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Senate Estimates: AusAID

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 20 Oct 2011

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 20 October 2011

Australian Agency for International Development

  • Mr Peter Baxter, Director-General
  • Mr Richard Moore, First Assistant Director-General, Asia Division
  • Mr Murray Proctor, First Assistant Director-General, Sectoral Policy Division

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to join with my colleagues in thanking AusAID for one of those government projects that we all get good feedback on. There are many challenges within that and I would just like to explore some of those tonight. Firstly, I want to take up the issue of women in agriculture. It is something that is coming through very strongly with various multinational organisations. You would probably be aware that the Food and Agricultural Organisation recently produced a report subtitled Women in agriculture, and the World Bank's World development report for next year makes a strong case of linking improved gender equality and development. I am interested to see how this is impacting on our own programs. When determining the sectoral focus of country programs how will AusAID determine the needs of vulnerable groups such as women smallholder farmers?

Mr Baxter: Thank you for your question. One of the key elements of the Australian government's new aid policy is the recognition that the empowerment of women and girls is fundamental to all of the strategic goals that the government has set. In my opening remarks I outlined what those five strategic goals are. Beyond these goals, the main, crosscutting theme in our program will be gender. It will focus not just on mainstreaming gender in our programs but also on doing more, specifically, to foster the empowerment of women and girls. We have a large number of programs, in a large number of countries, that are focused on exactly that objective, including in agriculture. My colleagues Mr Moore and Mr Proctor can give you some of the details, but I am aware that in places like Bangladesh we are doing some very interesting things to promote stronger growth in the incomes of female-led households in rural areas.

Senator RHIANNON: That is precisely what I am after. It is not just the policy—I think excellent policies are in place everywhere now—but also how it is working and whether women are involved in determining and taking this forward.

Mr Proctor: We are also very keen to shine a light on the success stories so we can produce more of them. To pick up the point that Mr Baxter made, in Bangladesh, which you would know is an incubator of very innovative practice in terms of poverty reduction, we have been working for some years with the NGO BRAC, which has an extraordinarily successful program aimed at the poorest women and giving them a full package of assistance, including household assets, chickens, goats, training, access to finance, counselling and support, that lasts several years. Through that intense process of empowering women they have a success rate of 98 per cent of people who graduate and who, several years later, have not relapsed into poverty. Through our support for that program we have directly assisted nearly 70,000 women to make that graduation out of poverty.

Other programs where I think we have done some very interesting things include a land management program in the Philippines, where it was apparent that women's names were not being sufficiently recorded on the land certificates. We were able to rectify that such that, in the target areas where we were working, now 75 per cent of the land purchased by couples has the spouse's name on it. That obviously gives them much greater economic security and enables them to use that as collateral, and in the event of a marriage breakdown gives them some greater rights.

Likewise, in Fiji, a very interesting program and a public-private partnership with Westpac has seen for the first time cash transfers going directly into women's bank accounts, so it is not mediated by the men, who may well confiscate a large proportion of it. Again, this is an innovative way of empowering women. We want to capture these stories, share them and replicate them.

Mr Baxter: I can add another really good example of some of the programs that we are doing. A few weeks ago I was in one of the remote areas of Kenya that has been affected by the worst drought in 60 years. We are co-funding a program with the UK to provide poor women with access to finance. As most of the women are illiterate, the way the system runs is that they are issued with a smartcard that has their fingerprint on the smartcard. They take that smartcard to a local trader who has the equivalent of an EFTPOS machine with a thumbprint reader on the side of it. The woman puts her thumb on the machine, the smartcard goes in and it verifies her identity. A receipt is then produced which tells the trader the woman's entitlement and she can take it in small sums or in a lump sum. She is then given that money. This basically corruption-proofs the distribution of cash to people who are in really desperate circumstances. These are women who come from families that have lost the whole of their herds as a result of the drought, so they have no assets. They use the funding to get their kids school uniforms, to get health care and to buy food.

Senator RHIANNON: Would you describe the programs—which sound really excellent, but we know in the long term, when we talk about empowerment we are really talking about involving people—as having been largely devised in consultation and collaboration with women or are they still fairly top-down?

Mr Moore: Different partners have different records in this regard. Whilst a partner like BRAC is very good, at the grassroots level, at empowering and involving women, not all partners have that same orientation. It is really learning from best practice and trying to make sure that we incorporate that into our own processes. We would be the first to admit that we have a way to go in that as well. As Mr Baxter said, the challenge for us is to do better not just in a funding sense but by making sure we are bringing gender perspectives to all of our strategising and programming. You asked about that at the beginning: we are currently working through our new gender policy. It will articulate not only new areas for investment and for focusing particularly on women's economic empowerment and leadership but also how we as an agency need to be thinking through those issues in a practical sense and building them into our responses. It will be an increased requirement for programs to do serious analytical diagnostics around gender to bring out the consequences. A part of that has to involve deeper collaboration with women and women's groups in the countries that we work in.

Senator RHIANNON: I turn to experiences in Spain which appear to be helping to drive what you have just described because it is not always easy. Has there been any consideration of introducing a quota to ensure minimum direct investments in gender as the Spanish overseas development program has adopted? I think they are doing that for both gender and agriculture. Has any consideration been given to that?

Mr Baxter : We ensure that our programs are equally accessible to people regardless of gender. We have just had a discussion about our scholarship program. Our scholarship program is very much on the basis that there is an equal allocation of scholarships to men and women. We provide an increasing amount of funding to organisations that are run by women and are developing policies for women in development, whether that be UN Women where we were one of the first contributors of core funding or Women's World Banking which we have recently started supporting. Through that organisation we can provide microfinance opportunities to people in more countries. We do not have an overt policy that says 50 per cent of everything we spend should be spent on activities that benefit women, but we do design our programs so that they have that impact.

Senator RHIANNON: No, I was not suggesting 50 per cent. It is getting down to line items and I think there have been some interesting developments in Ghana too where they are actually requesting the details when you get down to how the projects are taken forward. I did want to come to CHOGM. I understand that they will be discussing food security issues and that there could be some proposal about Commonwealth research with regard to food security. Has AusAID had an input into this and, if so, will it target women farmers?

Mr Baxter: CHOGM is next week and it is not my role to speculate what the Prime Minister may or may not announce.

Senator RHIANNON: I was not asking for any speculation. I was just asking if AusAID had given any input into possible discussions at CHOGM about food security.

Mr Baxter: I am not trying to be coy. Certainly, food security will be a huge issue on the agenda, as it should be, given the current situation with global food prices and food stocks, but beyond that the government will make announcements at an appropriate time.

Senator RHIANNON: According to Australia's International Aid Transparency Initiative implementation schedule, the data only covers AusAID. Are there plans to include information regarding ODA eligible activities implemented by other government agencies and, if so, when will these be published?

Mr Baxter: That is, first and foremost, a matter for those other agencies who receive official development assistance. We have made the decision, as you have commented, as the principal agency delivering Australian aid to be part of IATI. I mentioned in my opening remarks that we are also publicly committed to releasing a transparency charter by the end of this year, which will mean that we will publish a lot more information on our website about where and how we spend our money and what results we achieve.

We have this year for the first time in AusAID's budget documents and the ministerial statement on the aid program included details of the expenditure of each of the Australian government agencies that receive official development assistance. So we are, as AusAID, putting out more information about what other agencies and departments are being allocated from the total official development assistance budget. We are in discussions with other agencies who receive ODA about how they might come on board with us with the transparency charter.

Senator RHIANNON: That is really excellent because I do find people are quite surprised how much aid money does not go through AusAID—what the AFP receives. At the recent meeting of the OECD's working party on aid effectiveness in Paris, Publish What You Fund reported that Australia was calling for the removal of time bound commitments regarding the IATI from the draft outcomes document. Can you confirm that Australia has been calling for the removal of time bound commitments and, if so, what is your reasoning for this?

Mr Baxter: I am not aware of us making that call.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there anybody here who would have been at that meeting .

Mr Baxter: Not at that meeting. I follow this process very closely, as you know. It is the lead in to the major meeting on aid effectiveness in Korea later this year. We are working hard to comply with IATI and we are hoping that our transparency charter will make us IATI-plus.

Senator RHIANNON: But who would have represented Australia at that? A reliable source gave me this material.

Mr Baxter: The officer was the Assistant Director-General responsible for the executive branch in AusAID.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice to check that?

Mr Baxter: Sure. I would be happy to.

Senator RHIANNON: Following the aid review, the government committed to issuing a transparency charter by the end of this year, following wide consultation. Could you give us an update? Will we get it by the end of the year?

Mr Baxter: You certainly will get it by the end of the year. Obviously, given that it is the second part of October, we are not too far away. There is a lot of work being done within the agency to identify not only how we can put more information out in the public domain but also how we can make that information more accessible. We have been working on the redevelopment of our website as part of the transparency charter initiative. But we are not waiting for the transparency charter to be, if you like, a sort of start point. We have been progressively putting more and more information into our publications and onto our website over the last 18 months to two years. As an example, this year in the ministerial statement on the aid program we outlined more than 200 results that we were seeking to achieve through the funding we had received. The previous year the number was 17, so there was a very big increase. So we are well on track to put the transparency charter out. Our ambition—and it will take us some time to fully implement our ambition—is to put that information out not only in Australia but on websites in local languages in the countries where we operate so that people who are the recipients of Australian assistance can see what their governments are getting in terms of their partnership with us on development assistance activities.

Senator RHIANNON: That would be very impressive. Has there been consultation in terms of how you are devising that charter and how it will work et cetera? Has that been part of the process?

Mr Baxter: Yes, we have spoken extensively to our colleagues in the non-government sector, particularly to ACFID, and we have also had some discussions with the media.

Senator RHIANNON: Will the transparency charter be applied to ODA-eligible activities, including those delivered by other government departments?

Mr Baxter: As I said, we are in discussions with those other departments. I obviously have authority only over the activities and expenditure of AusAID, but I think we are going to set a pretty high standard that others, hopefully, will follow.

Senator RHIANNON: So, with regard to the other agencies and the charter, all you can do is encourage them? Is that the case?

Mr Baxter: That is right.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I wanted to move back to Cambodia and the very sad case of the two young children who drowned. Did any representatives of DFAT or AusAID contact the family after these two young people, who had been forcibly resettled as part of the Railway Rehabilitation Project, drowned?

Mr Moore: Yes. In November of last year, an AusAID officer from the post in Phnom Penh visited Battambang and the community affected as part of a wider mission reviewing the project, and as part of that he conveyed the sympathy and condolences of the Australian government. Indeed—unbeknown to me at the time—AusAID and ADB staff collected money from their own resources and helped to pay for funeral costs.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Cambodia is ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It is wonderful to hear what the staff and the workers engaged by the ADB and AusAID provided to the family, but considering where Cambodia is at with regard to the levels of corruption and also the level of forced evictions, which I am sure you are aware of, do DFAT and AusAID accept that they really cannot rely on Cambodian standards, whatever they are, to be fair to people who are faced with eviction because of these projects?

Mr Moore: I will augment my earlier answer by saying that we followed up on that early contact with the family and had a senior officer from Canberra likewise go to Battambang in December last year, and he also met with members of the family and checked firsthand on the circumstances at the site and progress to ensure that essential services were being provided. In answer to your most recent question, this project relies on national execution, as most bank projects do, and indeed many UN projects. I think that has highlighted the flaw in the model—and we have made this case to the Asian Development Bank and indeed to the World Bank in the Mekong—that national execution in countries where there is very weak capacity requires a greater investment of resources and oversight and direct management. Consequently, the Asian Development Bank has now recruited more local consultants to help with the resettlement processes and an international consultant who will be on the case full-time, and there is more intensive work with the government both to assist it directly and to oversight what it is doing. So I think everybody has learnt from this experience.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Just to go to some specifics about the project itself, how does AusAID ensure that the privatisation of developing-country assets, such as the Cambodian railways project, benefit ordinary people and not just the elite? Because there is clearly an elite in this society that you hear do quite well out of these projects. So how do you do that?

Mr Moore: In this case, the railway was benefiting almost nobody.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you mean prior to your project?

Mr Moore: Prior to this refurbishment and modernisation project, the railway was in almost complete disrepair. It was barely able to transport any goods or passengers. In fact, I think I am right in saying passenger traffic had completely ceased, and it was barely able to carry a small number of goods from the port in Sihanoukville to the capital, Phnom Penh. So the whole aim of restoring the railway is to create a viable alternative to road transport able to take some of the dangerous freight off the roads and able to transport people and goods economically. One of things it will be able to do is help Cambodia get more of its garments onto world markets—and, as you know, the garment industry is a very major employer of women. There are a lot of issues around the regulation of the industry so that it benefits the workforce, but it is a huge employer and, obviously, its ability to compete with other garment manufacturers is very significant for ensuring continued poverty reduction. The whole aim of the modernisation program is to produce an efficient, reliable transport system that gives people, and produces better access to, services and markets.

Senator RHIANNON: The two companies taking the project forward, Toll Holdings and an Australian-Khmer company, the Royal Group, are Australian, I understand. How influential was it that the prime beneficiaries of the project were these two companies and that they were Australian? What impact did the fact that they were Australian companies have on AusAID making its determination?

Mr Moore: I can be quite categorical about that. Firstly, I would say that the beneficiaries are not the companies. The companies are providing the services for the construction of the railway and then its operation. Toll is the concession holder once the railway is actually in a form that it can be effectively managed, and regrettably we are not at that stage yet. I personally made a decision about recommending this project to the government, and I gave very clear instructions to staff that we had to do our own due diligence: we had to be satisfied that the economic benefits stacked up, that we could value-add to the work of ADB and that, overall, this would be a development project in the interests of the people of Cambodia. That due diligence was done, and that was the basis on which we made the recommendation.

We knew, when we went into this, that there would be big problems resettling people who had settled along the railway track. These are people with no legal claims to decent land—otherwise, obviously, they would not have settled right on top of railway line—in many cases, in situations with very poor drainage, in shanties. We know that resettlement is very tough, even when there is a lot of capacity. It was partly because we thought we could help to get better outcomes that we went into this project, but we knew we were buying more than a few headaches along the way.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. 

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