The Oasis Reporters
January 1, 2023
Why does Australia provide development assistance to other countries? Is it charity or geostrategic self-interest?
Today the government released a new international development policy to answer these questions.
The case the new policy makes is a simple but powerful one: if Australians want our region to be peaceful, stable and prosperous, we have to lift people out of poverty through sustainable development. It’s a bold document that puts development at the heart of Australia’s response to a challenging world.
Politically, the new international development policy is a brave statement. It outlines a strong and unapologetic argument for development aid, even at a time when many Australians are feeling cost of living pressures. Crucially, it makes the case in terms everyone can understand.
We live in a time of interconnected and compounding challenges, including escalating disasters, rising costs and insecurity some have dubbed the “polycrisis”.
If Australians want to live peaceful lives in a globalised world, they need to care about the stability of our 26 neighbours, 22 of which are developing countries. The success of the region is also our success. In difficult times, Australia needs to contribute to global cooperation.
Listening to the region
Released at Parliament House today, the new international development policy is the result of extensive consultation with more than 300 people across the region and in Australia, informed by an expert advisory group. Given it’s been a decade since the last development policy was released, it was keenly anticipated, with more than 200 submissions received.
The focus of the policy is on the Indo-Pacific. A key message of the policy is the importance of listening to Australia’s neighbours and concentrating resources on the issues that matter most to them. It frames the development relationship as one where Australia is not domineering but is a partner of choice. This is achieved by “genuine partnerships based on respect, listening, and learning from each other” – not by a transactional approach.
Given the desire to be responsive to the region’s priorities, there’s no surprise it focuses on climate as a major driver of instability. This is presented as responding to the calls of our region and evidence of the accelerating climate crisis by increasing our climate investments and better addressing climate risks.
The policy also prioritises local leadership, and commits to support local solutions and accountability, including by channelling funding to local actors.
At the same time, it aims for “a development program that reflects who we are”. Australians’ desire for fairness is reflected in a focus on gender equality and equity for people with disabilities, while the commitment to embed the perspectives of First Nations Australians into development efforts showcases one of Australia’s strengths.
Key focus areas for a whole-of-nation approach
The policy sets out four focus areas for development support:
helping partners to build effective, accountable states
enhancing their resilience to external shocks
supporting regional structures such as the Pacific Islands Forum and Association of Southeast Asian Nations
generating collective action on global challenges such as humanitarian crises and economic resilience.
The overarching message is of the importance of development as a tool of statecraft. This is in line with previous government messaging, including the Defence Strategic Review’s focus on a “whole-of-government statecraft effort”.
In the new policy, the importance of a whole-of-government approach is also stressed. This highlights the need for coherence and for coordination across the different departments and agencies that contribute to international engagement.
Beyond this, the new policy moves into a whole-of-nation approach to development that encompasses “all Australian entities engaging with the region”. This includes civil society organisations, diaspora communities, businesses, education, religious and cultural institutions, trade unions, philanthropic organisations, youth organisations, the arts and the media. It’s new for government to focus on working with the wider society in international affairs.
The policy explicitly seeks to articulate a galvanising vision for these non-government actors, stating it
will serve as a signpost to our institutions and entities operating in the region to guide engagement that supports positive development impact.
And the policy offers additional finance to support partnerships with local civil society organisations through a new Civil Society Partnerships Fund to support local civil society organisations.
The challenge now will be in implementation and in sufficient funding to make its commitments a reality. This is why making the case for development aid is so crucial.
Aid is not charity
Contributing to our neighbours’ development is not a form of charity Australians should put up with by virtue of being a developed country. Rather, it’s an investment in our own future and something we should actively value.
In the new policy, both Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and Minister for International Development Pat Conroy express their desire that Australians be “proud” of the development program.
To help achieve this, there’s a focus on transparency -– including annual performance reports and a new online portal -– so Australians can be confident the development program is producing real results.
There is also a focus on implementation. In line with the central idea of partnerships, this focuses on country and region strategies, and will establish senior responsible officers in each of Australia’s embassies to be guided by Pacific and Southeast Asian priorities.
When he became international development minister, Conroy laid out four arguments for development aid: security, economics, international relations and morality.
Which should we find compelling? All of them.
Credit is due to the government for providing a clear and galvanising vision of why development aid is crucial if Australia wants to influence the world around it for the better. The new international development policy deserves to be widely read.