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Study says closure of AusAID research arm and funding uncertainty show declining priority for development research.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) lacks a strategic framework for its investments in development research and has little institutional capacity to guide research or ensure its outputs are well used, a recent evaluation has found.

“[DFAT] needs to invest more in coordinating and capitalising on the results of research,” says John Young, head of the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) research and policy in development programme and co-author of the evaluation that was published in February.

The evaluation drew on interviews from 173 DFAT staff and external stakeholders to determine whether DFAT’s development research investment has been appropriate, effective and efficient.

Shift in research focus

According to Robin Davies, associate director of the Development Policy Centre based at Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, the study is “really a process evaluation of the way in which DFAT commissions and uses research. One can search the report in vain for any sense of the nature and impact of even the largest research investments.”

Young says the evaluation focuses on the uptake of research by DFAT itself, rather than, for example, developing country governments.

He adds the evaluation was commissioned by Australia’s aid agency, AusAID (Australian Agency for International Development) before it was absorb into DFAT.

He says at AusAID there used to be “widespread support for research across the agency”. It had a specialised research section, which maintained a central database, assisted staff to commission research, and ran development research awards and systematic reviews.

From 2005-2013, Australia’s funding of aid research ballooned from A$19 million (US$15 million) a year to A$181 million (US$141 million) a year, around 3 per cent of the total aid budget and which is similar to other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) donors. Sixty per cent of this funding is given to a handful of Australian organisations and researchers.

However, several months into the evaluation, a change in government saw AusAID absorbed into the foreign affairs department on November 1, 2013 to align aid with trade and diplomacy, and the 2012-2016 research strategy discontinued.

“They actually closed down the research section and from that point on, the whole tone changed,” Young says.

Mikaela Gavas, team leader at the Development Agencies and EU Programme emphasises that “there is no evidence to suggest that one specific institutional model trumps others in the delivery of effective development assistance.”

But she also cites a forthcoming report by ODI assessing the myriad of organisational designs for development agencies finds that when development cooperation is managed by a department or an agency within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as is the case in Australia), it may find itself isolated within the ministry and unable to attract the interest of the minister for its work.

According to the evaluation, short-term research focused on specific programmes has been favoured compared to longer-term, policy-related research, despite a 2011 Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness which recommended that Australia do more to support global research efforts.

“One-year research projects are useful in informing programmes but not really useful in terms of understanding what could reduce poverty, for example. You really need to be looking at three to five year agendas and long-term partnerships,” Young explains.

Investing in developing country research

Developing-country researchers receive the lowest levels of funding, the evaluation found. Some funding to developing countries is channelled indirectly, for example, through secondary partnerships, grants and commissions by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

“The unstated primary objective of Australia’s aid research programme to date has really been to provide incentives for Australian research institutions to build and maintain expertise on the problems of our region,” Davies says.

This situation is somewhat out of line with policy statements on improving partner capacity and the benefits of local research to partner government decision-making and on ensuring locally appropriate research designs.

Papua New Guinea’s Institute of Medical Research (IMR) is one of DFAT’s largest direct research funding recipients from the developing world, receiving A$10 million (US$7.4 million) specifically earmarked for capacity building activities such as training of clinical staff for data collection in the field.

“If they could build capacity of local researchers to really improve writing and sourcing of external funding then, in the long run, there’s a bright future for PNG,” says Steven Aina, administrator of the IMR’s sexual and reproductive health unit.

Improving research uptake

The report’s main recommendations include resolving governance and coordination issues, increasing managers’ demand for research-based evidence, and investing in workforce planning and training to improve research uptake and “knowledge brokering”.

While DFAT’s management claims to have accepted many of the report’s recommendations, “there is no indication they will adopt a strategic approach to supporting public-good research, or research on development challenges that cut across a number of countries,” Davies remarks.

Australia’s aid budget is set to drop by A$1 billion (US$740 million) in the next financial year which starts on July 1. It is unclear what impact this will have on aid research.

“We have seen the quiet axing of the Australian Development Research Awards, uncertainty about future funding for health-sector product development partnerships, the closure of the knowledge hubs for health, and the likely downsizing of country-specific initiatives,” Davies says.

“Despite the government’s rhetorical commitment to development research, the money is just not there.”

DFAT deferred comment for this article.

>Link to full report

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.

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