May 26, 2022

So Labor is in. What’s the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity greeting them on development?

Australia’s got a new Prime Minister. The teal and green wave have doubled the crossbench. But the development challenges facing the region know no political boundaries.

What’s ahead for Labor on development? Read what the experts have to say.

Terence Wood
Research Fellow, Development Policy Centre

This could be Australian aid’s big break. It’s spent nearly a decade unloved by the public and misunderstood by politicians. But the tides of public opinion are turning: far fewer Australians want aid cut than did so in 2019. And the incoming Labor Government is home to politicians – Wong, Conroy, Plibersek, Leigh and Hill to name a few – with a real interest in development. Australian aid could grow and become more effective too.

It won’t be easy though. First up, there’s the New Cold War with China in the Pacific. Rightly or wrongly, Australia imagines itself in a geostrategic tussle in the region. This brings the risk that aid will lose what’s left of its development focus and become no more than a bargaining chip as Australia tries to purchase the allegiance of Pacific political elites. We know from the first Cold War what that does to aid quality: it’s disastrous.

To add to the challenge, giving aid well, even in the best of times, isn’t easy. It requires time, analysis and real expertise. Ever since AusAID’s demise, time, analysis and expertise have been in short supply. World class aid experts can be found in DFAT, but they’re floating around on ever-shrinking islands. The new government needs to work with DFAT to create a structure that grows and rewards in-house aid expertise. It also needs to resource DFAT so that its staff have the time and support they need to do development well.

If the new government does this, it could salvage Australia’s reputation as a world class aid donor and help people in developing countries. But it will take careful thought. And a lot of work.

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, Terence’s evidence-based blogs are always a favourite read.

Jacqui De Lacy
Managing Director, Abt Associates

Becoming the regional leader in countering global warming is the new Government’s biggest opportunity. This requires putting climate change at the top of Australia’s diplomatic and development work across the Indo-Pacific. This will strengthen relationships and limit China’s influence in the long run. 

Government’s best bet is to establish a new Climate Department to lead climate development programming and policy. Funding should shift from DFAT to the new department to align Australia’s domestic, regional and international policies on global warming.  As Australia embarks on its journey to decarbonise growth, there is much to share with emerging economies in Asia, including how to ensure low carbon growth is inclusive of women’s economic opportunities.

The Government’s biggest challenge is that current institutions aren’t positioned to deliver on its development ambitions.  The Government must set a transformative development strategy, built around long-term development results – one that demands a world class development agency from DFAT.  DFAT will need to respond by: 

  • Establishing clear leadership and accountability for development results – development programming is currently fractured, sitting under dozens of different DFAT leaders,
  • Building the culture and systems that promote development excellence – through contestability, specialisation, global learning and using evidence to drive results,  
  • Developing deep regional expertise and investing in senior local staff – in DFAT posts and in its implementing partners, and 
  • Building a cadre of development professionals who specialise in development programming – the many talented development professionals inside DFAT are disbursed and incentivised to follow generalist career paths. 

There is considerable development talent within DFAT — but it will take clarity and ambition from the new Labor Government to fully realise its development capabilities.

Jacqui is the fairy godmother of Australian development.  She’s equal parts practical, compassionate and savvy.  At the Lab, we’ve been lucky to have Jacqui in our orbit since the start.  Her presence at our Situation Room is always a highlight and we’re watching her global leadership on diversity closely.

Richard Moore
Strategic Adviser, Development Intelligence Lab

Now that Labor has won, the new Government must follow through on the positive policy changes it has already foreshadowed. That's easier said than done, because while most of Labor's reforms, bar Pacific visa changes, are modest, its goals are big.

Building much deeper and more impactful development relations, built around shared economic, environmental and security interests, won't be realised quickly, nor achieved primarily with more aid.  Political and economic relations need to be renegotiated.

The task will require sustained leadership, consistency, compromise and a willingness to rethink and rework the way we approach South East Asia, as well as the Pacific.  We must put away the megaphone if we're to be a partner of choice, not a partner of voice. 

Hopefully the Prime Minister's pick for International Development Minister is a savvy operator with international experience who will work well with the highly respected, Penny Wong.  The Ministers must forge close and strong relations with each other and with the department.  Trust and confidence are critical and have been in short supply under Marise Payne's surprisingly fraught tenure.

If there's only to be a handful of big changes, they should include putting serious international development expertise at the helm of our development work in Canberra and overseas.  And we must make much stronger use of locally engaged staff who have the knowledge and contacts we need.  

That, and re-establishing an independent evaluation function, would show that the new Government is serious about rebuilding our development efforts – and our international reputation.

Richard Moore features prominently in Australian development reform debate. At the Lab, we learn a lot from Richard’s experience, and love his quick wit, ambition and pragmatism. He is a relentless source of ideas.

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