July 6, 2023

How will a First Nations Foreign Policy turbocharge development?

“I am determined to see First Nations perspectives at the heart of Australian foreign policy.” – Senator Wong  

It’s NAIDOC week and our eyes are on the new First Nations Foreign Policy. What started as an election promise is quickly turning into a reality as the Government commits to elevating the voices of First Nations Peoples, both at home and abroad. In just March of this year, Justin Mohammed was appointed an inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People, and the new office leading this movement is taking shape.

But a First Nations approach to foreign policy is no small feat and what it means for all tools of Australian statecraft is complex. To understand how such a policy will turbocharge our development cooperation in the region, we went to the experts.

Alice Tamang
Indigenous Programs Manager, Australian Volunteers Program

Australia’s future in the region looks brighter if we are guided by a First Nations Foreign Policy. It will strengthen relationships and improve our efforts as a development partner.

I recently accompanied an Elder from the Torres Strait to Fiji, as she began a volunteer assignment with an iTaukei women’s organisation. It was a project that had been a long time coming, developed in close collaboration with Indigenous colleagues across the Pacific who had travelled to the Torres Strait to meet with partners and lay foundations for long-term relationships. We watched with immense pride as women from each of our cultures came together to exchange skills, knowledge and stories. The depth of relationships formed was more profound than we ever anticipated. At the conclusion of the project we reflected that a key driver of the successful development outcomes was that we were empowered to do things our way, adapting systems to align with Indigenous ways of working, and centring culture and relationships from the very beginning.

For many First Nations peoples – in Australia and internationally, culture, relationships and ways of working are a source of strength, deeply linked to personal and broader community wellbeing. Yet all too often, our perspectives are excluded or dismissed, resulting in poor development outcomes and sometimes detrimental effects to our communities. We are tired of this, and we want change.

A First Nations Foreign Policy has the potential to be a transformative force in accelerating development, by embedding cultural values at a policy level and fostering meaningful relationships. Addressing power imbalances, valuing different ways of working and empowering communities to amplify their voices will create avenues for respectful dialogue that centres relationships and helps pave the way for more inclusive decision-making processes. In turn, this will lead to more equitable and sustainable development outcomes. Cultural exchange and strengthening people-to-people connections will also play a vital role - empowering First Nations communities globally to discuss and develop solutions to shared challenges, granting us a stronger voice in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.

Alice is a Dharug woman based on Wurundjeri Country in Melbourne, with extensive experience working with First Nations communities across regional and remote locations within Australia. Her work focusses on equitable inclusion and community development across different sectors including international development, education, and the arts, and she leads AVI’s Indigenous Programs as their Manager. At The Lab, we value Alice’s deep commitment to First Nations knowledges and ways of being, alongside her incredibly warm demeanour and empathy.

Jenna Hawes
Project Manager | International Development, Ninti One Limited

There is often a lot of talk about the “Pacific family”, but where does Australia fit into this family as a primarily Anglo nation, with a clear alignment with the anglosphere of United Kingdom, United States, and Canada? I know I don’t have the answer to this, but I think a First Nations Foreign Policy is a step forward for Australia in aligning ourselves more closely with our regional neighbours.

People-to-people relationships are important, and we can’t doubt that. Connections within our region and developing stronger relationships is key to effective development assistance. We all know by now that sending certain people without relevant knowledge of a development context has historically yielded suboptimal results. By reflecting on our own nation and reflecting on those who have an inherent understanding and experience with development – we look directly at our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, many of whom have lived with development for generations. It’s a no brainer, right?

Now looking back historically again, we understand that many acts of international engagement of First Nations people has been through art diplomacy, which has been a fantastic representation. However, First Nations peoples have much more to offer. The First Nations Foreign Policy presents an opportunity for First Nations people, organisations and communities to be involved internationally on a different level than ever before. This involvement can range from engaging First Nations businesses and fostering economic development to sharing knowledge, expertise, and fostering person-to-person relationships. It is through these multifaceted approaches that we can turbocharge development.

Jenna is a Wiradjuri woman and development professional with expertise in social impact and Indigenous Participation in International Development. She manages projects that drive increased Indigenous participation and engagement across Australia's aid program, including in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Philippines and Southeast Asia. At the Lab, we love her clear assessments of Australia’s place in the region, and the ambition she brings to broadening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation abroad.

Melissa Conley Tyler
Executive Director, Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue

Adoption of a First Nations Foreign Policy is an opportunity to increase Australia’s development impact through harnessing Indigenous knowledge and cultural connections. This is something that can only be shaped by Indigenous people. But non-Indigenous allies have an important support role.

First, non-Indigenous people need to share the load so that it doesn’t fall exclusively on Blak leaders who face the danger of burnout. This means educating ourselves and others on Australia’s history, the struggle for Aboriginal rights and the continuing impact of colonisation. Second, we need to make space for Indigenous voices to discuss and debate what a First Nations Foreign Policy can be. Useful platforming has been provided by organisations like the Australian Feminist Foreign Policy Coalition, AIIA, ACFID and AP4D. Finally, development organisations need to think through how to integrate First Nations Foreign Policy into their work as it emerges. This might mean rethinking ways of working; when AVI established an Indigenous Pathways program, it adopted a community-to-community rather than an individual approach at the request of Indigenous volunteers.

As someone who has watched the evolution of DFAT’s approach from an “Indigenous Recruitment and Career Development Strategy” to an “Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda” to “First Nations Foreign Policy”, I see how the question has shifted from how to include Indigenous people in the foreign service to how can Australia’s development program serve the country’s First Nations. This will require a change of change of thinking by non-Indigenous Australians more than anyone else.

Melissa’s leadership of modern think tanks like AP4D and AIIA is second-to-none, and she is always fostering new collaborations to tackle complex foreign policy challenges. Her name is well-known in the development and foreign policy community and a good friend of the Lab. Melissa is incredibly generous with her time and at the Lab, we enjoy her deep expertise and that she is always up for a good laugh.

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