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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > November > How To Hijack An Aid Program

How To Hijack An Aid Program

An Open Letter to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Friday 1 November 2013, by Ian Smillie

Dear Tony Abbott,

The day after you led your Liberal/National Coalition to a landslide victory in September, you announced that AusAID, the Australian government’s aid agency, will be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Because many have likened this move to what Canada has done in merging CIDA with DFAIT, I thought I might give you some background information on what has happened here. Think of this as a kind of "how to" guide, an "owner’s manual to hijacking the foreign aid program."

There are three parts to this: the softening up part, the announcement, and doing the deed. I know you have skipped the softening up part, Tony, but let me go through the whole process because I’m sure it will give you useful ideas as you move forward.


Appointment of the Minister

I know in Australia you don’t have an aid minister. Lucky you. That’s one less problem to deal with. But if there had been one, it’s important to appoint someone junior who doesn’t know much about the business. If you don’t have many women in cabinet, this slot is one where you can even up the gender balance. (Excuse me for using the word "gender" here-I mean the balance between women and men. That was a slip into the old feminist lingo that Canada has banished from government documents. I won’t do it again).

Make sure the minister is loyal, someone who will do everything you say. Put some of your own people in her office and make sure they see every project before she does. Sometimes a bad one will slip through and you’ll have to pull it back, so you need people who know how to fix little gaffes by adding things like "not" into an already "approved" document.

You may have to change ministers quite frequently until you find one obtuse enough for the job. Once you’ve got her, however, keep her, no matter what she does. In the end, if she becomes a real embarrassment, you can appoint one of the used car salesmen or cops you have on the back benches to take over for a while.

Punish One, Teach Many

Did you ever see the movie Goodfellas, Tony? Or The Sopranos? The mafia has a great expression: "Punish one, teach many." Once you start trying to get a grip on the aid program, you’ll discover that there are hundreds of NGOs and academics and bleeding-heart liberals out there who’ll try to come to its rescue. (By the way, Tony, I know you head the "Liberal Party", so when I say "liberal", don’t take it the wrong way. In Canada, liberals are actually the bad guys. Funny old world, eh?)

What I’m getting at here is that you will have to put a few kittens down in order to get the rest in line. Find a stroppy, mid-size NGO and cut off all its funding. Make a big deal out of it. Say it’s because it funded some Palestinian terrorists, or perhaps some horrible thing in your own region, like boat people. When the NGO says it isn’t true, as it no doubt will, take the high road and say you have a zero tolerance attitude towards anti-Semitism or some such thing, and if that fails, just keep saying over and over that its proposal didn’t fit with your government’s priorities.

There is a risk here. Other NGOs may take up the cause and do an "I am Spartacus" thing. This could be dangerous, because together they do have a lot of public support. But if you’re lucky, as we were in Canada, most won’t say much. They’ll probably shove their umbrella organization out in front to try to bell the cat. What you need to do then is cut off all funding to the umbrella organization. We did that, and you should have seen the NGOs scatter. The umbrella organization lost 75% of its staff, had to sell the building it owned, and was told by its major dues-paying members to tone down its criticism for fear the government might start coming after them.

Tony, you may have noticed my cat references. Here’s one more: if you want to herd cats, all you need to do is open a small tin of Meow Mix.

Getting the NGOs in line was like taking candy from a baby, Tony. There were no Spartacus wannabes anywhere in sight.

Take Down the Think Tanks

I don’t know how many international development think tanks you have in Australia, but we have a couple here. You’ve got to get rid of these, or bring them to heel as quickly as you can. If you’re lucky, they will have noticed your sacrificial lamb in the NGO community and will start censoring themselves, but that’s probably not enough. If you have any control over the appointment of board members, send in the clowns. A few crazy appointees can do amazing damage in no time flat. Human rights activists, academics and do-gooders are quickly distracted by issues close to their navels, and while the in-fighting rages, you can grab the high road and either fire a few people, or close the place down entirely.

Refusing to appoint directors and senior managers, if that’s within your control, is another great tactic. And of course the best trick in the book is the Extended Meow Mix Gambit, which I’ll come to in a minute. Whatever you do, however, make sure that any surviving think tanks understand that they better think or they will tank.

The Extended Meow Mix Gambit

Tony, your greatest enemy in hijacking the aid program will be the NGOs. Even if you’re successful in getting them to be quiet, they are still hotbeds of radicalism, do-gooderism, and loony lefty liberalism. (Oh, sorry, I used that word again. Honestly, Tony, I have to ask why Australia’s true conservatives are all under the banner of the Liberal Party. What is up with that?)

Anyway, The Extended Meow Mix Gambit: If your NGOs are anything like ours, most of them get half or three-quarters of their money from the government. They should have known that was dangerous-even stupid. That said, while you can make a sacrificial lamb of one or two, you’ll have to move more softly with the rest.

The first thing to do is get rid of any kind of responsive funding arrangement. No more coming to you with their own neat ideas. You develop the neat ideas. Make it like a business: call for proposals and choose the one you like best, if you catch my drift. They’ll soon enough discover what you like and don’t like. No more multi-year program funding. Announce that you’re not there to subsidize NGOs or to fulfill their entitlement fantasies. They’ll come back at you with how they do excellent work, reach people that governments can’t, how they carry the Australian flag to places that you can’t and yadda yadda yadda. They’ll say they have the support of tens or hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians (or even millions). Your MPs should expect a few visits from the local vicar and some parishioners. But that will pass. Simply cancel the responsive program, set out a few calls for proposals, and you’ll see what happens. Ever see that Frank Sinatra movie, Some Came Running? I guess you can tell, Tony, that I’m a movie buff.

Having turned the NGOs into wannabe contractors, the next step is to stall on decisions. Tell them the funding decision critical to their survival will be made in June or December or whatever. Keep changing the dates. Stretch it out beyond the end of the financial year. Way beyond. The NGOs will start using up their reserves while they wait. You can let the money out in dribs and drabs to the friendlies, but an even better trick is to make no decision at all. You can’t imagine how destructive that is as these once-confident outfits start laying off staff. Even so, you’ll be amazed that they continue to hang around the back door like hungry puppies. Most will continue to lick your hand if you go anywhere near them. All you need to say is that you’ll get things rolling "soon". Tell the civil servants to use that word whenever they’re asked a question about money: "soon".

There’s another great aspect to this gambit. If you delay decisions and payments beyond the end of your financial year, you can lapse hundreds of millions of dollars. This has two effects. First, it can go towards paying down any debt you might have racked up, as we did bailing out GM, Chrysler and all those other companies in 2009. And it also helps to reduce the claims on next year’s budget because you’ve shown you don’t need the money. And the best part is that-unlike when you announce a cut in your aid budget-no one really notices. If someone does, say something virtuous like, "We don’t believe in just shovelling money out the door."

There may be a problem with the faith-based crowd. If Australia is anything like Canada, a lot of your support probably comes from this general area. But unfortunately some of the faith-based NGOs have uppity ideas about human rights and social justice, and you may find, as we have, that some of them are antagonistic to a lot of the things you favour, such as Australian mining companies in developing countries. I’ll come back to our mining friends in a moment, but you have to handle this bunch carefully. Cut back on funding to the rights-and-justice crowd, but start throwing small bones to new, less vocal players among the faith-based organizations. If you’re lucky, a few of the secular outfits will smell smoke and cry "fire". Maybe an academic or two will get busy with a calculator, and pretty soon you’ll have all the NGOs fighting among themselves.

A Feel-Good "Initiative"

You announced major cuts to the aid budget as soon as you were elected, Tony. Good on ya, mate. It took us a while to start chopping, but we’re getting there. If you want to confound your enemies and confuse the public as you’re cutting the budget, however, why not think of a major feel-good "initiative"? Canada created a "Mother and Child Health Initiative" and pushed it at the G8 as though nobody had ever heard of the idea before. Mothers and children: Wow! What a crowd pleaser.

There was a bit of a glitch when we started out on this because we didn’t know that some NGOs would come back at us with a lot of guff about women’s reproductive rights, abortion and such like, so if we were doing it again, we might just stick to children. But in the end we found a few NGOs that would go along for the ride and ignore the feminist nonsense, so it’s working out pretty well.

Results-Based Management

Tony, I have to tell you that results-based management is a brilliant and outstanding way to subvert, if not wreck an aid program-and you can look good while you’re at it. The Harper government didn’t have to invent this one; it was handed over on a silver platter by its predecessors.

Here’s how it works: First, get everyone completely confused about the terminology. Change the rules, the guidelines, the forms and the reporting requirements. Frequently. Demand big results in all proposals. In a tough competition, the applicants will exaggerate what they plan to do in order to win the contract. Then you can hammer them a couple of years later when they haven’t done what they said they would. Demand that all projects must show results within the lifetime of the funding, even if that makes no sense. Punish any executing agency or NGO that fails to meet targets: no second phase, no new contracts. Fund things you can take pictures of: bridges, schools, dams. You can show the snaps to taxpayers and you might even sell some Australian goods and services in the bargain.

There’s a small problem here. Andrew Natsios, who was head of USAID under George Bush-someone who should have been a good guy-has gone rogue. He says that the focus on results has turned into an "obsessive measurement disorder". He even says that the most measurable development projects are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are the least measurable. People like that will tell you that building schools is not the most important part of an education project; it’s what goes on inside the school, and that can’t always be photographed or changed quickly.

Frankly, Tony, you have to ignore this kind of stuff. Make sure that whenever your foreign minister talks about aid, she uses the words "results" and "effectiveness", preferably in every second sentence. (By the way, I see you’ve appointed Julie Bishop as foreign minister. Great work on the gender balance-sorry, the balance between men and women.)


You cleverly announced the merger of AusAID into DFAT the day after you won the election. It took us a lot longer, but when we were ready, we did it in a similar way: we consulted almost nobody in any of the concerned departments. That had the effect of catching any possible opposition off guard, and it threw the concerned departments into a frenzy of confusion, especially because we hadn’t developed any plan whatsoever as to how the transition would take place. On top of that, we got rid of the head of our aid program, as you have, and at the same time changed the aid minister in order to sow as much confusion as possible.

Remember Tony, this is about getting a grip on that aid money and reducing the number of people who have a voice in forming policy or who understand how the money is being spent.

I see that you are still using the term AusAID. My advice is to kill the name entirely as we did with CIDA. That helps to extinguish the brand and even the idea of foreign aid. I see, too, that in Australia a lot of the media are using the term "collapsed", as in "AusAID has been collapsed into DFAT." That doesn’t sound too good. I would suggest you use the term that we have promoted, the one that supporters of the merger seem to like: "to fold", as in "CIDA has been folded into DFAIT". It’s more gentle, a bit like folding whipped cream into custard to make zabaglione, although you don’t want to draw out that analogy too far because some wag might start talking about who got whipped.


There has to be a rationale for the merger, of course. In your announcement, you said that "the Australian Agency for International Development [will] be integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, enabling the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda to be more closely aligned."

Tony, that is simply excellent! That’s exactly what the government said here, and it got a lot of applause from diplomats and academics who agreed. The dips have always wanted more money and resented CIDA because it had lots of cash. And academics, of course, especially the foreign policy wonks, think aid is a load of old cobblers. They think we should be spending more time and money on things that really matter: NATO, the United States, Europe and such like. Realpolitik they call it. They probably picked up that idea reading the memoirs of Henry Kissinger.

Anyway, the merger here has even gone over pretty well with the media and the public because a lot of them just don’t "get" foreign aid. A lot of them think the money never gets there, or it’s wasted, or it’s stolen by corrupt dictators. (On that point, Tony, I suggest that you get Julie to do what our Foreign Minister does every time he gets a chance: slam the United Nations as nothing more than a debating club for dictators. It goes down very well with the know-nothing crowd and those who’ve been jollied along for so many years by all the NGOs peddling children.)

So let’s get to the crux of it, Tony. Some in the so-called development community will try to find a light in the tunnel where we’ve stashed the aid program. They’ll say that with the merger, we can perhaps stop isolating aid, and that we can now start talking about development cooperation.

Let me tell you what that means. It means that with the merger, you have a better chance for a whole-of-government policy towards developing countries and development. It means that in addition to aid, you could now talk within the same department about trade issues that affect poor countries. You could address tariffs and subsidies and these could form part of your overall approach to development. You might even include security issues and immigration. All of these things have a bearing on the main point that many in the development community stress: poverty reduction.

You’ll have to nip all that in the bud. Everyone knows that poverty reduction comes from economic growth, and growth comes from the private sector. Focussing on poor people in poor countries is simply distracting. Charity has its place, but it’s not where the real action is. Poor countries wouldn’t be poor if they had a private sector like we do, and that’s why we have to get our companies over there doing what they do best. A lot of the other aid donors are pushing their private sectors too. Even the World Bank President has said that we can end poverty by 2030, but only if we get the private sector on the case. I’m sure you know the drill, Tony.

There are two things you can keep repeating in this connection: "Foreign direct investment outpaces foreign aid by a factor of ten to one." Or "five to one" or "fifteen to one". Just pick a big number. It isn’t the number that matters, it’s the fact that FDI dwarfs aid, so aid must be unimportant. Right?

And there’s another good one: "Remittances are ten (or fifteen or twenty) times higher than foreign aid." It sounds terrific. Nobody stops to think about the fact that there have always been remittances, or that remittances don’t exactly vaccinate children, but never mind that. It’s the big numbers that count, showing how insignificant aid is. And our aim is to make it even more insignificant-right, Tony?

Tony, I know that Australia is big on the extractive industry, just like Canada, and if Australian mining companies are anything like ours, they could probably use a boost from government, especially with the Chinese running away with the show in Africa and Latin America. So here’s how you use the merger to good advantage: Have a look around. See if there are any NGOs getting funding from an Australian mining company, or if an NGO is helping a company to deal with a development issue around one of its mines. If you can find two or three of those, fund them and call it a policy.

Say that Australia needs to get something out of the aid program as well. Dress it up with a bunch of nice looking fripperies labelled corporate social responsibility. Call it good development and say you’ll fund more. You think some came running before? Soon the queue will be half way around the block.

There’s a small problem, however. Since you’re planning to slash the Australian aid budget by $4.5 billion over the next five years, you may have difficulty carving out money for the extractive sector. Take a leaf from our book: close aid programs in eight or ten unimportant African countries and use the savings to open new programs in places where you have mining interests, as we did in Peru and Colombia. You can say it’s just better geographic focus. The OECD will love it-they tell everyone to work in fewer countries.

The issue where mining is concerned, of course, is not whether your government supports Australian companies overseas. All governments do that. The issue is whether the money should come from the aid budget or some other place. With the merger, it will be easier to fudge these things as long as you dress them up with terms like "development", "sustainability", "social responsibility" and the like.

There may be a crunch at the OECD when you start reporting these activities as official development assistance, but the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), I have to tell you, Tony, is a pushover. Canada’s last peer review in 2012-and I’m quoting-"commends the country’s strong stand on human rights, its co-operation with developing countries and its effective efforts in Afghanistan and Haiti." Hah! How they got that idea about human rights is beyond me. And as soon as we got our troops out of Afghanistan, our aid program there headed straight for File 13. Where Haiti is concerned, we recently hit the brakes so hard on that one, there’s rubber all over the road. The DAC did notice that we’re cutting our overall aid and recommended that "as soon as possible", we move towards the international ODA target of 0.7% of GNI. Maybe when pigs fly. Or when we can count some of the money we’re spending on our efforts to imitate China with the mining companies.

You may know the old story about Benjamin Franklin writing to a friend and apologizing for the length of the letter. He said, "If I had more time, it would have been shorter." Tony, I have to tell you, this is the shorter letter.
Anyway, there it is: How to hijack an aid program in three easy steps. It’s a bit like The Poseidon Adventure: you turn everything upside down for a while and everyone staggers around in the dark and the wreckage, hoping there’s a rescue on the way. Then, after making the most incredible mess, you send the whole thing to the bottom.

In truth, it isn’t really that easy: it takes a thick skin and cold blood. But it’s a lot easier when there’s so little public reaction. The NGOs claim to have a huge public constituency for a compassionate aid program focussed directly on poverty reduction, but when you look at the numbers, they spend ten times more on feel-good fundraising than they do on public education about development. Just like the government. That’s what’s made the hijacking so straightforward and so successful. Canadians just don’t get it.

Our Prime Minister Harper might have offered to buy you a frosty Foster’s at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo, but happily for him, he won’t be attending. He’s boycotting the event because of Sri Lanka’s bad human rights record. It makes him look good with our large Tamil community, killing two or three birds with one stone. I guess you have to go to all of these meetings because your landslide win in Australia was partly based on your promise to send all the boat people to Manus Island or Nauru or Christmas Island.

Frankly, Tony, that doesn’t look very humane. My suggestion is that you turn this negative into a good-looking positive like we always do: set up a high profile, upbeat "initiative" for the boat people after they get to Christmas Island. A spoonful of the old maternal and child health might help the medicine go down.

Ian Smillie is a member of the McLeod Group. This article is satirical in nature; any resemblance to real events, or to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.