Issue 22 - Article 14

Australia and regional humanitarianism

May 29, 2003
Adele Harmer

Because of where it is, Australia more than most government donors is closely associated with a particular set of developing countries. It is one of few OECD DAC donors located in a developing region, and the needs of the Asia-Pacific are at the forefront of its overseas aid programme. Given the limited resources available, this is arguably necessary and appropriate.

The policy context: humanitarian need in the Asia-Pacific

For 2002–2003, the humanitarian programme has a budget of A$116m ($63m), of which A$52m is for emergency aid, A$49m for humanitarian aid as contributions to specific humanitarian agencies and A$15m for a new refugee allocation. While modest compared to the larger humanitarian donors, the Australian humanitarian aid budget has grown by 30% over the last five years, and now comprises some 7% of the overall aid programme of A$1.8 billion ($980m). The increased importance of humanitarian aid within the aid programme reflects the increased need for humanitarian intervention in the Asia-Pacific.

Over the last five years, the Asia-Pacific has suffered an unusually large number of shocks. These include:

  • a major financial crisis, with attendant political instability in major regional states, notably Indonesia;
  • upheaval and violence in East Timor;
  • internal conflict in Indonesia’s Maluku islands and the provinces of Aceh and Ambon;
  • civil war in the Solomon Islands;
  • separatist conflict on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG);
  • drought in PNG, a devastating tsunami and recurrent severe flooding in China, Vietnam and Cambodia;
  • continued humanitarian and rehabilitation needs in Cambodia, particularly landmine clearance; and<
  • famine in North Korea.

For Australian policymakers, crises in the so-called ‘Arc of Instability’ to the country’s north have underscored just how closely the country’s future is tied to the stability of its neighbours. In 1997, this regional focus was given policy expression in Better Aid for a Better Future. Although there have been subsequent statements, including Australian Aid: Investing in Growth, Stability and Prosperity (2002), Better Aid for a Better Future remains the government’s principal policy statement on the aid programme.

Better Aid stated that the objective of the Australian aid programme is ‘to advance Australia’s national interest by assisting developing countries reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development’. This expressly recognises that, given the importance of Australia’s regional relations, reducing poverty in the region contributes directly to the national interest. Conversely, this formulation also recognises that the national interest can influence how, where and on what Australian overseas aid is spent. The policy statement identified ‘rapid relief in natural disasters and emergencies’ as one of six principles guiding the aid programme, thereby recognising humanitarian assistance as an integral component of Australian official aid.

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In 2001, the government unveiled its Humanitarian Program Strategy. The strategy reflects the changed regional setting through a tighter regional focus in support of peace and stability. It explicitly incorporates a number of current trends among donors, such as improved humanitarian analysis and planning, better policy coherence across government departments, a move away from simply responding to disasters to a better incorporation of disaster preparedness and mitigation, and capacity-building for international humanitarian organisations and local groups.

It is especially noteworthy that the strategy addresses people trafficking, particularly trafficking to Australia. The Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), which administers Australia’s aid programme, has been tasked to work closely with the Immigration Department to develop and manage support for countries of first asylum and to support voluntary return. Attention to this issue reflects a recent and potentially unwelcome development in Australian policy, whereby the aid programme has been used to help finance responses to the country’s asylum dilemma. Asylum is a contentious and sensitive issue in Australian politics, as demonstrated by the coverage of the MV Tampa case and the relocation of Afghan asylum-seekers to the Pacific island of Nauru, as well as continued discussion of the treatment of asylum-seekers in detention.

A second key policy development has been the formal recognition of conflict as a major feature of the Australian humanitarian environment. This year’s budget states that a major task for the aid programme is to deliver a comprehensive approach to conflict prevention, reduction and management, as well as recovery in the aftermath of conflict. To this end, a Peace, Conflict and Development Policy (2002) has been formulated. This supports foreign and defence policy goals in areas where humanitarian and development activities are seen as useful in supporting peace and stability in the region. The policy identifies in particular aid interventions that support conflict prevention, peace-building and good governance.

Alongside its regional obligations, Australia also seeks to contribute to major global emergencies. These contributions are made through core funding of the UN and other international humanitarian organisations, as well as in response to particular emergencies. In 2001–2002, Australia allocated A$40m to Afghanistan, making it the country’s second-largest humanitarian response ever, surpassed only by East Timor in 1999–2000. The 2002–2003 Aid Budget Statement notes that ‘this contribution complements Australia’s military and diplomatic support as part of the international coalition against terrorism’ – a good example of how Australian national interest influences Australian aid programming.

Structure, administration and bureaucracy

AusAID is an autonomous government agency under the portfolio of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The aid programme also has a Parliamentary Secretary to whom the Minister delegates a number of day-to-day responsibilities. The Director-General of AusAID reports directly to the Minister on all aspects of aid policy and operations, and reports administratively to the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as a member of the department’s executive management group.

AusAID’s Humanitarian and Emergencies Section (HES) is responsible for administering the humanitarian aid programme. HES also takes the lead on issues such as landmines and relations with key multilateral humanitarian organisations, like the UN and the Red Cross. AusAID does not have an operational role in delivering Australian humanitarian aid, which is most often provided through multilateral agencies and Australian NGOs. Where an operational response by the government is required, AusAID can draw on the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Emergency Management Agency.

The humanitarian programme budget falls under AusAID’s Global Programme, which also includes the multilateral, NGO and Volunteer, Development Research and Public Information programmes. Humanitarian funds also come from country, regional, NGO and multilateral programmes, which by the end of a financial year can considerably increase the amount spent on humanitarian assistance across the Agency. AusAID also funds a Direct Assistance Programme for diplomatic missions to undertake small grant activities, which can be used for humanitarian interventions.

AusAID’s closest partners within government are the DFAT, the ADF and the Department for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA). These three are much larger entities than AusAID, and each has a strong Cabinet Minister. The closest department, DFAT, also shares the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has the final word on all aspects of aid and foreign policy. AusAID has some sway in inter-departmental issues in those countries where it is most heavily engaged, particularly PNG and the Pacific, and where the aid relationship is a major part of overall bilateral relations. However, the larger and more powerful bureaucracies are usually more successful in pushing through their preferred policies. As with many donor organisations, the Defence Department has become a more regular partner for AusAID. The ADF has operated parallel to, or directly with, AusAID in several of the region’s largest humanitarian situations, including in East Timor, PNG and the Solomon Islands. Relations between AusAID and the ADF, while new and evolving, have been positive overall, although AusAID remains much the weaker partner.

Public debate

There is an absence of energetic national debate or discussion on humanitarian issues within the NGO or academic community, and among the Australian public more broadly. This is a product of the weakness of the debate on development issues as a whole. The government struggles to communicate effective messages on the importance of Australia’s aid programme, and often finds itself having to counter the public perception that aid is ineffective and a waste of public funds that should be spent at home. Although public support does surge following major crises – notably East Timor in 1999–2000 – this sporadic engagement has not translated into sustained or informed dialogue. Australian academics and NGOs occasionally stimulate internal debate on humanitarianism, but this is often inward-looking and far below the level of discussion in Europe and North America.

Future directions

By global standards, Australia’s humanitarian aid programme is modest, and AusAID has limited resources to dedicate to humanitarian issues. Given this, the regional approach that is the basis for Australian humanitarian assistance is arguably most appropriate. Unless the regional environment improves and the local pressure on Australia’s humanitarian aid programme diminishes, it is unlikely that the country will manage to do more.

Within this context, the aid programme faces a number of challenges. Policy parameters and strategies are now being put in place to govern humanitarian aid. However, strong analysis, sound programming and good operational execution must underlie this policy guidance. To ensure that AusAID develops and maintains a strong humanitarian aid culture, there must be investment in expertise and there must be greater debate on humanitarian issues. Humanitarian aid is moving in complex new directions, which call for a deeper understanding of the humanitarian aspects of Australia’s regional environment, and greater expertise in the practice of aid.

This will not only improve internal analysis and decision-making, but will also enable AusAID to make a more persuasive case for effective humanitarian response, in the face of stronger departments with differing policy objectives. This requires building a comparative advantage in lessons learned and best practice in policy and operational issues. It also calls for a strong understanding of past and potential humanitarian issues affecting the region. In a country focusing on regional results and improved performance, good humanitarianism and development should have a voice when policy decisions are being made.

There is a need to invigorate humanitarian debate in Australian society, at least within the NGO community and universities. In the absence of informed public debate, there will be limited room for improvement and innovative solutions. It should be a responsibility of government to engender more expertise and interest in the delivery of good humanitarian aid.

Adele Harmer is a Research Officer with the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI. Between 1998 and 2001, she worked for AusAID. In addition to working on policy development, Adele was posted to the Parliamentary Secretary’s office to provide advice on policy and programming issues regarding the implementation of the Australian aid programme.

References and further reading

For more on Australia’s aid programme, see AusAID’s website: Other useful sites include the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:; the OECD:; and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid:

See also:

One Clear Objective: Poverty Reduction Through Sustainable Development, Report of the Committee of the Review on the Australian Overseas Aid Programme (the Simons Report) (Canberra: AusAID, 1997).

Better Aid for a Better Future (Canberra: AusAID, 1997).

Humanitarian Program Strategy, 2001–2003 (Canberra: AusAID, 2001).

Peace, Conflict and Development (Canberra: AusAID, 2002).

Australian Aid: Investing in Growth, Stability and Prosperity, Eleventh Statement to Parliament on Australia’s Development Cooperation Program (Canberra: AusAID, 2002).


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