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Benchmarking Against Progress: An Assessment of Australia's Aid Effectiveness

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Is Australia’s aid program effective? Measuring the effectiveness of aid is no easy feat. For a start, there is uncertainty about what aid is trying to achieve. Even seemingly straightforward objectives, like poverty reduction, throw up a range of questions as to what precisely ought to be measured. For instance, how should one balance the provision of temporary relief to those in need with catalyzing permanent transformation in people’s lives (Barder, 2009)? Second, it is notoriously difficult to isolate the effect of a single aid program from other factors. Aid is delivered in an environment of enormous complexity where all manner of other events shape outcomes, including actions by recipient governments, aid from other countries, non-aid flows, and the performance of the global economy. To accurately attribute impact to aid therefore requires a thorough understanding of the setting in which aid is given. Third, the effects of aid are not always immediate or straightforward. For instance, improvements in people’s skills or the performance of institutions may manifest gradually. Measurements of what aid achieves must be sensitive to the different ways change is brought about (Woolcock et al., 2009).

A solution is to focus on Australia’s approach to giving aid and see how it stacks up against international best practice. International best practice is defined here by what is known to work well in aid, either because it has been demonstrated through research, identified by aid recipients, or agreed through consensus within the aid community. The latter is captured in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action—two statements of intent by ministers of developed and developing countries and heads of donor agencies, pledging improvements in the way aid is managed and delivered. As a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC), Australia is a signatory to both agreements.

While adherence with best practice principles cannot guarantee that Australia’s aid will always deliver its intended results, it increases the likelihood that those results will be achieved. And unlike the results of aid, adherence to best practice is fully within Australia’s control. Australia’s performance against best practice standards therefore serves as a touchstone of its commitment to greater aid effectiveness.