, and where Australia can make a real difference.”

 This avoided talking about the motivations for supporting development, and instead stuck to objectives for aid. It gave poverty reduction the central place, but then went on to acknowledge that the national interest also played a significant role in shaping the aid program. This caught the idea that pursuing the national interest shouldn’t be as important for our aid as reducing poverty, but can’t be given zero weight either.

To me, it struck the right balance. The Hollway Review argued that national interest considerations should mainly come into play through country allocations, and “only rarely” through individual activities or sectoral choices.

Unfortunately, and without explanation, the Rudd-Gillard Government put forward a revised formulation:

(E)   “The fundamental purpose of Australian aid is to help people overcome poverty. This also serves Australia’s national interests by promoting stability and prosperity both in our region and beyond. We focus our effort in areas where Australia can make a difference and where our resources can most effectively and efficiently be deployed.”

 Under this formulation, we are back to the national interest as a motivation for supporting development rather than an objective for our aid: “We give aid to reduce poverty and, oh, by the way, that serves the national interest.” At least it didn’t imply that the national interest was the only motivation for giving aid, but it made the same mistake as the Downer formulation of implicitly and implausibly denying that the aid program was directly shaped by the national interest.

If this is all too confusing, have a look at the graphic below. My argument is that, however we formulate the overall objective of the aid program, we should avoid specifying the motivations (or higher-level objectives) for using aid to support development, since we have a mix of motivations and it doesn’t really matter anyway (as the precise mix doesn’t lead to different decisions about aid). We should rather, because it is operationally pertinent, be explicit about the mix of objectives for giving aid. While sometimes different aid objectives will lead to the same aid decisions, there will also be trade-offs, and so different decisions depending on the weight given to each. In summary, we should talk about the national interest as an objective not a motivation.


Bearing all this in mind, what should the formulation of the overall aid objective look like? The starting point should be the Hollway formulation. By all means, put the emphasis explicitly on growth as well as poverty reduction if the Government wants to signal a renewed emphasis on economic development. And drop the second sentence (“We work to improve the lives of those living in conditions far below what Australians find acceptable.”). After all, it is just a background statement of fact, though I imagine it is one that might resonate with the public, which is why we included it.

These changes to the Hollway formulation would then give:

 (F)   “The fundamental objective of Australian aid is to promote economic growth and poverty reduction. We focus our resources and effort on areas of national interest, and where Australia can make a real difference.”

 I would hope that the Coalition, even though it has signalled that it wants to give greater weight to the national interest, would still be prepared to put development as the fundamental objective of the aid program. If not, it could move to a simpler formulation:

 (G)   “The objectives of Australian aid are to promote economic growth and poverty reduction and to promote the national interest.”

 The new Government could even put “strategic and commercial interests” rather than simply “the national interest”. It would be sad to see the pursuit of the national interest given the same importance as development in setting the objectives of aid, and even worse to see commercial objectives re-emerge. (This would take us back to the pre-1996 “triple” formulation of the aid program overall objective, which referred to development, diplomatic and commercial objectives.) But the formulation (G) above would nevertheless be a more satisfactory and less confused formulation than the Downer-like (A) formulation put forward last week.

By all means let’s have a debate about the appropriate role of the national interest in aid. But let’s have it using clear language, as a choice between the two formulations of the overall aid objective immediately above, (F) and (G). My vote is for (F).

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School.


  • Stephen, Thanks for pointing out the difference a few words, or even the order of a few words, can make to our understanding of the objective of the aid program.

    I was very enthusiastic about the objective of the aid program coming out of the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness which actually put people in there for the first time, not just countries. However, from this outsider’s perspective, this very fundamental change to the objective didn’t ultimately have a major impact on policies and programs which were delivered. As Jane Thomason has said “I’m less concerned about how the government frame their aid policy and more concerned about how that translates into development programs on the ground that change people’s lives.” This is not to say that the objective does not matter.

    You haven’t commented on the sentence after the objective in the Secretary of DFAT’s memo: “It [the aid program] will be designed and implemented to support Australian foreign and trade policy”. This seems to be the key to how the objective is intended to be implemented. The Coalition’s Foreign Policy statement, released ahead of the election, sets out areas of focus, such as Women’s leadership, which one can assume will be taken forward through the aid program and it emphasises “strong and effective relationships with our neighbourhood”. This is an area where the aid program has always played a role and it will be important to remember that this cannot only be at a government to government level. Governments change and enduring relationships must exist on many levels.

    The Coalition’s Foreign Policy goes on to state “The coalition will ensure Australia’s economic interests underpin the operations of DFAT. There will be an unambiguous focus on promoting the interests of Australian businesses abroad.” The elevation of business interests and economic diplomacy to a core objective of Australian International Policy is a theme which echoes across both this statement and the Coalition’s Trade Policy Statement. It seems likely from these documents that under the Abbott Government, Australia’s economic interests will be an important driver of the aid program into the future. The key issue then becomes the extent to which short-term economic interests or long-term, less certain interests, dominate. As a long term investment, reducing poverty and improving living conditions for the poorest people in our region will promote our economic interests. I hope this long term view is not crowded out by short term considerations such as using aid to seal trade deals in the short term.

  • The advantage of (F) is that the definition of national interest is a strategic/political one (assuming it refers to sectors and geography) while the rest is one a set of principles which should be bi-partisan,and it is the balance among the national interest(s) (and perhaps ‘direct growth’ or ‘direct poverty reduction’) issues that is ideological.

  • Thanks for these comments. Good to have this conversation. I’ll respond to all of you here.

    Jane – You don’t think that how the government frames its aid policy connects to impact on the ground? I do. Clarity matters.

    Michael – I completely agree with you. The earlier formulations made it sound like there were no tradeoffs between the different objectives by putting them at different levels.

    Ashlee – I think that reverting to the Downer language fits in with the reintegration of AusAID into DFAT. DFAT’s main objective is to promote the national interest. It now runs aid. So aid becomes something to further the national interest. This just shows that if the integration of AusAID into DFAT is going to be deep, as seems to be the case, it can only succeed if DFAT changes as well as AusAID. I note that Canada, now that it has been through its integration of aid and foreign affairs now has a Department for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. If AusAID is really to be abolished, then so should we.

    Ashlee and Jason – Yes, interesting that it is not sustainable economic growth or development in the taskforce formulation but just economic growth. But we can get too hung up with adjectives attached to growth: as someone said today, it’s meant to be inclusive, pro-poor and balanced as well as sustainable. And brevity is a virtue.

    Jo – I agree that normative choices are involved. My normative choice is reflected in my preference for formulation (F) above (G). And of course other normative positions are possible as well. But the choice or the debate should be about how important we want the different objectives to be, not about what the motivations (or higher-level objectives) are behind those objectives. I agree that national interest is a vague term, and that it can be helpful to break it up into strategic/diplomatic interests and commercial interests (which is what I do in the end). But, however vague, the national interest is what is good for Australia. At the higher of my two levels, you can debate whether compassion is a separate motivation to national interest. I think it is, but as I argue it doesn’t really matter for aid decisions. At the level of objectives, certainly development and the national interest can pull in different directions.

    • Hi Stephen, as I said, I do enjoy the devpolicy blog with my morning coffee. After 30 years in international development on all sides of the fence, I am both a pragmatist and a realist. After two years in the UN System recenty I have wordsmithing fatigue. How many policy statements have we seen over the years that are not implemented, or not implemented with fidelity to their intent? …. I think the government have been broadly clear about their intent – and I and the other pragmatists amongst us will look forward to how this unfolds in the field. … And of course to the next devpolicy blog with our morning coffee!

  • Thanks Stephen. This blog really got me thinking, which is great. I’m not yet quite sure I have my head around your argument. I’m one of those people who think that motivations lead to objectives, which lead to action on the ground, etc. So personally I’m not sure if it is possible to separate out or ignore motivations. But your blog raised lots of questions for me.

    To add to your call for clear language, I wonder if it is helpful to avoid the phrase ‘national interest’ altogether, instead pulling out the components of national interest. Maybe it would help to talk about commercial, strategic, geopolitical (which might be the same as strategic), development, humanitarian, cultural and/or religious interests, at both the motivational and the objective level? You start to suggest this at the end.

    This then raises two questions: a normative question (should we used aid for non-development reasons), and a descriptive question (what do we actually use aid for). So then we also need to talk about the ‘oughts’ and ‘ares’: what should be and what is. This relates to what Jane said, how does all this actually filter down to shape development impact on the ground?

    Also, can it be argued compassion for others is actually a component of the ‘national interest’? If the national interest is a collective representation of how individuals in a country want to project themselves overseas, compassion could be part of this. But perhaps I am naively (or wishfully) trying to redefine something that has a well-understood, even if not well-articulated, definition.

    Anyway, lots to think about and I’d love to hear what others think.

  • This is interesting food for thought Stephen.

    One of the questions that springs into my mind when looking at the principles is–who are the integration principles actually coming from and what is their intended audience?

    Have AusAID and the taskforce driving the integration had actual advice on what the new government wants the integration to be, or are they just trying to guess at what the new government might want?

    If it is the latter, then it makes sense for them to just fall back to the Downer era statement in the hopes of pleasing the new political gatekeepers, stripping the overall objective of any possible controversy or points of ideological difference.

    If the principles are actually a directive from the government or informed by discussions with the new government, then perhaps we can see them as a product of skepticism on the generosity of the Australian constituency when it comes to aid–the same thinking around low public support for aid that perhaps drove the pre-election Coalition announcement on aid budget cuts. Are Australians really so miserly that they will only support an aid program if they are clearly told that the motivation for it is their own interests? I can’t be quite that cynical, but perhaps the new government is (or perhaps AusAID thinks the new government is, if this is all a grand guessing game). I also don’t think semantics like this will do anything to appease the anti-aid crowd anyway. But this could be a driver behind the language in the principles.

    I also note that the word sustainable is missing from the principles released last week when compared to the Downer formulation. This is interesting considering that sustainable development is such a big push in the post-2015 framework discussions. Perhaps it was deemed too politically risky to include in the integration principles in light of the Coalition government’s policies on carbon pricing, etc? Once again, it would be interesting to know where these principles are coming from. Is this AusAID and DFAT making a pitch to the new government, or is it coming from the top?

    • “I also note that the word sustainable is missing from the principles released last week when compared to the Downer formulation.”

      I think that Ashlee has identified where the real impact of policy change is aimed. Her concluding question bears more examination.

  • I was trying to work out why the political temptation might be to revert to the Downer (B) overall objective, where national interest is put forward as a motivation but not as an objective. This is what I came up with:

    National interest as a motivation: this helps maximise the political mileage from funding our aid program by painting it as something that’s best for Australians at the end of the day.

    National interest as an objective: perhaps it’s a little controversial, and thus politically dangerous, to concede that national interest does drive actions taken under the guise of aid. Although this may be a fact of life for those in the aid industry, the existence of the trade-off between the national interest and development outcomes is probably not something that the ruling party would want to emphasise.

    So maybe there is tension here between what is a good and accurate overall objective statement from the point of view of carrying out the best possible aid program vs. good from the point of view of domestic politics?

  • My goodness me!!

    •”[Parsing is the] lost art of identifying all the components of a text, and once one of the fundamental exercises that tested and informed pupils in English. To parse a phrase such as ‘man bites dog’ involves noting that the singular noun ‘man’ is the subject of the sentence, the verb ‘bites’ is the third person singular of the present tense of the verb to bite, and the singular noun ‘dog’ is the object of the sentence.”
    (Ned Halley, Dictionary of Modern English Grammar. Wordsworth, 2005)

    “in the national interest” “for the national interest” “of the national interest”….???

    I love devpolicy with my morning coffee – but this one is a bit beyond me! !

    I’m less concerned about how the government frame their aid policy and more concerned about how that translates into development programs on the ground that change people’s lives.

    I’m waiting for that information with my next morning coffee….

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