Our Analysis

A New Strategy for Development

February 2023

Confirmed and challenged. Putting The Lab's Pulse Check to policymakers.

Last Thursday, The Lab brought together top development and foreign policy professionals in Canberra for a Situation Room that delved into some of the results we’ve unearthed through our Pulse Check | Development Strategy survey. In the room were 21 people who are either writing, advising or influencing the future direction of Australia’s Development Policy, which is currently being drafted.

These professionals grappled with questions on development partnerships, climate change, using the program to ‘push back’ on China and the pros and cons of doubling-down on governance efforts. Like any good conversation, this Situation Room achieved a number of things — it confirmed our thinking in some areas, it tested it in others, and it gave a steer to policymakers on where to focus Government development efforts in the decade ahead.

Bridi Rice
Bridi Rice

Confirmed our thinking.

Situation Room attendees confirmed that a new development policy needs to double down on gender equality and reconfigure itself substantially in response to the demands of climate change and localisation.

This lined up with our Pulse Check survey participants, who saw climate change as the key influence on the region in the coming decades. How that translates to policy action is the difficult challenge we put to the room. For some, the call was for a new and dedicated analytic capability so that we better understand the broad, systemic changes that climate change will bring to the region. Others called for a more sophisticated country-by-country assessment than simply making ‘everything about climate’, since it is not going to be the number one priority for every country we engage with.

When we asked the room what must change when it comes to decolonisation and localisation, some said the role of locally engaged staff would be crucial in driving better outcomes. This would mean more locally engaged staff, with more of a voice, employed at higher levels. Along the same lines, Situation Room attendees warned that local content without any power or authority isn’t really locally led development. The new development policy will need to be clear on its ambition in this space.

A New Strategy for Development

The debated has matured.

It wasn’t all furious agreement, however. Where the foreign policy community has previously fallen into falsely bifurcated arguments over aid in the national interest, this time, there was fresh and lively debate in the room as participants interrogated perspectives other than their own.

Despite the gravitational pull of recent years towards deploying Australia’s development program to counter PRC influence, our Pulse Check participants said this was something Australia should stop doing. And our regional colleagues’ demand was for Australia to be more honest when it comes to our geopolitical interests. Plenty in the room concurred that a clumsy game of short-term transactions to achieve regional access and influence was not in Australia’s interests nor in the developmental interests of the region.

But others urged a rethink, countering that strategic competition has been the kick Australia needed to re-engage with the region. Others still, argued that we should take it as a given that Government will be drawn towards using the program to compete with China, so we may as well use that momentum to generate some positive outcomes from it and not ignore the stark geopolitics facing the region.

Needing to navigate a difficult path was a theme that continued with discussion of whether Australia should double-down on governance support efforts. On one reading, governance support will remain essential to achieving development aspirations — a critical means to an end. If climate adaptation were a priority, for example, Australia could not provide effective support to a country on that without investing in the institutions that will confront the oncoming challenges.

Another perspective aired was that relating to long-term state effectiveness. Attendees warned that a failure to see the challenges governments in our region have in delivering effective services to their people and maintaining safe and stable nations is a failure to serve the long-term interests of the region and Australia.

But attendees were certainly clear-eyed on the dilemma some governance support can pose — pointing out that not all the work Australia does to support open civic space, human rights and accountable governance will be in the elite interests of our near partners. A stark trade-off was put to the room that Australia faces a choice: compromise short-term national interests by ‘demanding’ more accountability from countries in our region versus valuing the partnerships and access Australia enjoys and frankly, not rocking the boat when it comes to democratic principles.

No one in the room subscribed to the idea that Australia should backtrack on its focus on governance.

Navigating through the calm waters of governance would involve rethinking what governance means in the development program. On a practical level, some in the room felt that this should mean not mentioning democracy at all, and putting an emphasis on other angles, such as rule of law and effective service delivery.

Geopolitics can be an impetus — the Pacific step-up might not have happened without a push from China.

The one big bet.

To bring it all together, we asked our Situation Room attendees to imagine it’s 2030. What’s one thing they hope they can say we got right in the new Development Policy? Here’s what they had to say:

We actually delivered the thing. I want to be able to say that we set the policy, we implemented it, and our development approach is better for it.

We got over thinking about development as grant finance. I want to be able to say we started thinking broadly about development finance and what our connection to the region is.

We made development bipartisan. I want to be able to say we have a 10-year, agreed budget framework.

We do more than talk about ‘whole-of-Government’. I want to be able to say we have policy coherence and have put in place ways to set strategy across departments and integrate domestic-level strategies to the development sphere on climate change in particular.

We are backing the sustainability of local organisations in the region. I want to be able to say Australia is a great partner to local organisations and leaders, and that Australia invests for the long haul.

We shifted the needle on locally led development. I want to be able to say 2023 was the point in time that we took things seriously and pivoted our program towards a locally led approach, starting with engaging more local staff.

We know who we are. I want to be able to say this policy helped Australia decide who it wants to be to the region, and what it stands for in the development program.

A New Strategy for DevelopmentA New Strategy for Development

What's next?

I’d like to see this policy help Australia decide who we want to be, who we are, and what we stand for in the development program.

A New Strategy for Development

A New Strategy for Development