Listen better

Skills and mechanisms to hear Australia’s partners better.

What’s the idea?  

Bolster Australia’s listening skills – and approach to partner engagement – as a foundation for better dialogue. Create space to put what is heard into practice. By building more resilient relationships, Australia can have more robust conversations with its partners.  

What problem does it solve?

Australia’s partners are demanding a different approach. Increasingly, regional governments and communities are calling for development partnerships that are based on mutual respect and shaped around shared interests. A shift in power dynamics over the last decade or so – and the growing debate around locally-led development and decolonisation in aid – means it’s no longer tenable for ‘global north’ countries to unilaterally dictate the terms of engagement to the recipients of their ODA. Nor is it ideal to pay lip service to regional priorities and then appear to ignore them. And whether it’s the reality or not, mutual respect is the rhetoric that underpins the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) development cooperation in the region – which it highlights as the differentiating factor between its partnership approach and the West’s.  

Australia has fallen out of the listening habit. In the past, Australia had dedicated mechanisms and ways to consult its partners in the region on their development priorities, preferences, and perspectives – built on the understanding that listening is fundamental for a genuine partnership. But even Foreign Minister Penny Wong has conceded that “Australia has not always listened to the countries of Southeast Asia and of the Pacific as carefully as we could have.” Research reveals a perception that Australia’s international development programs are driven by its own interests – and processes and timetables – and aren’t aligned or receptive to regional priorities and ways of working.  

Its partnerships could be strengthened. Australia’s relationships in the Pacific and Southeast Asia have the potential to evolve into deep, robust, trusting and collaborative partnerships – but they’re not there yet. When the Lab surveyed over 50 regional experts on Australia’s strengths and weaknesses as a development partner, they ranked paternalism as the most critical negative attribute to address. “What’s missing is the listening part of the engagement. Even if our priorities are different to Australia’s foreign policy interests,” one regional expert told us. “Talk and listen to us. Do not come with what you think is good for us,” said another. For many of these experts, better listening and partnership engagement is the foundation for development impact.

Why now?

The Government has pledged to do this better. There are multiple commitments in the new international development policy, and Ministerial statements, to invest in better listening and partnerships. Wong told the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in 2022: “I commit to working with, and listening to, this generation of Pacific leaders to navigate these challenges [climate change, COVID and strategic contest] together.” She has also said her government takes an approach “that puts listening above lecturing” while also committing to being “partners not patriarchs.” To ensure these statements are more than talk, regional leaders and communities need to start having a tangibly different experience when engaging with Australia.

Consultation is at the heart of the new Development Partnership Plans (DPPs). Each Australian post and mission in the region now has the opportunity to put the Government’s commitments on listening into practice as they embark on the DPP process. These are the primary vehicle for implementing the new international development policy and, according to International Development Minister Pat Conroy, will be based on deep consultation with partners. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)’s ability to do this well will be hampered in some countries by a lack of bandwidth, and constrained resources and capability. So there’s a real risk to reputation, relationships, and the quality of decisions, if Australia doesn’t think deliberately about what it wants out of consultations, who it should be speaking to, and how it will act on what it hears.  

Australia’s partner of choice status is being challenged. Australia can’t be complacent or overly confident about its appeal as a partner. For decades it’s had the status as the primary development partner for the Pacific region. Even though it’s still the largest donor, it’s clear that Pacific countries have more choices than they used to. And in some recent, high-profile examples, Pacific partner governments have exercised that freedom of choice in the security sector. A renewed approach to listening could help safeguard Australia’s place as the Pacific’s leading development partner.

How would we implement this?  

First steps would be…

Making listening the first instinct. Organisations and individuals across the Australian development ecosystem should make active listening skills the starting point for good partnerships, identifying them as specific areas for capability development. This is not just throwing ‘listening’ around as a buzzword, but being reflective about what matters: understanding the importance of slowing down and spending time with partners, learning the facilitation skills to create the space for better conversations, and practicing speaking less and listening more. This can’t be achieved through training and good practice guides alone: it would require an organisational commitment to prioritising these behaviours, and consistent modelling from leaders. While seemingly basic, these behaviours have not always characterised Australia’s approach to relationships in the region.

Building cross-cultural competency and confidence. Better prepare the people who are the face of Australia’s partnerships to operate in the specific cultural contexts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Standard humanitarian response training is mandatory for any person deploying to a disaster zone because Australia understands the real risk of doing harm in such a fragile setting. Yet there’s no equivalent for personnel – whether they be diplomats, other Australian Government officials, or the managing contractors and NGO staff implementing Australian development assistance – who deliver through Australia’s most important development partnerships. Building this competency could include more language training (especially for diplomats posted to the Pacific, who receive less preparation than those headed to Southeast Asia) and continuing efforts to boost Southeast Asia and Pacific literacy.

Listening first, acting next. Development organisations and individuals across the ecosystem must get the sequencing right: don’t make big decisions about policy and programs before talking to the people and communities they seek to serve, impact or influence. Though it’s important to go into conversations – whether they be about DPPs, program designs and evaluations, or more regular stakeholder dialogues – with a sense of focus, and a set of ideas and propositions to be tested, an open and exploratory mindset is also crucial.  

Bigger steps would be … 

Aligning with what we’ve already been told. Commit to, in principle, always starting from where Australia’s partners are in terms of their formally articulated development/national planning priorities and policies. Formally assessing – and aligning with – the best elements of partners' plans should be a step in the DPP process. It’s a simple, tangible way to act on the Government’s commitments about aligning to partner priorities. It’s also a basic principle of aid effectiveness: it demonstrates respect, reduces duplication and mitigates the risk that donors put energy into sectors or projects that don’t have partner government or community support. This needn’t be prescriptive or limit Australia’s choices. It can still be selective about what it supports, but there must be evidence that support aligns with what Australia has been told matters most.  

Listening with integrity and acting with transparency. Engage in frank and respectful dialogue with partners about where Australia’s red lines and policy limitations are. Like many developed nations, Australia is often caught between its domestic policies and national interests, and what the region asks of it. Talking a big game on listening, and appearing to not follow through, can fuel suspicion and disappointment. Australian officials are often comfortable having honest conversations at the highest level with leaders, but this is also critical with development program stakeholders and partners. Being prepared to engage in contestable conversations, as a foundation for any mature partnership, is critical. So too, is the ability to communicate with stakeholders how Australia has acted, or not, on their insights through practical programming decisions.  

Hearing from a broader range of people. Better equip Australian officials to have meaningful and culturally appropriate engagement with a range of stakeholders (not just government partners and elites). In many countries where Australia works, development is led by important non-state actors including churches, community leaders, business, universities and civil society organisations. The Government’s planned biannual perceptions survey, announced in the new international development policy, will be a good way to reach these stakeholders. It can also engage these less-listened to voices through in-country community dialogues and focus groups. And where appropriate, online engagement – surveys, polls, live social media engagements – can tap into even more diverse networks and perspectives.  

A comprehensive response would be … 

Transforming the approach to consultation. A first step here would be to slow down the ambitious timetable for agreeing DPPs with partner governments by the end of 2024 – which is based on Australia’s timeframe, not its partners’. It would also mean more collaborative co-design or partner-led processes, disrupting the current dominant model of DFAT-led investment design processes. This would require an open and exploratory mindset, and for Australia to be willing to adjust and re-calibrate its decisions and perspectives based on dialogue.  

Institutionalising listening mechanisms. Establish ongoing ways for Australia to hear from and understand regional perspectives, especially at the country level. In addition to the planned perceptions survey, this could include new initiatives like regular regional listening tours, standing reference groups, or beefing up the dialogue components in existing activities – like civil society partnerships and development programs. Australia could also use its development investments as platforms for dialogue with governments and stakeholders on policy and reform issues – rather than just focusing on program governance and implementation. But it will be critical to avoid over-consulting and over-burdening smaller partners. Internally, DFAT should coordinate and deconflict its own processes so multiple parts of the department aren’t trying to engage the same partner. Externally, it could better align with other development partners to avoid duplication. And when Australia does engage with small partners, making sure that it has done its homework and knows what the partner has previously told it – through previous engagements or public submissions, etc – will ensure a more focused and higher quality consultation.

Shifting practices and mindsets. Incentives to enable this shift across the development ecosystem could include a higher proportion of staff trained in Southeast Asian and Pacific languages, and workforce diversification. Within Government, incentives could include incorporating ‘listening’ as a criterion to be assessed in program design and implementation quality assurance processes, to ensure ongoing management focus on listening as a core capability.  

What is the policymaker’s take on this?

Policymakers might admit that Australia is out of practice when it comes to genuinely consulting with the region – but they’d also point out that they are short on time to figure out how to do it better. This is why DFAT could renegotiate the timeframe for DPP finalisation with Ministers’ offices, to ensure that they don’t risk the effectiveness of their programs by rushing consultations.  

Officials may also want to defend Australia’s track record on listening. They’d argue that it’s not that they don’t listen, it’s that they can’t do everything that their partners want them to do. And when confronted with a shopping list, it’s hard not to let the discussion become transactional and shallow. But this demonstrates why transforming the approach to consultation is needed – to pull both Australia and its partners out of that donor-recipient dynamic. Plus, the deeper a partnership is, the more likely it will focus on pursuing shared interests – rather than each side trying to meet its own.  

Finally, policymakers are grappling with the gravitational pull of geopolitics. When sharpening strategic circumstances demand a laserlike focus on national interests, regional perspectives and interests get less of a look-in. But at the end of the day, aligning with regional interests, and building partnerships based on mutual respect, is core to Australia’s national interests. It just depends on how patient the Government is willing to be.  

The good news for DFAT is that this isn’t all on them – 90 percent of Australia’s development assistance budget is delivered through other entities. So there’s an imperative for everyone working at the coalface of implementation and partnerships to do this better.  

What inspired this idea?

Research and analysis team

Heather Murphy with support from Richard Moore, Bridi Rice, Martina Zapf and Ruby Saulwick. The Pitch is produced by Lab staff, based on analysis and interpretation of open source material, and represents the views of Lab staff only.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong has conceded that “Australia has not always listened to the countries of Southeast Asia and of the Pacific as carefully as we could have.”

A renewed approach to listening could help safeguard Australia’s place as the Pacific’s leading development partner.

Aligning with regional interests, and building partnerships based on mutual respect, is core to Australia’s national interests.