A two-pronged effort to both mobilise and engage Australian public support for development while also rallying political and policy elites around the value of a high-quality development program.
This would take a combination of ministerial, bureaucratic and international development sector efforts to go beyond just explaining why Australia provides development assistance, to demonstrating its value and championing the country’s role in contributing to global development.
The end goal is to create an environment that enables greater ambition to meet the current global challenge, by generating a more enduring and robust consensus on the value of development.
We’re missing the critical components that enable development ambition – and impact. Ministers need two things if they’re going to spend their political capital arguing for a serious development program. They want to see support from their constituents and authorisation from their colleagues. Over the years, Australia’s ministers for foreign affairs and international development have struggled to get both. Commentators point out Australia sits near the bottom of donor generosity rankings, every year becoming less relevant to global development efforts. So the new international development policy (the policy)'s commitment that Australia will play its part to address development challenges and meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seems ambitious at best and unlikely at worst.
We’ve lost the bipartisan consensus on development. Bipartisan support for development – which briefly enabled Australia’s commitment to scale up to 0.5 ODA/GNI – gives governments of any stripe the political coverage to provide budget certainty without having to defend or obfuscate their choices. This dissolved in 2013 when the Coalition stepped away from the 0.5 spending target. During the Morrison government’s temporary and targeted COVID-19 development assistance increases, then-shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong backed the move and offered bipartisan support for a permanent increase to the ODA budget – but it was not taken up. In May 2023 the Opposition questioned the Government’s stabilisation of the ODA budget over the forward estimates. More recently, multi-party attendance at the development policy launch at Parliament House was a positive sign. But right now, Labor can’t agree internally to a time frame for reaching the target – so it’s unclear whether the Government will be willing to test the Opposition on bipartisanship once more.
Public sentiment on development won’t change without political leadership and public communications. Public support for development assistance waxes and wanes, and views about how much development assistance Australia does and should give can be deeply rooted and hard to shift. But it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: politicians won’t campaign for more development assistance if they think their constituents don’t care about it – but people won’t value development if they don’t see their leaders making the case for it. The problem is often put back on the development sector to address and mobilise around, but this needs to be backed in by political leadership and messaging about the value of development. And underpinning it all is a knowledge sector around international development in Australia that lacks the resources and heft to step up engagement and play its part in driving consensus.
The ODA budget has stabilised – but the development community can’t rest its laurels. Every year thousands of hours of NGO and bureaucrat time are being taken up fighting for the status quo, for the development program to exist. Notwithstanding the differences of opinion on how to see the trajectory of the Australian aid budget, the last decade has seen cuts and flatlines, with a few small rises in between. Given that, it’s understandable that advocates are breathing a little easier now that there’s hope of budget stabilisation. But at some point, development leaders within government and advocates around them may need to get out of their defensive crouch and start thinking about what kind of impact Australia’s development program should have and start arguing for it. More budget certainty, and more political support would provide the kind of stable base that would enable bigger thinking.
There’s potential for momentum – if it’s gripped up. There’s more diversified interest in development right now than we have seen since the “golden consensus” of the mid-2000s. COVID-19 starkly demonstrated the interdependencies of our globalised world. China’s presence in the Pacific – most recently its expanding access and influence in Solomon Islands – have put Australia’s engagement with the region on the domestic political agenda. For the first time the Minister responsible for international development is on the National Security Committee of Cabinet. And the Government has started to make an investment in diversifying and deepening the policy discourse on development – whether through funding more policy research or development communications – that could start to bear fruit, in parallel to traditional sector advocacy efforts.
The next decade will be decisive for development. The policy says it upfront – we’re entering a critical decade for global development and stability and an era of polycrisis. But there’s a sharp disconnect between the rhetoric and the response. While Australia says it wants to contribute to global public goods and play its part in meeting the perilously off-track SDGs, it’s not making any major changes to the development program’s structure, scale, or focus. As observers have noted: when the world is on fire, business as usual won’t cut it. The calls will likely get louder – whether from our development partners in the region or our allies – to do things differently. Pragmatists might say that this was not “the moment” for the Albanese government to show ambition on development – but they may also concede that challenges don’t go away just because the political capital isn’t there to address them.
Continuing to show political ownership of the development program. Institute an annual statement from the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and International Development on the state of Australia’s statecraft writ large, that explicitly highlights and explains the importance of working towards sustainable development. This would break the conversation about development out of its existing silo and situate it firmly within the foreign policy discourse, without subjugating it in a clumsy misinterpretation of Australian national interests. By framing development as an essential, complementary but distinct strand of Australia’s international engagement, political elites may be less likely to see development assistance as an instrument or tool that is subordinate to our diplomatic objectives, and start to value it more.
Coordinating on the messaging to shore up public support. While COVID-era campaigns were successful at motivating community and political support for development, the pandemic is fast retreating from people’s minds, and domestic economic headwinds – including cost of living pressures – are starting to blow. The bureaucracy and the sector need to keep their eye on the prize of public support. NGOs, church lobby groups, peak bodies, think tanks, and advocates need to continue to mobilise their constituencies in support of development assistance – and it should not fall to just one group. DFAT should coordinate with the sector and advocates, whether it be through a formal strategic partnership or more informal communities of practice and lessons-sharing, to ensure that efforts are aligned and multiplied.
Getting clearer on the scale of the challenge – and the ambition required to address it. Establish a forecasting capability within government, which looks at long-range development challenges for lower and middle-income countries in our region. It should be squarely focused on deeply understanding our neighbours, but also provide analysis of the implications for Australia’s future security and prosperity. This work would guide the development program on how it should approach and pivot to challenges in real time. It would also identify future capabilities Australia may need. And importantly, it could provide the rigorous analytical base for bureaucratic leaders to make long-term policy and budget proposals.
Articulating why development in the region is in Australia’s interest. Incorporate development into any forthcoming national security or national interest strategy, with specific analysis on the risk under-development poses to Australia’s security and prosperity. A salient example is the 2022 US National Security Strategy, which argues that addressing development challenges – like food insecurity, climate change, and communicable diseases – “are not marginal issues that are secondary to geopolitics. They are at the very core of national and international security and must be treated as such.” Though this argument may not sway the public, it could nudge elite thinking.
Funding a new campaign for development. If we accept that the Government needs to see public support before it initiates a bigger and bolder development program, then it should put effort and funding towards building that support. At the moment, the job of publicly advocating for this area of government spending is largely left up to the sector, and either self-funded by NGOs or through overseas philanthropy. However, given that DFAT also benefits from a pro-development authorising environment, the Department should do its part by contributing financially to these efforts. This could take the form of a centrally funded public campaign, implemented in partnership with the sector, or a pool of flexible funding that advocates and NGOs could draw upon when there’s a window to influence public opinion. Short of these, Government could make it easier for NGOs and implementing partners to contribute a portion of their funding to advocacy and campaigning for development.
Considering the balance of effort and investments across our elements of national power. Government should work on either a new Foreign Policy White Paper – or an update – that brings together all the existing threads of Australia’s international engagement, laying out a foreign policy vision and what role development plays in that. It should consider the balance of investment across defence, diplomacy, and development. While the Government has made a statement about its ambition and vision for Australia’s defensive agenda, by confirming its support for the $360b AUKUS investment, it’s less clear how it will pursue – and fund – a parallel proactive agenda to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, stable and prosperous.
Pushing for bipartisanship on the development program and budget. Increase parliamentary oversight of the development program – for example through a dedicated International Development Committee, as in the UK – to build cross-party ownership of the development program as a national asset. This would need to cut across ideological divides and be grounded in a common vision and purpose for Australia’s engagement in the region. The US has managed this – even during the Trump years there was still majority public support for US foreign policy that pursued global values. The national interest, security and regional stability lenses may be avenues to achieve this. For some political elites, comparing our ODA generosity to those of our strategic and alliance partners – for example in AUKUS, the Five Eyes and the Quad – could be a compelling case for stepping up our game.
For many policymakers and advocates in Canberra right now, arguing for more development assistance is a non-starter. The last time bipartisan consensus existed, many of our donor peers were racing towards an ODA/GNI target of 0.5 or 0.7, the Millennium Development Goals were in sight, and making poverty history was a tangible objective, not just a catch cry. It’s a different world now, and in the current political climate, there is little incentive for political leaders to risk being wedged on something as non-essential to voters as increasing the development assistance budget.
But a pragmatic policymaker who agrees with this might also recognise that the world has indeed changed – it’s only getting more disorderly, disruptive and dangerous. So if now is not the time for development ambition and vision – when the storm clouds are gathering on the horizon – then when? It’s not pretty, but insecurity and fear of a grim future is one way to motivate a population to act and demand more from their leaders. Or, for political leaders to decide to take leadership on this issue anyway. We’ve seen that with the climate change debate in Australia. A savvy campaigner might recognise that any new consensus has to be built on a shared understanding of what threats Australia is facing, how development can help mitigate them and most importantly, the lost opportunity for our region and our nation if we fail to act now.