April 27, 2023

Building Australian development capability: what’s essential?

The need to rebuild Australia’s development capability isn’t a new realisation – but the urgency is loud and clear as of late. A review into DFAT capability is underway, we heard the need to address it prominently from 100+ experts in our own Pulse Check research, and Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, flagged its importance at the Australasian Aid Conference late last year:  

 “Another theme emerging from our consultations is the need to strengthen development capability to help translate policy into action. I’m committed to strengthening development capability in DFAT.” 

Evidently, everyone is on-song with the need to rebuild capability. But with so much work to do – and the bureaucratic ship being notoriously slow to turn around – where should we start? This week, we went to the experts to find out what’s essential.

James Gilling
Regional Vice President | East Asia & the Pacific, Abt Associates

It’s optimistic to assume a single theme – like enhanced capability – can transform the effectiveness of Australia’s development assistance program. There are however some certainties when it comes to undermining effectiveness – notably ambiguity of purpose. The new development policy is an opportunity to tackle this issue head on, and more clarity on objectives should be the starting point.

Beyond this, DFAT capability should be part of a suite of reforms, where two perspectives are important.

First, incentives. If you accept that development capability is subject to the same influences as others – in particular, that you get better at it the more you know and the longer you work in it – you have to create the environment for individuals to invest. Many opportunities exist here. Senior managers must hold the line on the value, importance and relevance of development. They should attend development-related meetings, demonstrating its value as a discipline. Promotion should reward experience and capability. And maybe add development studies short courses to the list of options for which the department is prepared to support its managers.

Second, utility. Which skills and capabilities are most needed? That’s up for debate, but my answer would include knowledge of local communities, their power structures and change processes, and local and national government systems. Acknowledge that locally-engaged DFAT staff have this expertise in abundance, make more use of it, and create career options so local staff don’t have to leave to further their own. Australian public servants can learn these skills too. Create training positions on NGO, multilateral and contractor projects for graduates. Use initiatives like the ODI Fellowship Scheme to support early-career economists to work for regional governments in junior roles. This will build a cadre of economists who understand local organisations. Then recruit them into DFAT.

Such adjustments would not be expensive in the grand scheme of things. Their contribution to more effective development outcomes and enhanced relationships would pay for themselves many times over.

Abt Associates has just welcomed James as their new regional vice president for East Asia and the Pacific. With over 35 years of experience in social and economic development across low- and middle-income countries, James’ wealth of expertise is impressive. At The Lab, we value his deep dedication to locally led development, sharp understanding of development dynamics, and generosity with his time – he’s a long-time friend of the team.

Tom Sloan
CEO, Sustineo

After a decade of aid budget cuts, diminishing DFAT capability, and Australia’s reactive regional engagement approach, there are three key capability development opportunities for the sector.

First, the new development policy needs to provide a framework for better channelling existing sector capability. Rebuilding DFAT’s capability is clearly important, as they will play a critical role in the coherent (but challenging) delivery of a ‘whole-of-Government’ approach to the new policy. However, it is not all about DFAT. Establishing a long-term vision which clarifies intent, articulates ambition, and sets a narrative for partner engagement will have flow on effects to how all stakeholders engage in the region.

Second, building listening and learning capabilities is essential across the sector. Honest, open, trusting, and robust discussions are critical ingredients in partnerships at many scales – from government-to-government, to program and community level engagements. Opening the space for dialogue looks different in different contexts, but those spaces need to exist in Australia and our region. While the Office for Development Effectiveness is not coming back, within DFAT its former function could be reimagined through the establishment of an office acting as a valuable conduit for evaluation and learning, both between countries and within the sector.

Third, a shift to localisation needs to support local NGO and business capability. Momentum for localisation is important but there needs to be a focus on how it looks on the ground. Promoting local leadership in donor programs is one element of this, but support within local organisations is essential from a sustainability perspective. Does effective localisation simply look like international NGOs and managing contractors recruiting individuals in-country? Supporting those local individuals to deliver work through locally owned and operated organisations – who hold the institutional learning and capability into the future – feels more aligned to the ethos of genuine localisation.

Tom is a development practitioner and the talented lead of Sustineo, where he and his team deliver technical and management services on development initiatives. Tom’s broad expertise has seen him lead and conduct projects with UNDP, APEC, ASEAN and more. At The Lab, we love Tom’s knack for knitting together deep academic research methodologies with savvy development know-how, and his ability to generously forge new connections across the aid and development community and the region.

Jessica Mackenzie
Chief of Policy and Advocacy, Australian Council for International Development

The new Development Policy coming out in May is a great opportunity to both activate and broaden the expertise already within DFAT. The accompanying Development Finance Review and Capability Review are the two underpinning components that map how we ensure Australia is equipped to solve the international challenges coming. Those two reviews really have to solve this, and between these three documents, there are some practical ways forward to build DFAT capability.

First, we need to better harness our locally engaged staff. Our local staff's understanding of the political economy is deep and nuanced, and yet they are often busy on program delivery and administrative roles which don't harness their full range of expertise. There was a time when some of our locally engaged staff were managers of whole portfolios, holding EL2 positions and managing Australian staff. I'd like to see that confidence restored. Yes, that does require changing the incentives and processes – but there's a blueprint from when we've done it before.

Second, we need all kinds of strong technical thematic expertise in-house to deal with the challenges of the next decade: climate, health, governance, impact investment and evaluation specialists. We need to rebuild what's been lost and prepare for the future. 

And third, take a look at how the policy is implemented practically through Country Planning. The Government could establish longer (10 year) partnership agreements with nations to bring consistent focus and stability to relationships. These partnership agreements should be co-designed with input not only from partner governments, but in particular civil society actors to ensure that local voices are reflected in strategic plans and feed into Australia’s agreed priorities with partner governments.

We love having Jess back in Canberra after a few years working in development off-shore. As ACFID’s Chief of Policy and Advocacy, she uses her 20+ years of experience to drive great development outcomes for the region. At The Lab, we love how smart, fierce and flamboyant she is – just see her latest podcast series over on Good Will Hunters as evidence. The team at The Lab are always stoked to collaborate with Jess and her talented colleagues.

Read more