September 7, 2023

What will make the recent policing increase money well-spent?

Right now is a time of high scrutiny of Australia’s development efforts. The new policy has just landed, bureaucrats are racing to figure out how to implement it, and the development community at-large is voicing strong views.

But the new policy is only part of the story of our international development. Indeed, the 2023 budget saw the Australian Federal Police receive a boost of around $71.9m per year over the next four years for enhancing Pacific engagement.

Policing support often flies below the radar compared to Australia’s other aid spending, particularly when it comes to asking hard questions about program effectiveness and focus. But with new money flowing, we couldn’t help but ask - what will make this increased money well spent? To find out, we went to the experts.

Dr Lisa Denney
Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director, Institute for Human Security and Social Change

More money for security, you say? Whose security? There is no shortage of important things to invest in to strengthen people’s security in the Indo-Pacific region. Addressing sexual and gender-based violence, excessive rates of pre-trial detention, labour exploitation, transnational crime and money laundering – to name a few – would all be worthy investments. But addressing these challenges requires understanding the locus of security as the individual, not the state.

Second, the curious thing about security is that you often don’t get more security by ‘doing security’. You get it by strengthening social cohesion, addressing livelihoods stresses that can be a trigger for violence, reducing inequality, and ensuring people have recourse to dispute resolution that satisfies their needs. This is at the heart of human security – an old but popular-again concept that sought to move beyond conventional state-centric security that is insufficient in delivering secure lives for individuals.

If the budget boost is intended to fund more advisors and twinning arrangements and provision of arms to regional police services, it’s going overlook key pieces of the security puzzle. It’s going to miss the opportunity to make individuals more secure, and thus make their countries more prosperous and peaceful. To be well-spent and deliver a development dividend, security investments can’t focus alone on building the architecture of a security sector in the hope that it will actually deliver security to people. Rather, it will need to focus on the security needs of individuals and contribute to the wider socio-economic drivers of security and insecurity. This means engaging with the diverse ways in which local people actually obtain security and protection in their day-to-day lives and the community-based, customary and religious practices and organisations involved – very often this doesn’t include the security sector at all. It also means better and closer collaboration (dare I say, even joint programs) between police and aid folks, and setting aside stereotypes about each other.

Lisa is now at La Trobe’s IHSSC, having formerly been a Research Fellow at ODI, and worked with the Secretariat of the g7+ Group of Fragile States. She has over 15 years’ experience in development, from program design and implementation to research and technical assistance, and her expertise shines at the intersection of security and development, alongside her passion local governance and customary practices. At the Lab, we love following the work of Lisa and her colleagues, and enjoy that she brings equal measures of generosity and openness with clear, cut-through analysis to everything she does.

Gordon Peake
Senior Adviser, United States Institute of Peace

Three ways, listed from least to most likely to be adopted. 

One, go back to the future. Recognise that just as doctors don’t build hospitals, police officers alone don’t build police organisations. Much of Australia’s focus in police support over the last two decades has been on training and equipping. That’s important, to be sure, but so too is building up the corporate spine of police organisations. And that means blending into the program support from people who have the know-how: finance specialists, HR professionals and the like. This isn’t a new idea: it was the fundamental way Australian police reform programs operated in the 1990s and early 2000, and this would be an ideal opportunity to engage more national staff in substantive roles.

Second, build in some more obvious and real co-ordination links between the police programs and other arms of the aid program/foreign policy set up in country. Even though they’re all knocking about the same capital cities, police personnel can sometimes feel rather apart from the rest of ‘Team Australia’. One model to emulate is the approach in Vanuatu whereby arms of a policing and justice program are joined together. Sure, there’s grumbling and culture clashes betimes in Port Vila hostelries but in the main this approach has worked well. Australia being seen to work together in concert is also a good example; no point in beseeching co-ordination in Pacific law and justice sectors if Australia is not doing the same.

Third, change the default assumption that the police are the ones who do all the policing in the Pacific. There’s a host of research and surveys - among them in places like Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste - which indicate that community leaders, chiefs, church figures and other figures not necessarily in police uniforms are the people who people go to for their law and justice needs. Policing is an evidence-based business; it’s time to follow the evidence and build upon contextually relevant approaches rather than replicating the Australian policing model abroad.

With over 15 years of experience in governance, conflict and peacebuilding, Gordon’s got the gift of narrating the world he sees with a distinct blend of warm heartedness, cynical objectivity, and a dedication to honesty. Gordon has worked on policing across the Pacific, including a stint with the AFP from 2008-11 in Timor-Leste. He also hosts the University of Adelaide podcast Statecraftiness. His wicked turn of phrase, humour and openness to collaboration make him a favourite coffee buddy amongst the communities he’s worked with in Timor Leste and PNG, as well as for Lab staff. 

Gregory Ley
Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Lecroma

Our regional security outlook is terrible. There’s no sugar coating it. Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of how much regional police engagement architecture has already been built over the past decades.

Looking specifically at the funding designated under the ‘Enhancing Pacific Engagement’ package, the Australian Federal Police (AFP)’s announcement for a Pacific Police Partnership Program (AP4) at the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police conference last week is welcomed news. This ‘Law Enforcement Cooperation Program’ should complement Australia and the Pacific’s commitments to our global networks of policing and security partnerships.

The AFP’s ‘International Policing Assistance’ budget will have a 30% increase over 4 years ($1.35b total). $320m in FY24 (16% of AFP departmental resourcing) is not pocket change. This is mostly targeted in the Pacific region and comes at the cost of expanding the AFP’s offshore crime-fighting International Network, which reduces over the forward estimates to 2027. Comparatively, PNG, Solomon Islands, and Fiji have combined national policing budgets of around AUD 260m/yr.

Yet even Sherlock Holmes would struggle to understand what the AFP does in the region, why, and how it’s going. Pacific police services are no better here either. Strong civil society is a cornerstone of effective and inclusive development in our region. Collaborative models of partnership with Pacific police and global partners will only be possible if we know what’s happening and where value can be injected – an opportunity AP4 should seize in these troubling times. Many Australians want their own needs met before that of foreign partners. So, will Pacific police services match this increased support or squander it? Let us hope AP4 isn’t seen as a 4-year budget offset program by the Pacific.

Greg has a decade of experience developing foreign policy, program design and evaluations of Australian federal government national security activities. This has included a long stint leading the AFP’s foreign policy positioning in their International Strategy, Design and Evaluation team. With a knack for getting to the crux of complex projects, Greg has been a great sounding board for the Lab.

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