The COVID-19 pandemic has had monumental impacts on the world, including a rise in poverty levels for the first time in 20 years. Recovering from COVID-19 and the impacts of climate change will likely see a greater need for effective development support across the globe.
The percentage of aid from total Australian government spending has been on a downward trend since 2013-14. Australia provided $1.721 billion in aid to the Pacific region in 2020/21, which included $273 million in temporary and targeted COVID-19 support payments for Pacific nations. This brought the overall amount of aid for the Pacific to the largest level it has been.
However, the increases in Pacific aid spending have come at the cost of our aid budget to other regions and other issues, as baseline aid spend has remained at around $4 billion since 2015/16.
The first Pacific Regional Debt Conference was held earlier this year, highlighting unprecedented levels of public debt in the Pacific. Our Pacific relationships are not temporary – and our funding model needs to reflect this. This outdated framing of temporary and targeted measures needs to be dropped.
That said, adequate funding is only one piece of the puzzle. Australia needs a new long-term development and humanitarian strategy which can address our current and future challenges. Such a strategy needs to place communities at the heart of development - this is how Australia can become the effective and inclusive partner it wants to be in our region and the world.
Sarah is one of ACFID’s longest serving staff members and has been around the traps of development practice and policy in the Pacific for decades. At the Lab we like Sarah’s principled and objective presence and her staunch support for sustainable and inclusive development - hallmarks of everything she touches.
A generous, effective and predictable development program in the Pacific is a necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisite for enhancing our regional influence. Our aid to the Pacific is bigger than it was, but this may only be a temporary state of affairs. Furthermore, it’s not just the size of our aid budget that matters, but the quality of how Australia integrates politically and economically with the Pacific.
This requires listening more to the Pacific about their core development concerns and priorities, particularly when it comes to addressing the causes and consequences of climate change. Moreover, “temporary” aid measures that do not meet the Pacific’s desire for long-term development partnerships and that do not address the underlying drivers of poverty and instability are inconsistent with the region’s development and strategic circumstances.
But aid will not be enough to address some of the constraints Pacific countries face when it comes to economic growth, service delivery and poverty reduction. We also need to have conversations with our Pacific neighbours about our wider engagement, including strengthening labour mobility opportunities, regional access to health and education services, and providing dedicated pathways to permanent residency. In an era characterised by strategic competition, these are areas where we have a clear comparative advantage.
Proposals to advance this wider agenda have been canvassed in a recent Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report on strengthening Australia’s Pacific relationships, as well as in recent announcements by Labor. An incoming government should dedicate expertise and resources to taking these proposals forward as part of the development of a new long-term development policy.
Cam is one of those unicorns who can turn his hand to analysis, practice, and management with equal skill (and sharp wit). At the Lab we like Cam for his lightning-fast research skills and his generous conversations over coffee whenever he stops by.
Australia is a large and wealthy country relative to others in our region. A significant aspect of our contribution to partnership is financial – size does matter. Current funding for the Pacific means our members can work with partners to deliver high quality, sustainable development outcomes by empowering them to navigate increasingly complex development challenges, whilst ensuring that Australian taxpayer compliance and safeguarding requirements are met.
We can point to programs like Balance of Power, which is resetting the perception that politics is a male domain, the Vanuatu Skills Partnership which is supporting local skills and economic development, or the Australia Pacific Climate Facility which is focused on delivering climate and disaster resilient, low carbon growth towards helping Australia and our Pacific partners meet their international climate change commitments.
So size matters, but so does quality. Whatever the size of the budget, development professionals will remain committed to addressing gender equality, disability inclusion, social inclusion and operationalising policy commitments on localisation as core elements of effective development practice.
That said, it’s clear that the Pacific is an important part of our region, but not the only part. At the IDCC we recognise that Australia needs to work closely with countries across the Indo-Pacific as a partner - in partnerships that are multifaceted, covering a mix of development, diplomacy and defence matters. The size of Australia’s funding to the Pacific is not the only metric by which Australia’s aid program should be judged.
Stuart has decades of experience at the helm of international development on behalf of the Australian Government and now with DT Global and IDCC. At the Lab, we enjoy Stuart for his steady judgment and measured use of words for maximum effect.