Thursday 31 May 2012 - Budget Estimates - Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Committee
Senator LUDLAM: Some of these questions might be on a similar track to where Senator Kroger was going, because last year I understand there was an announcement, and a very welcome one, that AusAID would be able to do quite limited or targeted funding for training and capacity building for cross-border aid workers from Burma on the Thai side-from Mae Sot and the areas around there. I am keen to know how that is actually working in practice and what the restrictions are on that funding.
Mr Brazier : The situation has not changed since we last discussed this. The Australian government made a decision that, although we do not plan to provide funding for the cross-border assistance that you describe, we would provide training support to those NGOs that are carrying out those activities.
Senator LUDLAM: That is what was prohibited before?
Mr Brazier : That was made available, but we still have received no proposals from NGOs for that support.
Senator LUDLAM: So you are waiting for groups like the Thai Burma Border Consortium, for example, to come forward with a proposal?
Mr Brazier : That is right.
Senator LUDLAM: Have you made them directly aware that the Australian government has recalibrated its strategy a little? Are they aware of that shift?
Mr Brazier : We would always do that, yes. We would notify likely partners that there was this opportunity.
Senator LUDLAM: How long ago was it, approximately, that they were notified of the change?
Mr Batley : We have written to our partners to inform them formally of this change of policy. I cannot give you a date, I am sorry, for when the letters were sent. But they are certainly aware of that.
Senator LUDLAM: To within the nearest month, even-just roughly? I am just trying to get a sense.
Mr Batley : Earlier this year.
Senator LUDLAM: I do not know if it is premature to propose that, if they have not taken it up, it might mean we do not have the settings quite right. If it is of no use to them, is it possible to revisit the kind of support we offer?
Mr Brazier : We would always be prepared to do that, if we did make the judgment that this was somehow set up in the wrong way. But we have no evidence yet that that is the case.
Senator LUDLAM: They have not made that case to you?
Mr Brazier : No.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. My next question is about a specific funding allocation to that policy shift, but that is not really going to be relevant in this instance. Is the Australian government changing its policy on providing aid directly to Burmese authorities? In the past we have been pretty careful to work through third parties, aid agencies and so on. Is a change being undertaken there?
Mr Baxter : We are hoping that over the coming period we will be able to have a discussion with the Burmese authorities about how we might commence working with them. We have not had those discussions in any detail at the moment, but as you know our program has increased rapidly and will increase again next year. So along with other donors we are currently looking at how we can particularly support the reform minded elements of the Burmese government. We have not moved away from our current methodology of delivering our program through trusted multilateral and NGO partners.
Senator LUDLAM: So it is being thought through but the actual policy change has not been made yet.
Mr Baxter : That is right. We are working with other donors, particularly the UK government, on a whole range of issues related to the opening of Burma to greater levels of development assistance from the international community. As you no doubt are aware, there has been a very large number of visitors to Burma over the last six to 12 months, since the reform process started, and there is a strong willingness in the international community to increase levels of assistance to Burma from their current very low levels. But there needs to be careful thought about how that is done.
Senator LUDLAM: There certainly does. We traversed some of these issues yesterday. What mechanisms have been adopted to ensure, for example, transparency and accountability so that there is no corruption if we do start working through government channels?
Mr Baxter : As I said, we are still delivering the program as we have done in recent years with the increase in our program. So we are still working with those trusted partners. They have reporting obligations under our funding agreement that we have to approve before they spend money, and then they have to provide us with regular acquittals of how they are spending the money. We scrutinise those and make judgments about whether or not funding is actually being expended for the purpose for which it was given. We have an increasing number of AusAID staff in Burma who go out on monitoring visits and physically look at the programs that we are funding and make sure that they are being delivered.
Senator LUDLAM: Given the rush of investment, with all the potential for helping people and also the potential for corruption that that implies, how much of our aid work there focuses on governance issues, for example?
Mr Baxter : We have made a decision that we want to play a leading role in developing the education sector of Burma, and we are certainly following that through with our funding allocations. On the governance side, there are a number of issues that we have looked at. As you know, two years ago we started a pilot program of scholarships for people from Burma, and certainly Burma will need more trained people within government to deal with its relevant issues as it continues its reform process and donor assistance increases. Again, this governance issue is one tat we are talking about intensely with our donor colleagues around the world to see how we can start programming money through the Burmese government in ways that manage risk acceptably.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. So that is afoot already. What is the status of AusAID's interim strategy on Burma? Is there an expected deadline for the strategy to be finalised, and what is required for that to happen?
Mr Brazier : There is a draft strategy in place. It has gone through some of the required steps. I believe it was endorsed by the Development Effectiveness Steering Committee recently. The next step is to visit this idea of some sort of overarching agreement with the government of Burma that would govern the aid relationship.
Senator LUDLAM: Is it the intention to transition away from the footing that we are now, where we only work through non-government organisations, to a substantial part of our aid budget passing through state channels as it would in other countries?
Mr Baxter : That would be subject to our assessment of the capability of the Burmese government to handle that sort of assistance. As you know, by definition, because of the isolation of the Burmese government over the last 2½ decades, they have had very little experience of dealing with the broader donor community. There are very few mechanisms within the Burmese government to deal with issues such as donor coordination. There are solutions that we and other donors have learnt from countries like Cambodia, East Timor and even Afghanistan on what happens if you put in a large amount of donor assistance without thinking very carefully about it.
Senator LUDLAM: All right. That all sounds pretty sensible. A lot of international donors to refugees and other displaced groups on the borders of some of our international partners are pooling funds out of that area and shifting priorities out of Burma-or, at least, into Rangoon. We have been a pretty long supporter of groups supporting refugees from Burma-in the hundreds of thousands on the Thai side and other countries in the region-which is extremely commendable. When we lifted our aid budget, we also lifted our budget to that part of the world. Can you confirm for us that our financial commitment to these vulnerable displaced populations remains the same?
Mr Baxter : Last financial year we provided around $3 million to displaced people in refugee camps on the border. This year we are providing $3½ million. As long as the need remains I do not see us moving away from those levels of assistance.
Senator LUDLAM: That is great. Next financial year I understand that our aid budget will reach the level that was set a couple of years ago, and it is not projected to incline beyond that. Is that correct?
Mr Baxter : It will certainly increase-from $48.8 million to $63.8 million-in the next financial year. Decisions on the future levels of the program are obviously a matter for government.
Senator LUDLAM: All right. That is fine. But you have indicated that, as far as the borders areas are concerned, for the displaced people and so on in the refugee camps there is $3 million this year and three $3½ million next year. There are no plans to downgrade the support that we provide up there?
Mr Baxter : No.
Senator LUDLAM: I plan on visiting the area again soon, so I am very happy to hear that.
Mr Brazier : May I add a point in relation to this? You are right: some donors are scaling back and Australia is filling some of those gaps. We are supporting projects that had previously been funded by the European Union, for example, including a vocational training program that improved the livelihoods of 1,500 refugees.
Senator LUDLAM: I think that is extremely commendable and I hope we can continue in that vein and not necessarily start to centralise everything through Rangoon. My last question might be out of your area. I asked the department yesterday about the Federal Police presence there doing counter-narcotics work. I might have to frame this in terms of the work that you do. Since the democratic reforms that have begun to open the country up in the last year or so, has there been any measurable change that you have observed or that has affected your work in the opium trade or amphetamines trade out of Burma?
Mr Baxter : It is certainly not something I am aware of.
Mr Brazier : No.
Senator LUDLAM: Do you work with our AFP presence? I understand there is only one officer.
Mr Baxter : This would be work that is directly related to the AFP's role in liaison and gathering information about narcotics trade that would impact on Australia. I would be fairly confident in saying it would not be funded under the official development assistance budget.
Senator LUDLAM: No, certainly not.
Mr Baxter : It would be funded under the AFP's own allocation for counter-narcotics work, so you would have to ask them.
Senator LUDLAM: There is no crossover?
Mr Baxter : No. We work with them very closely in lots of parts of the world but not at the moment in Burma. If they were to get into police training or other areas, it might be a different story.
Senator LUDLAM: There was an element of training to it, I understood, which we had some concerns about. Since the country started to open up, have you observed any changes that have impacted your work of aid coordination and distribution in the way that the drug trade is operating?
Mr Baxter : Not that I am aware of, no.
Senator LUDLAM: Thanks very much, gentlemen.