October 20, 2022

What will it take for the new development policy to be more than just words on a page?

The new development policy is under way and the development community is expecting a lot from it. But making tough choices and ensuring this new policy becomes more than just a piece of paper is notoriously challenging.  

How will the new policy ensure Australia meets the development challenges ahead? We ask the experts.

Marc Purcell
Chief Executive Officer, Australian Council for International Development

When Bananarama and Fun Boy Three re-recorded the 40’s classic, ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, (that’s what gets results)’, who knew they were signalling what is desperately needed out of the Albanese Government’s development policy: a new approach to sustainable development by DFAT.  

The Albanese Government’s development policy must deliver a single-minded focus on sustainable and inclusive development as the primary objective. DFAT capability needs an equally strong focus.

Government should:

  • Bring design capacity back in-house by bolstering the program design team – the current small team is not sufficient for a $4.5 billion spend;
  • Address staff churn by creating a dedicated stream for development professionals that aims at retention and specialisation – a la New Zealand’s MFAT in the Pacific;
  • Recruit a cadre of SES development leaders;
  • Reinvest in an independent evaluative capacity that explains aggregate development results and supports a culture of learning and adaptation in complex operating environments; 
  • Lift aid transparency to put Australia in the top 20 on the Aid Transparency Index within three years – we have dropped to 41;
  • Increase investment in civic space including civil society feedback on whether our development efforts are making a tangible difference to people’s lives, which can be done – and would be instructive given competition with China;
  • Finally, meet Australia’s target bilateral allocable aid on gender of 80% (it’s recently dropped to 39%) including at least 5% to women’s rights organisations.

The policy should set targets for all these things so that DFAT’s Secretary and the Ministers can ensure accountability and observe performance. Measurement of such capability targets – as Bananarama reminds us – is what will help get sustainable development results.

Marc has been at the helm of Australia’s peak body for NGOs, the Australian Council for International Development, for over a decade. He brings his sharp analysis of the latest debates and eternal optimism into any room that he enters. His endless generosity and great hat selection never go unnoticed at the Lab.

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

The time has come to establish a genuine development policy, not just a document that directs the official ODA spend. A new development policy must capture the Albanese Government’s ambition to play a far more positive role in supporting countries in our region achieve their development goals. It must signal commitment to long term relationships with our development partners, which are ultimately what will provide Australians with prosperity and security.

So what should we see beyond the usual geographic and thematic signals?

The development policy mix should include being an active and honest trade and investment partner, working together toward inclusive technical and regulatory approaches, and providing support so that countries in our region can be better represented and influential in international fora. To do this the policy must operate across government agencies, applying a test in all policy decisions that requires our actions to have a positive development benefit for countries in our region, or at minimum to do no harm.  

The development policy must differentiate Australia’s approach according to development partners, reflecting their stage of development and unique challenges. For the Pacific Island countries ODA will remain important as they face the dual challenges of climate change and finding economic opportunities sufficient to support their growing populations. These opportunities must include permanent as well as temporary migration options. For East Asian countries, as they navigate from middle to high income status, it is about ensuring our investment, trade and international rule-making enables, rather than restricts, their economic opportunities. 

Finally, our development policy calculus should move beyond ‘What’s in it for us?’ to how can we cooperate to mitigate the increasing economic risks that we all face from superpower ‘strategic competition’ and climate change. A brave government will address this head-on in the policy.

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.

Madeleine Flint
Senior Analyst, Development Intelligence Lab

The development landscape has radically changed since we were last gearing up for a policy refresh. But I don’t expect to see radical changes in the new document. With the broad ALP platform and some crowd-pleasing ministerial speeches, there’s a real risk that the new policy gives a nod to a smorgasbord of issues without making adjustments to critical areas stalling our development program. Past independent aid reviews consistently identify recurring problems that must be addressed.  

First, get clear on the motivations of Australian development efforts. Saying that regional development advances our national interests – without defining what this is – is a recipe for inconsistent decision-making and ineffective development. Name what national interests the development program does and does not address, put this in up in lights in the policy, Ministerial Statements and ultimately a refreshed Foreign Policy White Paper, and update it as it inevitably changes.

Second, address the chasm between policy and implementation. This deficit leaves policy open to broad interpretations that result in scope creep – across countries, programs, projects, and more. Reimagine Country Plans, figure out a substantive alternative to the ODE, and formalise coordination across Government departments to capture all development efforts - not just ODA.  

Third, strengthen the development ecosystem in Australia and make it future-fit. Local developmental leaders, delivery partners, researchers, think tanks, practitioners, and Government should all be better harnessed to leverage their unique expertise. Deliver an industry and workforce capability plan, issue an annual research agenda, and get in more multi-disciplinary debates, more often.  

Ultimately, I’d like to see the new policy as sharp and focused as it can be. But more importantly, the policy should be the springboard for a sensible and holistic refocus on Australia’s development implementation. We’ll need this if we’re serious about tackling the most complex development challenges we’ve seen in decades.

Maddie is a Senior Analyst at the Lab and the person behind The Intel. The team at the Lab love Maddie’s unique combination of research skill, design flair and content production know-how. Maddie’s known by her peers for her meticulous standards on quality and commitment to gender justice. She was the Lab’s first employee and is a friend to many in the Australian and Timor-Leste development communities.

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