And while accepting a government decision to hold an inquiry into the issue, the agency's director general, Peter Baxter, has told the committee technical assistance has fallen to the lowest level in a decade, as a percentage of the overall aid budget. The same committee has also heard that China continues to refuse to join efforts by the Pacific Islands Forum to get better co-ordination between aid donors to the region.
Presenter: Canberra Correspondent, Linda Mottram
Speaker: AusAID director general Peter Baxter; Opposition Liberal Senator, Helen Kroger
MOTTRAM: During the annual scrutiny by the Australian Senate of the government's budget documents, officials from the country's international development assistance agency, AusAID, were asked about expectations for the coming Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Vanuatu in August. AusAID director general Peter Baxter said a key issue was following up on the Cairns compact agreed at the last forum aimed at better co-ordination of aid to the region.
BAXTER: There have been peer reviews conducted of national development plans in Nauru and is Kiribati and they have been conducted by other members of the Pacific Island Forum as well as multilateral development agencies, UNDP participated in the review of Nauru and the results of that peer review will be presented to forum leaders as the first of what will become a rolling program each year.
MOTTRAM: Mr Baxter also said there'd be more work on strengthening public/private partnerships, promoting the regional trade initiative Pacer Plus, and improving fisheries management and energy sustainability.
He was also asked whether all donors in the region had signed up to work on more transparent and better co-ordinated development assistance. Peter Baxter said Taiwan had not formally so, because of recognition issues, though he said Taiwan agreed in principle. The other donor he said that had chosen not to be part of the Cairns compact is China.
BAXTER: Australia and other members of the Pacific Islands Forum have made considerable efforts to encourage China to be part of this process. China is, if you like, keeping a very close watching brief on the process and we maintain a dialogue about the Cairns compact processes, and we're hopeful that at some point in the future, China may indeed make the decision to be part of those processes of strengthening donor coordination in the region. But at this stage, China has made a decision that it does not want to be part of those processes.
MOTTRAM: Another issue that dominated the hearings was the question of the use of technical assistance, and particularly advisors, to deliver Australian aid. It's long been criticised as ineffective or for putting money back into Australian pockets. It's an issue that has bothered the Rudd government, who's key ministers in the area, Foreign minister Stephen Smith and parliamentary secretary for Development Assistance Bob McMullan, have repeatedly voiced that concern. Newspaper stories about largesse doled out to aid contractors have underlined the point. Opposition Liberal Senator, Helen Kroger, picked it up, mentioning a recent Australian National Audit Office report on AusAID.
KROGER: The ANAO report that was tabled was I have to say pretty direct about what it thought about the technical assistance program that is central to the operations of AusAID and the way in which is absorbed such a staggering ratio of your budget.
MOTTRAM: AusAID's Peter Baxter didn't shy from the criticism .. saying AusAID accepted it and he signalled his full support for the government's announcement in the budget to hold an inquiry into technical assistance, particularly the use of advisors. He was also quick to offer some figures on the issue.
BAXTER: Over the period from 1996 to 2007 the average level of the aid budget that was spent on technical assistance was 41.8% reaching a high point of 47.4% in 2004. In 2008 that level fell to 30.4% and we think this year will come in at around 38%. So the levels over the last two years are the lowest that they've been since before the year 2000.
MOTTRAM: The Australian government review of the use of technical assistance is due to report by the end of this year.