February 29, 2024

2024: What's dictating the direction of Australian development?

For much of 2022 and 2023, the Australian development ecosystem was squarely focused on the Government’s new international development policy: what was in, what was out, and what directions it would set for a new era of development.

Now that it’s landed, and a new policy year has dawned, it’s a good time to take stock and consider what’s next for Australian development.

This week, we asked three of the Lab’s own to give their take on what’s dictating the direction of Australian development assistance in 2024.

Bridi Rice
CEO, Development Intelligence Lab

Domestically, 2024 will be a year of quiet implementation in Canberra. Since coming to office, the Labor Party’s team of international ministers have been industriously resetting relationships in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But if the last few years have been about stabilising Australian development as an element of statecraft, this year will see a government with its pedal to the metal, preparing for the 2025 election.

Why does this matter? Development assistance is rarely an election issue or vote winner. Hill-dwelling aid advocates and sceptics alike may prefer Australian aid to remain a small target. Meanwhile, Government likely thinks its big thinking on development is complete following last year’s release of a new international development policy. So those calling for a more ambitious policy approach are likely to be disappointed in 2024.

Some argue that Australia has missed its opportunity to reset the dial on development and lament the lack of political will or bandwidth for bold moves in either policy or budget terms. This ought not hold back the new Safer World for All campaign from trying. Others will focus their attention on the bureaucracy, closely watching how it delivers on new policy commitments including Development Partnership Plans, a new transparency portal, Stakeholder Perception Survey, and a slew of implementation sub-strategies.

Formal budget and implementation processes aside, I see two things dictating the direction of Australian development in Canberra this year: firstly, regional events – elections, conflicts, natural disasters, to name a few – and what they demand of Australia, and secondly, whether our foreign policy ecosystem is bright enough to recognise Australia has something powerfully unique to offer if it engages on developmental terms with the region. On the former, Australia has some good form. On the latter, well, things hang in the balance.

Bridi is an international development expert with a background in Government, non-government organisations, private sector and public policy. In a past life, she oversaw Australian bilateral legal cooperation programs, ran public sector consulting gigs, and represented Australia’s leading NGOs to Government. In 2021 she was a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Strategic International Studies. The team at the Lab love Bridi’s commitment to creating a space to explore pathways to development that are locally-led, geo-strategically attuned and which represents the best Australia has to offer.

Mira Sulistiyanto
Analyst, Development Intelligence Lab

When it comes to Southeast Asia, the gravitational pull of status quo will exert the strongest force over the direction of Australia’s development assistance in 2024. This year Australia will deliver a development assistance portfolio with essentially the same budget and program priorities as years past. There is little room to move and - according to some - little appetite to within Government.

Savvier development bureaucrats and commentators will be asking: is this the best Australia can do to meet the demands of our region?

Southeast Asia has a positive economic outlook for 2024 but it also faces myriad challenges: the worsening impacts of climate change, extreme internal conflicts, elections, regime changes and continuing concerns of narrowing civic space. It’s clear that there’s still work to do to secure hard-won development gains in an era of polycrisis.

Australia could play a more supportive role in that, if it’s up for it. Forthcoming Lab research shows Southeast Asian experts are inviting Australia to come good on its new policy commitments to listen and forge genuine partnerships in the region. In the countries we’ve surveyed so far, this doesn’t necessarily look like Australia trying to be the biggest, most innovative or technically-savvy partner. Rather, experts would like to see Australia deepening its bonds with nations as a whole – with broader civil society as well as government and business elites – in the pursuit of higher-quality development cooperation. For these experts, Australia being a better ‘people partner’ was not only seen as a quicker route to higher-impact assistance tailored to context, but also as a way to consistently elevate non-government expertise in decision making.

Status quo needn’t reign. It may defy the natural laws of the universe but, in 2024, Government could take the opportunity re-orient its partnerships to secure the relevance in Southeast Asia it desires, and the lasting development outcomes our region needs.

Mira is a development policy analyst and keen strategic thinker with experience in policy research, business development, program evaluation and design. Right now, she’s working on the forthcoming Pulse Check x Southeast Asia, the Lab’s latest research into Southeast Asian expert views of Australia’s development cooperation. Before joining the Lab, Mira was part of Tetra Tech’s Future Economies Practice. The team at the Lab love Mira’s ability to connect the strategic dots, and her commitment to understanding the perspectives of everyone in the room.

Heather Murphy
Head of Analysis and Engagement, Development Intelligence Lab

Globally, the US election will cast a long shadow over the year. If Trump returns, or there’s a disputed election outcome, we’ll likely see a US increasingly absorbed by its own internal problems and less interested than ever in playing its global superpower role.

Why does that matter for Australian development? A US pivot away from the Indo-Pacific should prompt us to recalibrate our own engagement with the region, of which development is still a major theme. We’ve – mostly – enjoyed the benefits of the US’s increased interest in the Pacific in recent years. It’s helpful to have allies by your side – offering a security deal here, opening up a new embassy there – when you’re fighting tooth and nail for hearts and minds.

But if the US starts to look wobbly, I’d expect to see an Australian international relations posture that doubles down on positioning for a multipolar future. That’d look like re-investing in the web of relationships and minilateral groupings that keep our options open, and, if we’re smart, using a focused and effective development program as a key mechanism to shape an Indo-Pacific that serves our own – and the region’s – best interests.

Beyond to that fast-approaching November date, I’ll be watching a range of other simmering global trends: growing climate instability and the compounding human security impacts of natural disasters; increased European and Indo-Pacific (Japan, South Korea, India) attention on the Pacific; and scampering in the multilateral system as major development funds are due for replenishment, ahead of a potentially radical shift in US foreign policy. And, given it’s the year of elections I’ll be keeping my eye on the fate of democracy, and how AI-turbocharged mis- and disinformation, social fragmentation and greyzone tactics all collide in what could be a combustive mix.

Heather is the Lab's Head of Analysis and Engagement and a foreign policy expert with a background in international development, aid and the Pacific. She has over a decade of hands-on experience in the field of international relations, as a diplomat and development practitioner. In a previous life, she was a Senior Analyst at the Office of National Intelligence. The team at the Lab love her keen analytical instincts, wealth of knowledge on the Pacific, creative policy ideas and wicked sense of humour.

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