July 28, 2022

New Government, fresh chance: what would it take for DFAT to be a world class development agency?

Foreign policy is well and truly in the domestic zeitgeist, with a renewed focus from a new Government. Calls to take a look at DFAT capability have been ruminating for some time, so this week we turned to the experts to tease out exactly how a transformation of the development agency could happen.

Melissa Conley Tyler
Program Lead, Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue

Indications are that this is a government that is going to expect a lot from its foreign service. Minister Wong’s public profile and political pull within her party suggest that foreign policy will have a strong voice and be part of key decisions. DFAT has already been given an ambitious agenda with new plans for Southeast Asia and the Pacific and new ODA funding to achieve them.   

After decades of cuts and trimming to the bone, DFAT faces a different problem: how does it skill-up and scale-up to build capacity?  

First, skill-up on development. It has been estimated that 2000 combined years of development experience was lost during the AusAID amalgamation and cuts since mean that this has not been rebuilt. Whether it’s recruiting more development specialists, developing mechanisms that leverage external expertise, or finding other options, DFAT will need to show that it values specialist skills in what has traditionally been a generalist department. This will require reversing perceptions that development skills – and service in areas such as the Pacific – are not highly valued in terms of career development: for example, by introducing career progression opportunities for development professionals.  

Second, scale-up on importance of foreign policy. In its first two months in office, the new government has been extraordinarily internationally focused. The Prime Minister has made seven international visits while DFAT’s portfolio ministers have visited Japan, Fiji, Indonesia, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Malaysia, Vietnam, Switzerland and Rwanda. Perhaps the government is heeding veteran ambassador John McCarthy’s advice to adopt a mindset that external policy is now as important to Australia as domestic policy.   

DFAT stands to be much more central to the new Government’s agenda – with the expectations that go along with this. Careful what you wish for.  

Melissa’s leadership of modern think tanks like AP4D and AIIA is second-to-none, and she is always fostering new collaborations to tackle complex foreign policy challenges. Melissa is incredibly generous with her time and at the Lab, we enjoy her deep expertise and that she is always up for a good laugh.

Joanne Choe
Head of Program Quality and Gender, Cardno International Development

It will take people, culture, partnerships and leadership. 

First, people. There are many people in DFAT with rich development experience, insight and expertise. They are the local, international and Australian staff at DFAT’s posts and in Canberra.  Finding them, drawing on their knowledge and ideas and valuing their contribution through incentives, career paths and meaningful roles will be the basis of DFAT becoming a world class development agency. Putting the right people in the right roles is a starting point, with strategies to recruit, support, train and mentor more development practitioners to build and strengthen DFAT’s expertise.

Second, culture. Fostering a culture where development expertise is valued by the organisation – expertise that understands socio-political and economic context, what drives meaningful change and how we come behind and support genuine, locally-led reform working closely with a range of partners. Development is not seen as distinct from the political context in which implementation takes place – but understands that effective development is underpinned and mutually reinforced by strong political analysis, influencing legitimacy and astute diplomacy. In such a culture, the ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships with our partners across the region – in government, civil society and private sector – should be the most revered skill as it is the basis of effective development cooperation. 

Third, partnerships. DFAT should work in open, respectful partnerships with other international development implementing actors – from academics to contractors to NGOs. Their ideas, energy, know-how and resources are needed to come behind this effort but can only be harnessed through partnerships that appreciate and welcome their contribution in an open and collaborative way. Contestability, innovation, learning and adaptation should be the basis of this collaboration.

Finally, leadership. Bringing this all together will take committed leadership by experienced, savvy development professionals who are empowered to build up this organisational capability. Leaders with vision and ambition need to be given the mandate and resources to make this happen.

Jo is an adroit development leader whose mind whirs with questions, ideas and inspiration. A modern development practitioner, she is instrumental in transforming gender equality in development programming. At the Lab, we love that Jo isn’t afraid of tough conversations or hard questions and we call on her superpowers often.

Anthea Roberts
Professor and Director of the Centre for International Governance and Justice, Australian National University 

Today’s social, political, environmental and technological challenges are increasingly complex and interconnected. Traditional development issues (climate disasters, impacts of COVID-19, gender-based violence) are intersecting with security concerns arising from great power rivalry and geoeconomic strategies. The very mindset that there are distinct, definable challenges is obsolete.  

For development agencies, lives and livelihoods depend on how we navigate the complex intersection of economics (growth and poverty alleviation), social justice (inequality, rule of law and human rights), conflict (both military and gray zone), and technological advancement (with its opportunities and espionage threats).  

Australia’s traditional development approach needs to be recalibrated: we need to break down silos that previously separated experts in different disciplines and fields and bring together multiple stakeholders in order to forge new ways forward.  

Development challenges require an attempt to balance among risk, reward and resilience. Although risk reduction is always key, attention must also be paid to how to take advantage of opportunities (to enable countries to grow strong) and how to build resilience (to ensure that countries have capacity to continue to function when risks eventuate). For development, this requires understanding the priorities of each recipient state while recognising our countries' shared interests in a peaceful and prosperous region.  

We need new frameworks and tools that stakeholders can use to better collaborate and understand development challenges that lie at the junction of geopolitical, social and environmental contexts. Such tools can help to move us beyond thinking in black-and-white terms about how to minimise risk or maximise rewards and instead engage in ways of balancing risk, reward and resilience in order to meet the myriad interconnected challenges that lie ahead. With this will come better foresight capacity and adaptive approaches so that Australia and its regional partners are better placed to navigate our ‘white-water world’.

Anthea is a remarkable academic, having taught at the ANU, the London School of Economics, Columbia Law School and Harvard Law School. Her skills lie in teasing out the complexities and intersections within global governance and international law. At the Lab, we love how future-focused she is, finding solutions for thorny modern challenges.

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