NZ aid survey shows faults in system
An assessment of New Zealand's aid performance shows a need for improvements in some areas.
The Australian National University's Development Policy Centre has just launched a survey of what stakeholders think of the New Zealand aid programme.
It follows nearly eight years under a new aid mantra - that of economic sustainability rather than poverty reduction, which had been the driving force of the former semi autonomous agency, NZAID.
Researchers Terence Wood and Carmila Burkot say the results are mixed, highlighting both strengths as well as room for improvement.
Mr Wood spoke with Don Wiseman.
TERENCE WOOD: The most positive message was that the majority of the stakeholders we spoke to thought that the aid programme was still functioning reasonably well, which is definitely good news, however the news was a bit mixed in that contractors were happier than NGOs.
DON WISEMAN: Is that a reflection that they are getting work out of it, and that is all that is concerning them, or..?
TW: I suspect there is an element of that for our contractors - ah certainly NGOs have been on the outside for the past 7 or 8 years when it comes to the operation of the aid programme, and the two main NGO funding mechanisms were broken in 2008 and have never been properly repaired. So NGOs have a list of reasonable grievances that led to them assessing the aid programme less kindly than contractors did. It is still not wholly negative, but there is definitely a division there.
DW: The critical thing of course, the big change that happened in 2008 when Murray McCully came in as foreign minister, is that they moved away from the emphasis on poverty reduction and it was on sustainable economic development, which was a dramatic change wasn't it, and a lot of these NGOs weren't getting the funding that they might have got.
TW: Yeah and that didn't have to be the case. I mean in Australia where they have had a heftier emphasis on economic development, both under the Rudd government and the Abbott/Turnbull governments, they have still got a well functioning NGO mechanism, and when we did the same survey in Australia we saw no real difference between NGO responses and contractor responses. So you can focus your aid programme in all manner of different ways but it is just about how you treat the partners that you work with. And I think that has been the problem for NGOs, at least here in New Zealand.
DW: How did you actually go about this process of talking to the various stakeholders?
TW: It was a survey, an online survey. It involved targeting senior executives, two senior executives from all of New Zealand's main aid NGOs and also a selection of contractors who have been receiving contracts from MFAT (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) in recent years.
DW: That would be quite a small list, wouldn't it?
TW: Yes the list is quite small, a lot smaller than Australia - less than 100 people. We had less that 100 respondents to that phase of the survey and there are more NGO than contractor respondents.
DW: OK, so that phase, what else did you look at?
TW: We also opened the survey out to the public in the second phase, or effectively anyone in the public who had an active interest in aid and a knowledge of aid. And we got a large number of responses there, although the risk in sampling people in this manner is you can get selection bias. It may be the most disgruntled people who fill out the survey. So while we have included that data from our survey in our report, well it is there for people to see and make their own judgements on. We didn't let it drive our survey at all. The key findings come from the targeted phase.
DW: One of the interesting things is the very definite views that people had about Murray McCully. He's clearly been a dramatic and often divisive figure within the community.
TW: Yeah he is not a minister who stands in the background, that's for sure. He has had a very hands on role when it comes to the management of the aid programme and I think that was reflected in the fact that there were some fairly strongly held opinions about the minister. In the qualitative responses we got, open ended questions, people expressed a range of opinions about him, and sometimes did so quite sharply.
DW: Is he going to be remembered as someone who has done a good job in terms of aid?
TW: No. Although the one thing I will say in his favour is that he has protected the aid budget. It hasn't grown in New Zealand in the way we would have liked it to have grown, but when you look at what has happened to the Australian aid budget, where it was cut by 20 percent at the beginning of this financial year, you would have to say McCully certainly has a positive legacy in that sense. New Zealand has been going through - well maybe not as tight fiscal circumstances as Australia, but nevertheless, deficits, an earthquake, and through all that, the aid budget has more or less stayed the same size. So that is to his credit.
DW: Overall in terms of an assessment of this dramatic change that happened in New Zealand aid - does it get a pass mark or are there more questions still to be asked?
TW: I think it gets a pass mark - yeah, a reasonable grade certainly, and I think that is thanks by and large to the hard work of the staff of the aid programme. While it gets a reasonable grade there is also though a lot of room for improvement. At some point in time in the future I think the relationships between the aid programme and the NGOs and the funding mechanism need to be repaired. There needs to be some concentrated effort. There also needs to be a review of just why our aid is being given, because one of the other hallmarks of the last 7 or 8 years is because more and more New Zealand aid has been given, not so much as aid but rather to advance New Zealand's strategic or commercial interests, and that is a disturbing trend and that is something we would like to see reversed most certainly.
DW: There is no one actually looking at whether or not that (aid) is value for money?
TW: Yes most definitely. That is a real problem, right? I guess when the government spends money here in New Zealand to benefit New Zealand you have Treasury scrutinising every dollar of that spending, making sure it is good value for money. Whereas with the aid budget it is a kind of a subsidy, it takes place far away and who knows if there is good value or not for New Zealand.
DW: There have been a very large number of very big infrastructure projects haven't there? Such as a new international airfield in Western Province in Solomon Islands and countless solar farms set up around the Pacific - all that have value, but unproven somewhat.
TW: Yeah, yeah above and beyond just who they were intended to benefit. I think the question with some of those projects is the decision to undertake them seems to have been made on a whim, presumably on the minister's whim, and getting a large infrastructure project to work in somewhere like Solomon Islands is a complicated undertaking. And I don't think anywhere near enough due diligence was made in the case of the Munda runway in Solomon Islands, making sure that the perceived benefits would ever actually be realised.
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