August 10, 2023

The new Development Policy is here. What are your first impressions?

“We came to Government with a clear purpose to revitalise Australia’s development policy and funding.” – Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the policy launch.

And now it’s here. 14 months after securing the election, Australia’s new international development policy was officially launched at Parliament House on Tuesday. Sitting at a significant 52 pages, and accompanied by the Development Finance Review and a Performance and Delivery Framework, there’s a lot of information to process.

So what do the experts make of it, two days in? This week, we asked three outstanding development professionals to share their first impressions - including what’s most significant, what they’re not convinced about, what success would look like down the road. Here’s what they said.

Dr Jenny Gordon
Honorary Professor, ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods & Non-Resident Fellow, The Lowy Institute

On what’s most significant, I see the stronger emphasis on partnership through the four focus areas as a welcome shift, in particular working to better connect with and support regional approaches and engagement on global challenges through multilateral engagement. This is a change from a focus on bilateral engagement, and reflects the reality that Australia is most effective when it can convince other countries to support collective action to help manage a wide range of risks and improve their economic and social opportunities. The other big shift is in recognising the importance of upskilling staff, including locally engaged staff, which will be essential if the ambitious evaluation agenda is to be achieved.

What I’m not so convinced about? While a whole of government approach is mentioned a few times, mostly in relation to reporting on development cooperation outcomes, the policy provides little guidance on what this will cover. There is a risk that other agencies will only see ODA funded activities as contributing to development outcomes, and their involvement in the ODA governance board will be more about lobbying for a share of this funding. Widening their understanding of how their policies impact our development partners, and getting their commitment to shaping these policies to improve complementarity should be a priority. The other problem is the perennial one of a mismatch between funding and aspirations. The aspirations are great, but the level of funding limits what can be achieved. The policy does not set out how the hard budget allocation decisions will be made.

And on how I would measure success in 12 months’ time, the early rollout of Strategic Partnership frameworks for engagement with the multilaterals and regional organisations would signal serious intent on the partnership approach - as long as these are substantive. The establishment of the portal and timely posting of documents will help to monitor progress.

Jenny is an expert in international economic policy and the former Chief Economist for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. At the Lab, we’re big fans of Jenny’s sharp questions and ‘suffer no fools’ approach. We admire people with experience across the public, academic and private sectors – Jenny is one such gem.

Dr Annabel Dulhunty
Lecturer, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU

From a feminist perspective, the new development policy has much going for it: prioritising ‘more genuine and respectful partnerships’, centering First Nations knowledge and emphasising the importance of gender equality, disability equity and responses to the climate crisis. Other welcome additions include: moves to increase transparency with an online portal and increased publishing of data; a distinct Humanitarian Strategy; and a Civil Society Partnerships Fund.

In the media, much has been said of the Policy’s focus on gender equality and climate change. But is it enough?

While the commitment to a new Gender Strategy and inclusion of gender equality objectives in investments over $3 million is positive, much more can be done to improve the lives of women and girls in the region. Abysmally, at present, under 0.5% of the Australian development budget goes to local women’s organisations, whose locally led ideas and strategies are the most effective in creating gender transformative change. Furthermore, Australia has overlooked the importance of committing to a target of including gender equality as a primary objective in its programs – countries such as France, backed by their Feminist Foreign Policies, have ensured that a primary target is achieved in at least 20% of their aid programs.

The focus on climate change is welcome, particularly as women and the most vulnerable bear the brunt of the climate crisis. However, it is somewhat galling that the policy aims to support partners with their Paris Agreement commitments, while Australia continues to extract fossil fuels, engage in dubious climate accounting and remain behind in our financial commitments to climate affected communities. The risk exists that in the future, Australia will point to climate commitments in the aid policy or will draw from the aid budget for climate adaptation, without meaningfully and additionally committing to the Loss and Damage fund and the reduction of emissions.  

Without these more significant commitments, women and the most vulnerable will continue to bear the brunt of the climate crisis in our region. Let us see if more significant climate commitments are made in the next 12 months by Australia, in addition to increased funding for women’s and disability rights locally led organisations.  

Annabel is a development studies and social policy scholar whose research focuses on comparative overseas development assistance policies and programs, gender and development programming, and the impact of social policies and aid programs on highly disadvantaged communities. At the Lab, we seriously value the way that Annabel marries strong academic rigour with her tangible, practical advice on policy.

Julie Boulton
Sustainability Consultant

I wanted a policy that would outline how Australia intends to address sustainable development and, specifically, the SDGs. Because of this, my first impression is almost an ambivalent one. While I’m happy a new policy is out, I’m not sure – yet – what this policy will really change. My first impression is one of business as usual. In a world that is burning, this isn’t what we need.

While the new policy reaffirms Australia’s commitment to the SDGs, places gender and climate (SDG 5 and 13) at the centre, and seems to also imply that sustainable development (mentioned 19 times) is the solution: “To achieve this [a peaceful, stable and prosperous region] requires sustainable development and lifting people out of poverty”. I am underwhelmed as, for me, the policy fails to explain nor explore how Australia intends to achieve sustainability.

Whether this first impression is right or wrong will turn on how two sentences in the policy (repeated in various ways across the document) are reconciled: “We all have a role to play in shaping the world for the better” and “Australia’s approach to sustainable development will reflect our interests, values and enduring connections to our region.” The conflict between these two statements is precisely the challenge with shifting the world onto a sustainable (even survivable) path. If Australia is serious about playing a role, this policy should be the beginning of a conversation about how we intend to apply the principles of inter-generational and intra-generational responsibility. It would also see Australia: meaningfully contributing to the UN’s September SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future; working across government to protect the global commons; and genuinely engaging in a process of localisation and the incorporation of First Nations perspectives (both highlighted in the policy but with little on why they are integral to sustainability).

These actions are what will turn the policy from BAU to transformational as these actions inevitably shift the purpose of development to one where the wellbeing of people and planet are placed at the centre. Outlining and confirming our domestic and international approach to sustainability in a second SDG Voluntary National Review would see this policy become a game changer.

Julie is an expert strategist and storyteller. Having worked within AusAID, DFAT, NGOs and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, she has a wealth of knowledge on development, frameworks for sustainability and the SDGs. If her bright and bubbly website doesn’t give it away, she’s an innovator who’s changing things up.

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