April 28, 2022

Do we have an aid program – or just an aid budget?

Debate always bubbles over aid budget figures. But the Solomon Islands–China security pact has opened the door for a deeper conversation on the quality, coherency and future place of Australian development in the region.

Hear what the experts have to say on Australia’s approach to development strategy and implementation, beyond the bucket of money.

Stuart Schaefer
Chair, International Development Contractors Community

The swift launch of the Government’s Partnerships for Recovery Strategy in May 2020 set the framework for development actors to work alongside our neighbours as they respond to and recover from COVID-19. The Strategy guides the allocation of Australia’s aid budget.

IDCC’s members are on the ground delivering approximately a quarter of Australia’s development footprint using our regionally relevant ideas, skills and experience. Partnerships for Recovery guided this crucial support through the early days of the pandemic. But for many countries in our region, the longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are still becoming clear, all the while climate change and geostrategic competition continue to shape the regional environment.

So does Australia have an aid program, or just an aid budget? Australia had a fit for purpose COVID-19 response strategy. We welcomed the addition of temporary funds to the aid budget and the greater transparency around budget information and measures to improve performance assessment. But this is not enough.

The scale of our region’s challenge continues to demand a commensurate response from Australia. Now is the time for Australia’s development program and aid budget to shift gear. The pathway starts with bigger and bolder leadership, broader strategy and sustained, increased budget commitments to match. IDCC and its members are ready to offer our insights and advice on how to realise Australia’s ambition for its development program and budget.

Stuart has decades of experience at the helm of international development on behalf of the Australian Government and now with DT Global and IDCC. At the Lab, we enjoy Stuart for his steady judgment and measured use of words for maximum effect.

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

Australia absolutely has an aid program. We have a broad network of bilateral partnerships, expertise sharing and human development impact. For example, there’s deep people-to-people connections through NGO networks still in place across the region. However, after years of erosion of the program coupled with growing threats to human development gains, we are undercutting Australia’s influence and impact. In short, we can do better.

Focusing on the aid budget itself is insufficient for responding to the need in our region. Nor do we want an aid program driven by a patchwork of geographic budget allocations or political announcements. Government’s Partnerships for Recovery policy is not a holistic development or humanitarian strategy fit to deal with the multitude of challenges Australia, and our region face beyond COVID-19. The Government has set this year as its expiry date. We need a long-term development and humanitarian strategy, thoughtfully matching resources to needs, and this needs to be aligned to an updated foreign policy. A new strategy must be fit for purpose for the environment we are in, it should measure development results, and check we’re achieving our goals.

It is notable that the Government increased the aid program in 2020 and 2022 to respond to our strategic environment (a total of nearly $1.5 billion over several years). However we need to put the budget and program on a permanent footing if we want to realise the benefits of Australian development in the region.

Jess has recently burst back onto the Australian scene after a few years working in development off-shore. At the Lab, we’re stoked to collaborate a lot with Jess and her colleagues. Smart, fierce and flamboyant — she’s one to watch out for.

Richard Moore
Strategic Adviser, Development Intelligence Lab

It’s debatable that Australia has ever had an ‘aid program’, or that we should aspire to one.

Leaving aside the old ‘aid’ language, which really has to go - the ‘aid program’ concept suggests something singular and standalone - a world in itself.

Some yearn for that separate universe, but it divorces development cooperation from politics, power and shifting national and international priorities. That’s a losing game if ever there was one.

I’m not arguing for the ‘aid toolbox’ concept, far from it. Seeing development cooperation just as a bucket of money and a bunch of projects and programs to meet today’s exigencies risks squandering the whole.

Asia Pacific development needs to be an Australian foreign policy objective in its own right - achieved through coherent policies and programs that include, but stretch far beyond development assistance.

What’s needed is a strategic framework that governs the diversity of what we do and situates it in a bigger international relations domain. Something that clarifies what we are trying to achieve and why - and demands of us that we use evidence to achieve the best results we can.

Do we have that now? Not so much. We have lifted our game in the Pacific and in response to COVID-19, but there’s insufficient clarity about our overarching strategic objectives.

In the development business we focus too much on the volume of money rather than the quality of ideas and their impact.

Ironically, rethinking how the budget is put together, how it is presented and how it links to our strategic priorities, might be the simplest way to reform things.

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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