July 20, 2023

Is influence the unspoken performance indicator for Australian aid?

“We are investing in our national power, not just to guard against regional contest, but to shape and influence it to advance our national and shared interests.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has her eye on achieving influence through Australia’s international engagement. A logical ambition - but how does this operationalise in our development program?

Where an aid program strives to achieve things like gender equality, better educated kids, and healthier populations, it’s debated where and how along the way influence appears – and whether it should at all.

The development community has been increasingly worried by a self-interested interpretation of influence distorting the potential of Australian aid. And with no set monitoring and evaluation framework set up to declare ‘influence’ as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, or even define what it is, we’ve been left wondering: what does it mean if influence is the unspoken performance indicator for Australian aid?

This week, we’re opening up conversations we’ve been having across Canberra and the region on influence: what it is, what it means for development impact, and the pitfalls of misinterpreting Australia’s foreign affairs leaders’ ambitions.

Richard Moore
Strategic Adviser, Development Intelligence Lab and Founding Co-Convenor, Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue

It's the "I" word - not to be spoken in polite development company. But this is weird, because influencing is what we do - proposing new models, propagating innovative ideas, persuading policymakers there are alternatives that better meet their nation's aspirations.

So why is influence so triggering for the aid and development community? Because it's been captured and narrowly defined. For most diplomats, influence means being able to get what we want from others, now; talking them ‘round, convincing them of our point of view, aligning them with our interests. Nothing wrong with that, where it is done openly, transparently and without coercion. The problems emerge when we're only thinking short-term and ignoring the consequences.

Sometimes the influencing need is urgent and important, and development needs to play a major role, whether we like it or not. But more frequently its small beer, transactional and just too expensive in terms of the jobs, growth and resilience foregone. The 'buy them off' approach promotes an insidious, anti-development culture that argues all that politicians want and all we need to do is provide immediate payoffs. But that's very short-sighted, in the longer-term undercutting our reputation - and our influence.

Penny Wong has made influence the denominator of what we do. I hope she's thinking big and long term. I hope she sees the importance of building Australia's reputation as a creative problem-solver, a source of ideas and high-value adding, practical cooperation.

If she does, she had better say so soon, because that's not the way many in her department are reading it, risking turning the remnants of the development program into a $4bn slush fund.

Richard features prominently in Australian development reform debate. He’s been with the Lab since the start and he is a relentless source of ideas. Richard’s knowledge of the Australian development program and Southeast Asia is unparalleled. At the Lab, we learn a lot from Richard’s experience, and love his quick wit, ambition and pragmatism.

Michael Wilson
Group CEO, eWater Limited

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper mentions ‘influence’ 63 times. This came after the absorption of AusAID into DFAT in 2013, which was supposed to remove any sense that foreign and development policy aims might somehow be in conflict.  

So why hasn’t the debate over how the aid program can deliver influence moved very far in 10 years? Perhaps because foreign policy practitioners didn’t start with the first principle of development program design: know what success might look like before you start planning your approach.

Sure, having more influence sounds great! But how will we know what we’re doing is succeeding? And do we know in advance how we plan to use this greater influence we’re investing in? Influence doesn’t operate like a bank account; Australia can’t expect to accumulate influence credits over time which we then spend one day on getting another country to behave in the way we want.  

While thankfully we now talk frankly about achieving influence through our aid investments, the influencing objective barely appears in aid program design documents, performance frameworks and reviews of aid effectiveness. So not only are we not measuring influence, we’re not even defining it as a performance criterion, nor explaining precisely how we think it should be achieved. A ‘we’ll know it when we see it’ attitude is like throwing darts blindfolded. It’s an admission of defeat about whether it is possible to manage for influence as well as for good development outcomes.

It's time to throw down a challenge: let’s define the influencing outcomes we’d like. Let’s talk - explicitly - about how we might want to use that influence. Then let’s try to set matching objectives, measures and accountabilities – for DFAT and its implementing partners – around how best to pursue this. Maybe it’s not so hard?

Michael is a mainstay of the development sector here in Australia (and the region). He has expertise across gender, water, governance and more – and this week we’re leaning on his conflict and fragility savvy, having been the Assistant Secretary of the (now decommissioned) Governance and Fragility Branch at DFAT. At the Lab, we love Michael for his quick wit and generosity (not to mention, podcast skills!).

Bridi Rice
CEO, Development Intelligence Lab

Yup. If RG Casey walls could talk, they’d whisper:

Your average senior bureaucrat has taken Wong’s directive that generating influence is mission critical for Australian statecraft to heart. And when it comes to delivering what the big boss wants through Australian aid, they’re in danger of butchering it.  

Our Australian international relations experts and diplomats natively talk of the ‘I’ word, as Richard Moore puts it, often assuming the primary purpose of an aid project is Australian access and influence. Meanwhile, some of the finest minds in aid advocacy and development analysis have argued against any embroilment of development assistance with Australia’s influence, geopolitical and national interest agendas. Why? They worry that the lens of influence risks our development program becoming ineffective at best, and transactional, extractive and securitised at worst.

Whilst we all love a binary, the either-or of ‘aid for access vs aid for development’ is a little more nuanced. Our Pulse Check revealed that experts are ready for a more sophisticated discussion based on a few co-existing home truths:

  • First, generating influence is core business in Australian foreign policy writ large;
  • Second, the specific purpose of Australia’s boutique development assistance spend is to support a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific;
  • Third, where development assistance does contribute to Australian influence, it is primarily through its development impact, integrity of relationships and soft power dividends Australia accrues as a genuine partner; and
  • This means balancing the need to be a responsive but impact-oriented development partner over the short, medium and longer term.

How to solve? First, where’s the robust analysis on how effective development assistance does and does not generate soft power and influence? Second, let’s set some realistic ambitions: are we talking influence for today’s access, tomorrow’s activity or the future development of a nation? And finally, let’s get robust about our measurement by focusing on the quality of our relationships, our assistance and advice (not just whether our Ambassador landed their next meeting).

Bridi is the founder and CEO of the Lab and has recently returned from Washington DC where she was a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Strategic International Studies. The team at the Lab love Bridi’s commitment to creating a space to explore pathways to development that is locally-led, geo-strategically attuned and which represents the best Australia has to offer.

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