When Australian soldiers give Afghan children the “thumbs up”, it’s a sign of goodwill, one the kids return. But according to senior federal government officials, the universal gesture has another meaning: “f-ck you”.
So when the authors of an expert report on Australia’s aid program in Afghanistan wanted to use a photo of an Afghan boy giving the thumbs up, they were given a firm official thumbs down. Instead, senior bureaucrats in AusAID, the federal government’s international development agency, asked that it be cut from the report on the grounds it was culturally offensive.
The request was just one point of friction between AusAID and Kabul-based consultants hired to assess Australia’s aid and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province. Official documents have now revealed how that tension reached a tipping point in April, when AusAID sacked the consultants, axing their $US3.6 million contact and leaving Australia without any independent oversight of progress in an aid program worth $30 million this year.
The documents, obtained by the federal opposition under freedom of information laws, show how relations between AusAID and the consultants, known as The Liaison Office, frayed to breaking point, leading to opposition claims the government was trying to cloak its Afghan aid program in “false spin and gloss”. AusAID flatly denies the charge, insisting its decision to axe the contract was based on TLO’s repeated failure to meet reporting deadlines.
The documents reveal missed deadlines were not the only point of friction between Australian officials and TLO. Instead they show Australian officials made repeated requests for changes in draft reports, questioned TLO’s assessment of security conditions, and insisted one chapter not be published. The offending chapter dealt with the views of ordinary Afghans on Australia’s military and civilian aid work in Oruzgan province.
The documents highlight how AusAID sees itself as an integral part of the military mission in Afghanistan, with aid officials seeing no contradiction between war-fighting and development performance in Afghanistan since August 2010.
While AusAID insists it simply made “suggestions” for changes which TLO could accept or reject, the documents show senior TLO researcher Susanne Schmeidl believed that, when AusAID requested parts be cut, “we presume this is what you’d really like to do”.
During negotiations on the wording of the report, an AusAID official wrote to TLO in February thus year: “We will read your revised submission of the annual report and consider exclusion of sections for public release.” In another email in February, AusAID official Sophie Temby disputed TLO’s assessment of security in two districts of Oruzgan province, on the grounds that it was not in accord with the perceptions of AusAID officials and was inconsistent with other TLO reporting.
She also questioned TLO reporting of claims of corruption involving a local official, on the grounds that Australian officials had not heard of the allegations.
Temby rejected TLO’s assumption of a contradiction between civilian development work and the army’s counter-insurgency strategy. Instead, she said the two were “complimentary, with each element doing a bit of both”. She said military forces and civilian-led reconstruction teams “are all under a single mandate that includes security, governance and development (ie, not a contradiction between ‘waging war’ or ‘development’ as it is presented in the text)”.
AusAID’s suggested changes to the report extended to its cover page, which TLO wanted to illustrate with the photo of a small boy making a “thumbs up” gesture, in keeping with the report’s tone of cautious optimism. But AusAID insisted the photo not be used, on the grounds that thumbs up “is the traditional gesture for f-ck you”.
TLO reluctantly agreed to ditch the photo, even though Dr Schmeidl argued Afghan children learned the gesture from foreign soldiers, and their parents did not find it offensive.
In February, AusAID told TLO the chapters, “while generally useful for an internal audience, are not included in the public release document”. By May, AusAID had decided the chapters were not useful at all. A briefing note for officials about to face a Senate committee told them to say the chapters “were not useful for AusAID’s program planning”.
While axing TLO’s contract means there is now no independent assessment of AusAID’s performance in Afghanistan, the same Senate briefing note told officials to say the increased number of AusAID staff in Oruzgan meant it “now has sufficient capacity to develop and monitor our program”.
This level of self-assessment will be undermined after 2014, when all AusAID staff will leave Oruzgan due to security concerns once Australian troops leave. The Senate briefing note said that, after 2014, the program would still be monitored, either directly or through unspecified “trusted partners, communities and third parties”.
Scott Dawson, a senior official in AusAid’s south and west Asia division, said he categorically rejected any suggestion the agency had insisted on changes to TLO’s reports. Instead, it simply used routine opportunities to comment on any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in draft documents. This did not affect TLO’s independence to report as they saw fit, he told The Australian.
But Dr Schmeidl told Crikey AusAID appeared to have an issue with TLO’s reporting in general. “While other donors use TLO’s research as an external view of the situation in the areas they work in, in order to challenge their own perceptions, AusAID for whatever reasons wanted something different,” she said.
“In Afghanistan at present there are two realties,” she said. One involved western donor countries with troops in the country “that are working on messaging to their constituencies at home, and therefore are interested in painting a more positive picture”. The other reality involved Afghan people, NGOs and humanitarian organisations concerned about worsening security.
“These two realities could not be any more apart than they are,” she said. “So the bottom line is that many of us working in Afghanistan believe that right now, very few donors are interested in an independent depiction of what is going on in Afghanistan.”
Teresa Gambaro, opposition spokeswoman on international development assistance, says the documents expose AusAID’s efforts to avoid telling the truth about Oruzgan, where it was spending $30 milion this year.
“The Australian taxpayer has a right to know the real picture of what’s happening in Oruzgan, not the false spin and gloss put out by AusAID and the Gillard government,” she said. “What is alarming is that there is now no independent source if information on the ground in Afghanistan, assessing AusAID’s activities.”