August 24, 2023

What’s holding Australia back from offering digital development assistance?

Australia’s new international development policy, launched two weeks ago, names the ‘digital divide’ as a major global challenge to tackle. The need to prioritise digital changes – for our partnering both in Southeast Asia and the Pacific - is peppered throughout the document.

Digital action is in motion – in fact, Australia’s Minister for Communications is in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea this week for dialogues on connectivity.

But what is the overall strategy in this space, and what do we expect will change with the new policy? Technology and digital innovation for development isn’t a new concept – but what about the impact of these things on development? The fundamental shifts rapid digitisation will have on all areas of development is coming down the line quickly. Will its impacts on things like governance, the environment, rising inequality, economic growth, and more be sufficiently tackled through Australia’s aid program – and will Australia be ahead of the impacts?

These questions prompted us this week to ask: what’s holding Australia back from offering digital development assistance? Here’s what the experts say.

Niki Baroy
International Development Cooperation and Future Skills Alliance Consultant, The Asia Foundation

Australia often views digital development in silos. This limits the ways in which sectors – public, private, and the in-between – engage with each other. This tendency holds back the full realisation of Australia’s digital development assistance. To maximise its impact, Canberra has the opportunity to rethink its digital development strategy and expand its engagements in the Indo-Pacific region.

Though Australia’s foreign policy has evolved, it has yet to capture the nexus of digital and social development. The Turnbull Government’s foreign policy white paper acknowledged how digitalisation will impact the future of work but focused largely, while equally important, on how it affects domestic security and international trade. The Morrison Government’s flagship COVID-19 aid strategy Partnerships for Recovery does not mention ‘digital’ and ‘technology’, even when the pandemic urgently prompted a sudden pivot to digitalisation across many sectors. To its credit, the Albanese Government’s newly minted international development policy does articulate the combined challenge of climate change, digital and technological advancement, and economic volatility ailing Indo-Pacific nations. It also recognises the need to address the digital divide, but there is limited information on digital skills development. Australia has in fact been funding digital development for years across the region. However, what is missing is an overarching strategy that encapsulates the interlinkages of digital development with education, governance, health, and other ODA-funded key sectors.

Australia’s years of development experience presents opportunities to reform the siloed approach and enhance its existing digital development efforts in the Indo-Pacific, particularly with local private sectors. Indian and Japanese companies, for instance, collaborate with Australian institutions on digital skilling programs. These initiatives present opportunities for expanded trilateral partnerships between Australia and Indo-Pacific countries. The demand for digital upskilling will increase with rapid digitalisation and technological advancements, and development cooperation will play a crucial role in addressing the skilling needs of hard-to-reach communities. The Albanese Government faces both a challenge and an opportunity to refashion Australia’s digital development engagement to meet this demand.

Niki is a highly sought-after international development consultant, currently working with The Asia Foundation. For those interested in how governments and the private sector can cooperate to maximise inclusive growth opportunities across digital economies in the Indo-Pacific, her latest publication is a must-read. At the Lab, we love Niki’s strategic mindset and bold ambition for more future-fit development policies.

Mercedes Page
Senior Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Australia was actually one of the few countries to recognise early the devastating effects state-sponsored cyber-attacks and digital coercion could have on a nations’ sovereignty, security and prosperity, and work it into its ODA program.

Cyber-attacks – state sponsored or by third party nefarious actors - can take down entire aspects of our society with devastating impacts. Meanwhile a focus on economic growth and development has often put security concerns in the backseat, leading countries to pursue cheaper infrastructure or embed certain providers of digital services that leave a country open to malicious activity or state-sponsored digital coercion in the future.

It’s fair to say Australia’s been a leader in offering development assistance.

In 2016 Australia launched the Cyber Cooperation Program, which dedicated ODA funding to support countries in the Indo-Pacific to protect national and international security while driving economic growth and sustainable development. By 2021, the Australian government had poured $100 million in ODA to support countries through the Cyber and Critical Tech Cooperation Program alone. Australia has also spent billions more to support secure communications infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific, through initiatives like the Coral Sea Cable, the Micronesia cable, and the Solomon Islands Domestic Network. Australia also provides a spectrum of digital assistance and cooperation not captured through its ODA program, so the total level of support is much higher.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that more can be done.

The Government will shortly release its long-awaited Cyber Security Strategy. It will likely include ODA funding to further support partners with a heavy focus in  the Pacific to tackle malicious cyber incidents.

However, lumping Australia’s international cyber and tech engagement into the forthcoming Strategy raises questions about the future of Australia’s commitment to strengthen regional resilience across the broader spectrum of issues. Will the Strategy include ODA funding to support the future of DFAT’s Cyber and Critical Tech Cooperation Program? Will the new Strategy include commitments to strengthen resilience across the broader Indo-Pacific - and not just the Pacific? And what about the challenges of dedicating ODA funding to a non-traditional development area?

I guess we will wait and see.

With rising malicious cyber activity and geopolitical competition sharpening, it would be a shame for the Government to diminish Australia’s legacy of digital development assistance across the Indo-Pacific.

Mercedes Page is now a Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In a not-so-distant past life she was at DFAT designing Australia’s ODA program to support cyber and critical technology resilience across the Indo-Pacific and was a main author of Australia’s 2021 International Cyber and Critical Tech Engagement Strategy. At the Lab, we love Mercedes’ savvy mix of foreign policy, tech, and security skills.

Shannon McKeown
MIA Candidate, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

The case for digital development is well-documented. In 2021, 2.9 billion people—one third of the world’s population—still remain offline, per the International Telecommunications Union. Despite improvements in broadband network access, cost barriers and accessibility issues still remain, particularly in Least Developed Countries. Even in the United States, its estimated that 42 million Americans don’t have access to broadband technology such as Wi-Fi. Rapidly evolving technological developments like artificial intelligence will likely exacerbate the global digital divide, particularly if development agencies lack the foresight to implement digital components to their ongoing and future programming.

Digital development shouldn’t be seen as a separate issue—it should be integrated into development programming to support program objectives. Recognising the cross-cutting nature of digital development, USAID pioneered their Digital Strategy in April 2020 with two main goals: 1) improve development outcomes through the use of technology in USAID’s programming, and 2) strengthen the openness, security, and inclusiveness countries’ digital ecosystems. By embedding digital across the board, development agencies like DFAT can do more than simply building a new application; they can promote greater digital inclusion and dismantle barriers to entry for local actors. This will likely require new thinking on the intersectionality of digital with existing and future programming, such as applying a gender lens, considering human-centered design, and understanding potential cybersecurity risks. Recognising existing complementarities can be an easy way to ensure that a digital component is integrated into development planning.

The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of adaptability in the digital space, but also exposed the inherent vulnerabilities of many digital ecosystems around the world.

We are in a new era akin to the mobile revolution where ICT connectivity and accessibility issues are increasingly serving as an enabler for sustainable development, and our development programs must be prepared to address this new reality.

Shannon is the ultimate multitasker - currently at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, researching African states’ leadership in climate change, and working in the International Telecommunications Union at the United Nations. Prior to this, Shannon spent a number of years at the Centre for International Strategic Studies in Washington DC with their Project on Prosperity and Development. At the Lab, we love her sharp insights on global politics, meticulous eye for complex detail, and her ability to share what she knows and learn from all those she meets.

Read more