April 20, 2023

What can Australia do to realise the Government’s commitment to genuine partnerships?

A key question posed by the Government when inviting public submissions to the new development policy was how the new policy could or should reflect the Government's commitments to build stronger and more meaningful partnerships in the region. And we heard it again this week from the Foreign Minister in her National Press Club address: “Partners, not patriarchs.”

It’s a logical goal – but achieving this has not been without its challenges over the last few years. So what’s the Government to do? Ahead of the new development policy release, we asked the experts for their thoughts.

Terence Wood
Research Fellow, Development Policy Centre

If you want genuine partnerships you have to behave like a genuine partner yourself.  

This basic rule of all relationships is so simple it’s hard to believe it has ever evaded Australian politicians, but it has. What does behaving like a genuine partner mean? In the Pacific it would mean prioritising existential issues like climate change. It would mean increasing migration opportunities. It would mean giving effective aid. It would also mean treating the Pacific as a region of people entitled to the same rights we enjoy, rather than a geostrategic chessboard.

The current Government’s approach in these areas is an improvement. Yet right now the improvements still feel superficial. Like a drinker promising to sober-up when hungover. More needs to be done. Eventually, the position also needs to become bipartisan. Genuine partnership is a long term thing. And, ultimately, it’s in Australia’s interest.

It’s true that, even with the right approach, there will still be dilemmas. How, for example, should Australia behave in parts of the Western Pacific where domestic political elites often don’t act in the interests of their people? I won’t pretend these partnerships will ever be easy, although they would be easier if Australia were to establish a Pacific aid agency, staffed with experts, focused on giving effective aid. Australia has some excellent diplomats working in the countries in question. Their work would be enhanced by an effective aid program.

All relationships are complicated at times, but if Australia works on getting the basics right, it will find its partnerships in the Pacific change for the better.

Terence is a favourite analyst of many in the development community. Endlessly kind, smart and generous, his superpower is making complex data palatable. At The Lab, we always enjoy Terence's company and his evidence-based blogs are a favourite read. Keep an eye out for him at Devpol's 2023 Aid Budget Breakfast on May 10.

Bu Wilson
Director, Hau Meni & Associates

Much has been written about why Australia needs to commit to genuine partnerships in the region. While we wait for the wheels of broader change to turn in the aid program, individual programs can do more to support local organisations through accompaniment  to do one of the things they excel at: knowing how relationships and context really  determine whether an initiative gets any traction.

The word accompaniment’s Latin etymology, ad + cum + panis, literally means ‘breaking bread together’. This idea of ‘breaking bread together’ or ‘walking together’ has  resonances with liberation theology  and Catholic social teachings as well as more secular applications. It is often used in human rights focused contexts such as during refugee return or in situations of sustained conflict where protective accompaniment is a strategy used by international organisations to assist individuals, organisations, and communities whose lives are threatened by political violence. 

More prosaically, accompaniment can mean being an advocate for local organisations, helping navigate the bureaucracy required to stay afloat, putting local expertise to the fore, providing core rather than project-based funding, committing to long term relationships, and being responsive to changing circumstances. It means being there for big issues when they arise, and for small issues which may be causing internal grief. Maintaining an ‘open door’ approach allows for mutual identification and resolution of internal management and program delivery problems as they arise, underpinned by a ‘create-no-fear’ policy through remaining accessible and solution-focused in sometimes-difficult circumstances.

Bu is one of the many unsung heroes of the development program, someone who has left a tangible mark in terms of changed practice and new ways of thinking in her 30 years of experience as a development professional. At the Lab, we value Bu’s quiet and longtime championing of the concept of accompaniment, the sort of unshowy but impactful idea that could seriously benefit Australia’s approach to aid and development.

Isabelle Coleman
Project Officer, Development Intelligence Lab

Over the past six months, I’ve been part of a team here in Canberra interviewing over 50 regional experts about their views on Australia’s development efforts. Throughout the discussions, a clear roadmap emerged for how Australia can work towards forming better, stronger, and more genuine partnerships.  

1. Prioritise locally-led development: And not just this, but decolonisation, too - this was by far the single loudest message we heard from the experts. Practically, this sounded like moving away from using Australian technical assistance by default, empowering local staff by dealing directly with local organisations, increasing core funding to local NGOs, and shifting the role of overseas consultants to “acting more as a secretary to support and guide the program.”

2. Get serious on climate: not just internationally but also domestically. It’s no longer sufficient for us to 'talk the talk' on the world stage and at the same time sit back domestically. We heard that Australia needs to not only “commit to significant domestic climate targets” but also engage in mechanisms such as “loss and damage post-COP”.  

3. Focus on relationships: the basics matter for a reason - if nothing else diplomats being sent to the Pacific need to speak the language. Australia has been told to work on being “less transactional”, “more culturally competent” and focus on “mutual respect”. This includes backing up our claims of valuing our ‘Pacific family’ with practical, tangible changes. One suggestion from our experts (that we hear time and again) was visa-free travel.  

Australia can be a world class development partner by starting with the roadmap laid out by experts across the region, working with, or parallel to, Australia delivering critical aid and development projects. No doubt this will improve not only our partnerships, but the quality of our development program overall.

Izzy is the power behind many of the Lab’s projects – and she’s one to watch in the international relations space. Prior to joining the Lab in 2021, she was Oaktree’s ACT Branch Manager and Deputy Head of Community Engagement. At the Lab, we love Izzy’s eagle eye across all our research and data, her ability to seamlessly gather a room of development experts to work through tricky issues, and the very close watch she keeps on international politics.

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