The policy makes headway on the purpose of development, and our place in the world.
Government has grappled with establishing the purpose of the development program better than we expected. Where past policies have fluctuated between including ‘national interest’, naming ‘poverty’, or staying vague and running the risk of being able to drive a truck through the purpose, the Ministerial forewords in the policy attempt to connect how a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific is central to Australia’s national interest – articulating that this is best achieved by fostering sustainable development and poverty reduction. It’s not the most elegant explanation, but it is a huge leap forward.
Critics of the development program would say that Australia is too reluctant to put pen to paper and state who it is and how it sees itself as a development partner in the world. The fact that there’s now a whole chapter on this? Absolutely new and novel. It’s broad and general and doesn’t focus down, but is nevertheless a step in the right direction.
And it doesn’t stop here – there are other indications of a more modern conceptualisation of development. Schematically, there is evidence of a complexity lens at play in the commendable global challenges map (p.17): seeing shocks, trends, and underlying fragilities rather than just areas of sectoral investment. The policy platforms both poverty and sustainable development as central concepts, and it also maps the performance framework to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Dropping down a level, there’s a bigger focus on HOW Australia engages with the world.
The policy sets out a five-point approach (p.11) that reflects course corrections (partnerships of respect, understanding our own strengths, working together to maximise impact) and a push of the program into the 21st century (supporting locally-led change and deepening quality and transparency).
What’s more, we’ve noticed a shift in how the policy talks about Australia’s development partners: it’s listening and working with them (not novel), but also enabling greater exchange between bilateral partners with different strengths to bring to the table and shared interests (rather than Australia imposing its priorities one-way).
The policy’s specific mention of the need to shift DFAT’s risk appetite to be more agile, innovative, and modern – while not a shock – is welcome in its frankness, coupled with Minister Wong’s remarks that “achieving our goals will require meaningful changes to how we think, plan, and engage.”
While the focus on the Indo-Pacific isn’t new, it’s encouraging to see a recognition that different approaches are needed to achieve ‘development’ in different areas – the needs of the Pacific are not those of Southeast Asia, and the policy explicitly differentiates this and includes focus areas. That said, the dominant development paradigm of the policy is skewed towards engagement in the Pacific.
And there are some headline inclusions that are commendable.
The policy is launched alongside a development finance review. The review positions development finance as a critical element of development, but not the holy grail. It’s a measured piece of work, falling short of recommending Australia establish a development finance institution in favour of reconsidering existing development finance tools and their delivery.
State effectiveness and governance make more of an appearance than they have in the past. This isn’t entirely surprising, but commendable given the complex challenges facing our region. There is also a big focus on civil society engagement with new initiatives – like the Civil Society Partnerships Fund – that show encouraging tangible action.