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Australian NGOs: Less begging, more busking

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COMMENTS

25 October 2011 09:32

It's not often that public organisations invite criticism. But ACFID — the umbrella group which tries to bring together under one very broad roof Australia's collection of international non-government development organisations – did just that.

At its annual conference in Canberra a couple of weeks ago, ACFID wasn't just interested in the good news. It wanted to hear what it was doing wrong, from the public's perspective.

With Australia’s aid program due to increase to somewhere between $8 and $9 billion over the next four years, ACFID is conscious of the increasing public scrutiny that all aid agencies – government and non-government – will be under. So it asked four people with backgrounds in politics, bureaucracy, media and business to put their views forward. I was one of the four.

Being prepared to listen respectfully and thoughtfully to your critics is an increasingly novel idea, particularly in Canberra, so it may have become a little uncomfortable for some in the audience as the panel got going with laying down some home truths. It wasn't long before it was clear that money – or rather the way NGOs get it – was a big issue.

If the panel's observations are any indication, Australian NGOs need to improve the way they engage with their public. Or, as one panelist put it, less begging and more busking. So often, the public's image of the NGOs only comes into focus when there's a crisis and the begging bowl goes out. Not enough is done to improve the public's understanding of why there's a crisis and to engage them in a more comprehensive conversation.

But the real elephant in the room was the dilemma to be faced by Australian NGOs if the bipartisan promise for Australia's official aid program to reach 0.5% by 2015/2016 isn't met. The proportion of government money within the total pool of NGO resources has been relatively small – just over 16% in 2009. But in the last two years, AusAID's budget for NGOs has doubled to $100 million. And an additional $244 million for NGOs and voluntary organisations has been promised over the next four years.

As the reliance escalates, so does the dependence. But that dependence will be based, not on a promise, but on an annual budget cycle with a non-negotiable end date of June 30.

So the expectation by two panelists that the 0.5% promise would be dropped by both sides of government well before the 2015/2016 deadline sent a shiver across the room. The country's domestic spending priorities will impose their influence on Cabinet decision-making sooner than later – no matter which side of politics is in power.

Our message was not one of criticism but a reminder to the NGO community that ultimately, Australia's aid budget always reflected domestic priorities. To borrow Bill Clinton's line, it's about the economy, stupid.

Photo by Flickr user Nevalenx.

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