May 11, 2023

The donor landscape is diversifying. What do you wish you knew before you landed?

“Our close relationships with the United States, Japan, New Zealand, France and the multilateral development agencies can amplify our impact.”

We heard from Minister Pat Conroy just last week about the importance of international cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. A timely reminder, given the region has experienced a diversification of attention from international aid and development donors of late. The EU announced last year that it is ‘stepping up its engagement with the vital Indo-Pacific region’; France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy was released in 2021, last year Germany said it is ‘reinforcing its engagement to strengthen the rules-based order in the [Indo-Pacific] region’; and the US is increasing its attention with an Indo-Pacific Strategy released last year and a visit from President Biden later this month.  

But the Indo-Pacific region is complex, and unique from other areas and contexts these donors also have or currently partner in. This week, we asked three development experts who are (relatively) new to the region to reflect on this difference, and share what they wish they knew before touching down.

Blake Chrystal
Senior Development Counselor, USAID

In line with our global mission to advance US national security and economic prosperity, demonstrate American generosity, and promote sustainable development, USAID has made a concerted effort to deepen development cooperation with like-minded donors such as Australia.

In support of this goal USAID opened an office in Canberra in August of 2021 with the aim of advancing US foreign-assistance priorities in the Indo-Pacific and improving alignment between Australian and US development investments. And as the head of this new office, I consider myself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work on the frontlines of this enhanced effort to strengthen US and Australian development cooperation.

As I reflect on the last 18 months, there are several things that I wish I knew prior to my arrival.  

First, there are significant institutional barriers that hinder development cooperation between the US and Australia. This includes incompatible procurement systems, different budget and resource allocation practices, and distinct program cycle timelines. This lack of interoperability prevents field-based staff from collaborating, even when the desire to work jointly exists.

Second, development cooperation in a complex, nuanced, and dynamic geopolitical space such as the Indo-Pacific, presents some unique challenges. Development interventions, especially those that focus on institutional change in areas like good governance, anti-corruption, and media freedom, take time. And while it is crucial that development supports and exists within the framework of each country’s foreign policy objectives, shorter-term political and security objectives are not always fully compatible with longer-term development objectives.  

The way out? Our leaders want cooperation. We need to deliver action. We have a few runs on the board, and plenty of work ahead.

Blake has been USAID’s Senior Development Counselor in Canberra since August 2021, and his career at USAID alone has taken him across the globe to places like Afghanistan, Botswana, South Africa and Moldova. Coupled with this, he holds qualifications in political science, international policy and national resource strategy. At the Lab, we think Blake is the kind of American that Aussies love: warm, honest, self-deprecating and full of questions. His decades of experience in the field makes him a standout development professional.

Dr George Varughese
Director, UNSW Institute of Global Development

One thing that strikes me about the landscape here in Australia is the ready acceptance that the contextual dynamics of Asia, specifically of the Indo-Pacific region, will significantly determine future global trajectories of security, governance, and development.

The Australia-India relationship offers an interesting vantage point to examine these dynamics.

India’s pre-eminence in Greater Southasia is both opportunity and challenge. Not only is it critically important to understand India’s many paradoxes, but it is also vital to understand India’s relationships with neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar who interact with India in complex, dynamic ways that matter for Australia. 

Further, the growing strength of Southasian migrants and diaspora in Australia will shape engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. 

A large, federalised democracy as well as a regional power and donor, India deploys various modalities of assistance in its neighbourhood for goodwill and influence - with mixed results. Similarly, middle power Australia seeks goodwill and influence in the Pacific - where it too has a chequered past, and where India has significant diaspora. As they lay the foundations for a durable bilateral relationship, can Australia and India build on existing strengths to also explore partnership in the Indo Pacific, towards long-term security, governance, and developmental gains in their near regions? 

As the donor landscape diversifies and more attention is placed on the region, I see that geopolitics offers new opportunities for Australia and India to accompany each other to know and do better - not only for each other but also for their near regions on Indian and Pacific shores.

George is a well-practiced development professional with 25 years of long-term engagements in Nepal and Afghanistan, alongside work in the Indo-Pacific. Now the Director of UNSW’s Institute for Global Development, he leads the team to research and promote new approaches to international development policy that tackle complex global challenges. We first came across George when he ran his Reimagining Development roundtable series a few years ago. Since then, we have watched his work closely and are excited that he now resides just up the road. 

Martina Zapf
Humanitarian, Development, Peace and Conflict Lead, Institute for State Effectiveness

I moved to Canberra a bit over two years ago, having previously worked in the European development/peacebuilding space on Africa and the Middle East. The development community in Canberra has been extremely welcoming and many have generously shared their time and insights as I have been learning about Australian development assistance and the region. I will share a few observations on what I have found unexpected.

First, the omnipresence of geopolitics. One key challenge that arises from that and the increasing international interest and engagement in the region is how to still ensure that country and regional priorities are at the centre of development cooperation. This also puts a premium on effective cooperation among international partners, even more so in order not to place an extra burden on small island states to coordinate the support by external partners.

Second, the limited explicit attention to governance in the responses to some of the key challenges in the region, such as climate change, disaster resilience, and infrastructure development. And yet, there are examples abound where programs addressing these challenges hit obstacles due to governance issues. I also picked up on a lot of governance innovations shared by officials from the region at the Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (APMCDRR) last year – around which more learning and exchange could be beneficial.

Third, and linked to the second, the relatively limited application of lessons from the resilience/fragility community. According to World Bank data, there are currently six countries considered to be institutionally and socially fragile in the Pacific and others that show aspects of fragility. The reason why lessons and insights from this field add value is because it places emphasis on supporting pathways for resilience by building on a country’s assets and working on building systems instead of a projectised approach.

Martina is a leading expert on peace, conflict, and fragility. Having spent the last decade or so in places as far and wide as Afghanistan and Chad, she’s recently landed in Australia tackling fragility and conflict in our region. At the Lab, we love Martina for the global perspectives she brings to the debate and her willingness to share her knowledge. We collaborate with her often, most recently on our latest Situation Room, and are always impressed by her insights.

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