Paying attention to aid

13 July 2018

“The Australian National University recognises the start date of my doctoral studies as 28 March 2013. Yet, as this project has neared its completion and I have reflected on my thesis journey, I am increasingly convinced that the real ‘start date’ of this thesis was August 2009,” relates International Relations PhD graduate Benjamin Day.

“It was during a three-year stint living and working in Papua New Guinea as ‘aid workers’, that my wife Laura and I visited Mount Hagen for a weekend to attend the cultural celebrations of the Mount Hagen show.

“While the show itself was an amazing experience, my most vivid memories of that weekend are of being engrossed in David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest, an account of how the U.S. became entangled in the Vietnam War. The way Halberstam presented incredibly detailed and penetrating personal portraits of key decision makers and then layered these into a broader narrative was enthralling. Given my circumstances at the time, I naturally drew parallels between the world Halberstam described and the ‘aid world’ I inhabited,” Ben explained.

“In particular I related to the discrepancies between what was happening ‘on the ground’ in Vietnam and in Washington D.C., to the discrepancies that I was increasingly becoming aware of Australia’s aid program ‘on the ground’ in Papua New Guinea versus in Canberra.”

“Looking back, it was reading Halberstam that marks the beginning of a concerted interest in trying to understand how high-level political decisions are made in the world of aid. At the most foundational level, my study is an outworking of that curiosity.”

Ben submitted his PhD thesis-a comparative study of aid policy change in Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands-in December 2017. His research found that states change the trajectory of their aid policy when powerful individual political actors pay sustained attention to aid policy issues.

When asked to talk about his ANU PhD experience, Ben reflected on the opportunities he was afforded. “The best thing about being an ANU PhD candidate is the excuse it gives you to knock on doors, send emails and pick up the telephone to speak to anyone you would like to-the opportunity to follow up anything you’re really interested in.” During the course of his project, Ben interviewed cabinet ministers, political advisers, parliamentary officials, journalists, high-ranking bureaucrats and academics.

Ben also spoke about the quality of the learning environment at ANU. “I am very grateful for the attention and mentoring I received from my supervisor, Dr Mathew Davies, and for the friendly colleagues here in the Department who encouraged and supported me over this long journey.”

Ben is presently engaged as an associate lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, where he teaches courses on Foreign Policy Analysis and Australian Foreign Policy and is working on publishing material from his PhD.

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