Amanda Robbins is Director of Equity Economics and previously Deputy Chief of Staff to Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Wayne Swan.

Sadly, the goal of doubling our international aid program was probably in strife from the start. The aid sector took as a significant win Prime Minister Rudd’s 2007 announcement of an increase in the aid program to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI) by 2015-16, meaning an increase from $3.2 billion in 2007 to over $6 billion in 2015.

But a range of circumstances meant it was always at risk, despite the initial bipartisan support. There was the sheer scale and rapidity of the increase, the onset of the global financial crisis and associated fiscal pressure faced by other portfolios, and the unfortunate political reality in Australia that aid isn't a vote winner.

But the aid sector must also bear its share of the blame for sticking with the strategy of significantly increasing the aid budget when it was arguably no longer viable or constructively promoting the cause of international development. Hindsight suggests the sector has focused too heavily on campaigning for a headline funding figure for aid, and not enough on more effective delivery of whatever amount Australia gives.

Let’s start with the policy issues of the advocacy goal itself: 0.7% (revised to 0.5% when it became apparent that 0.7% wasn’t achievable) of GNI for the Australian aid program.

This goal was based on a long-standing international agreement and fueled by concern about Australia’s consistently low ranking as an aid donor among rich nations. Labor’s support for 0.5% was intended to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, admirable aspirations that have proven to be an effective tool for focusing development efforts. However, the pursuit of the 0.7% goal in Australia has arguably impeded the design and delivery of the Australian development program by linking the aid budget to a fluctuating measure of GNI.

In no other policy area is funding linked to GNI, a measure of net income from abroad and gross domestic product (GDP). Putting it crudely, GNI goes up when things are going well and down when things aren’t. Linking funding to assist the world’s poor to an indicator that will go down when economies are doing worse is in some respects at odds with the policy intent of supporting developing countries who tend to be the hardest hit by economic downturns. What’s more, Australia’s GNI has been more volatile than measures such as GDP in recent years, which presents real problems for those planning and delivering development projects while having to deal with a fluctuating budget.

More broadly, development policy is not necessarily settled on the idea that more funding equals better development. Focusing aid advocacy largely (though I accept not exclusively) on additional funding ignores the ongoing work that needs to be done to ensure aid is actually effective. This is where the political debate on Australian aid is let down — it’s not just about money, it’s about how it’s used. Convincing people of this with evidence-based policy analysis and evaluation (which I accept the aid sector has attempted to do) will be a critical step to the lasting success of any campaign for a larger aid budget.

In political terms, the goal of 0.7% of GNI provided a simple message for the sector to pursue as opposed to the complex discussion of poverty and inequality that actually underlies development. The 0.7% goal also proved an effective means to mobilise people, particularly younger people, around a common policy goal. Unfortunately, the campaign didn’t sufficiently adjust to reflect the changing political, economic, and policy reality and partly as a result, we have seen aid budgets being cut all around the globe.

It should not have surprised anyone when the Coalition announced a further $4.5 billion cut over four years and a decision to integrate AusAID into DFAT, given the Labor government had already made the difficult decision to reduce the pace of the increase in aid. While the scale of the most recent cut is extraordinary (particularly in the current budget year) and reverses the growth in aid in terms of GNI to levels not seen since the early 2000s, the decision could be seen a mile away. For conservatives, aid is an easy target when looking for savings. Supporters of aid aren’t generally seen as Coalition voters and the lack of widespread public concern when Labor made its cuts to aid would have only emboldened the new government to cut further.

It’s often tempting to stick with an advocacy strategy that has been long fought and in which constituents are engaged, but there are clear risks of doing so when political circumstances change. This isn’t to say aid advocates shouldn’t push ideas that challenge the mainstream view or seek to be more ambitious. But this needs to be combined with the hard work of informing people of the more complex issues involved in aid. By failing to reassess aid advocacy since the GFC and remaining focused on a campaign for more funding, campaigners run the risk of being compared to the vested interest of the mining sector in the debate around a mining tax, or the coal industry around a carbon price.

Besides, the aid sector may now have no choice: the size of the latest cuts surely mean we must take stock of how we advocate for Australia’s overseas development program to include a broader effort to explain what aid delivers and why it is so important to the millions still living in poverty.

A starting point could be to see the incorporation of AusAID into DFAT as an opportunity. While information is scant (a concerning recurring theme of the new government) and this change is a long way from the dedicated Minister for International Development that the Coalition had promised as recently as July 2013, large administrative changes do present opportunities. Among them is a chance to advocate for the actual policies and programs needed to deliver effective aid, not just call for increased funding.

As our new foreign minister meets with leaders in New York and attends the annual UN General Assembly, the aid sector has an opportunity to grapple with the question of ‘what next?’ for aid advocacy in Australia. It is unfortunate that in New York, Australia will inevitably be criticised for the cuts to the aid program, when in fact many improvements have been made in recent years to improve its transparency, evaluation and effectiveness. This needs to be where aid advocacy focuses in the future so that funding is not the only measure of success.

Photo by Flickr user NoHoDamon.