Our Analysis

Situation Room x Development Policy

August 2023

72 hours after the launch of Australia’s new International Development Policy, the Lab brought together experts from Government, development organisations, academia and advocacy groups at our Canberra Situation Room.

Australia’s new International Development Policy was officially launched at Parliament House on Tuesday 8th August 2023. Sitting at a significant 52 pages, and accompanied by the Development Finance Review and a Performance and Delivery Framework, there was plenty to unpack. To help, we put some tough questions to 25 experts in the room. There were areas of consensus and plenty of divergence. Here’s a taste of what they had to say.

Bridi Rice
Bridi Rice
Mira Sulistiyanto
Mira Sulistiyanto
Isabelle Coleman
Isabelle Coleman
Project Officer
Heather Murphy
Heather Murphy
Head of Analysis and Engagement

Question One | The policy has dropped. What's new, novel and ought to be welcomed?

“[The policy] is in lock step across both sides of government at the moment.”

“The sector hears themselves in [the policy] and they haven’t been used to that.”

This question focused attention on three positive developments. First up, experts interpreted the policy as repositioning international development as core business in Australian international affairs. They welcomed Government’s signature approach to foreign policy (characterised by increased engagement, listening and partnership) appearing in concrete terms in the document.

Second, experts pointed to the early but positive signs of bipartisanship on display at Tuesday’s launch. They hoped the smooth public reception the policy has received across party lines and stakeholders would mean a reduction in the politicisation of development assistance spending in coming years.

Third, the headline commitments that struck the biggest chord in the room were the transparency portal and perceptions survey, the civil society partnership fund and targets on gender and climate change.

Where experts diverged, however, was over how to interpret this positive reception. On the one hand, some congratulated Government for a consultation process well done and for the obvious inclusion of regional voices and domestic stakeholder perspectives in the final policy. On the other hand, some asked whether the Australian development community’s public approval of the policy was an indicator that Government had pleased many with its statement, rather than making some tough but overdue decisions to focus on what matters most. (Read the Lab’s analysis on this persistent challenge to Australian development here.)

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Question Two | Policymaking is full of impossible choices, trade-offs, drafting-by-committee and competing perspectives. What’s not said in this policy which intrigues you most?

“It doesn’t mention one five letter word starting with C.”  

“[The policy announces] a whole lot of new things but doesn’t say what we’ll do less of.”

This question sparked serious questions for some experts who pointed to notable exclusions from the policy, such as talk of budget and public support for development assistance. Others were more concerned by language of the policy being ambiguous and therefore open to interpretation by Government and its stakeholders.  

But the central debate of the night was over whether this policy - which one expert described as ‘blessedly free from securitisation language…a policy that honours development intention’ -can withstand the gravitational pull of geostrategic whack-a-mole.  

For some, the policy should be read as confirming that ensuring development programs are effective is the way Australian development best serves the national interest. For these people, high-quality development support will advance Australia’s influence objectives as its byproduct. But others remained unsure that this view was shared DFAT-wide, and whether short-term elite influence plays would ultimately drive day-to-day investment decisions and the Development Partnership Plan (DPP) processes.  

Everyone could agree, however, that the policy promises a lot of new things but is silent on what Australia will do less of. Heads nodded around the room as experts mused at what trade-offs would be on the table as this policy is translated into DPPs.

It doesn't mention one five letter word starting with C.

Question Three | The policy promises a lot – locally-led development, gender, country planning, new responsible officer mechanics, a new performance framework - the list goes on. What's realistic reform and what's beyond the imagination?

“It’s all realistic, it just needs resources and a really dedicated effort.”

“The two most important tools to get right are the development partnership plans… and the performance framework.”

This question fragmented the room into ‘glass half full’ and ‘glass half empty’ camps. Those feeling positive about the reform journey ahead pointed to the real ingredients for reform being institutional confidence, permission, and excitement for change rather than dollars at hand. Those feeling overwhelmed pointed to the deficit of bandwidth and budget within DFAT. They remained unconvinced that the breadth of commitments to new gender and climate targets, locally led development and a First Nations approach could be achieved without serious shifts in culture, practice, leadership and resources.

There was consensus that the inspiration and stamina for the journey ahead must be provided by DFAT leaders, spurred on by consistently loud and clear messages from both Ministers that this is a policy which belongs in the hearts, minds and hands of those implementing it – not something that ought to collect dust on a shelf.

Situation Room x Development PolicySituation Room x Development Policy

Question Four | Much is made of what Government must do to implement the policy, but when over 90% of the aid budget is delivered by development organisations - how are you going to change your organisation in response to this over the next 12-18 months?

“There’s a risk that by talking about [locally led development] everyone thinks it’s already happening. It’s not.”

“None of us have the depth of skills and resources [in climate change] that we’re going to need to support effective programming going forwards…”

This question yielded the greatest clarity on the night. For development leaders in the room, the task ahead for organisational reform was clear. First up, the policy demands that they double down on locally led development efforts. And they thought the policy ought to function as wake up call on climate change and the environment for the sector: specifically, that upskilling staff and building capability is going to be core to their future operations.  

Advocates in the room pondered how the green shoots of the across-the-aisle commitment that sprouted in Parliament last week can be cultivated into meaningful bipartisan support for the aid program in the future. As for the analysts at the table, their work is on how to better forecast the challenges ahead and help Government policymakers make longer term well-informed decisions in response.

It's all realistic, it just needs resources and a really dedicated effort.

Question Five | The Minister is talking a big game, expectations on DFAT to consult widely - and respond to what they hear - are high. What advice would you give to DFAT teams embarking on development partnership planning?

“If you go into conversations asking simply “what you do want?” we’ll get the same shopping lists as always… [Country planning consultations] need to be paired with sharp analysis and forecasts.”

“There’s a risk of putting a lot of and resources into this consultation process but it all getting overwhelmed by Australian interests.”

When it came to discussing how this policy will translate into action on the ground, the conversation returned time after time to DFAT’s DPP process. The advice from the room was clear: these DPPs are pivotal, engagement with a diversity of stakeholders in country is essential (subtext: Posts must engage beyond Government partners), and it should be mandatory to run astute political economy analysis to ground decision-making.  

Experts warned there will be a few central challenges to the process, such as ensuring: (1) Government is positioned to respond after listening, (2) the DPP process takes stock of in-country development trends, and (3) DFAT senior leaders are committed to focusing DPPs on long-term development impact rather than a narrow view of immediate partner priorities.    

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Question Six | You find yourself in a lift with the Foreign Minister. Not being one for small talk, she peers at you and asks: “so if you were in my shoes, what is the one thing you'd tell the Department it must change under this new Development policy.” You say…

This question was posed as a hypothetical, but we’re fairly convinced that a few people in the room will ensure that the list will make it onto the Hill…

Here’s what Situation Room experts think Minister Wong and Minister Conroy should instruct DFAT to do:

On strategy...

1. I want an annual development event that keeps the wind in the sails of this policy and ensures accountability for its implementation. Make it happen.

2. Keep your eye on the long-term prize of development in the region, don’t get distracted by the short-term whack-a-moles that will pop up.

3. The positive public reaction to this policy is a warning sign that the document is not focused enough. Don’t let the DPPs make the same mistake.

4. We face two existential threats: one is climate change and the other geostrategic competition. Advancing Australian interests in regional stability must be the primary focus.

On implementation...

4. We must make every dollar count.

5. Implement the (bloody) performance management framework.

6. Quit trying to control everything. As your Minister, I’m happy to back your pursuit of development effectiveness over your constant mitigation of every single risk. It’s ok to fail.

7. The new climate and gender targets are good faith commitments, a few more solar panels on a few more rooftops are not going to cut it.

On whole-of-government cooperation…

8. Treat your whole-of-government partners as genuine partners too.

9. Keep an eye on how you can shape the new Defence Policy.

On DFAT culture…

10. This new policy tells a different story of who we are as a nation, and that must change the way our diplomats act. To get anywhere in this Department, you must have top class development experience.

11. Use this policy as your ears in the region, build a cadre of local reformists in every country to guide you on its implementation and make listening the first instinct of your staff.

Situation Room x Development Policy