Deepen and strengthen the knowledge ecosystem around Australia’s development program as a foundation for better results, greater impact and influence.
Development leaders struggle to find and use comprehensive, actionable development insights. The Australian development ecosystem is continually collecting and generating information about countries in the Indo-Pacific region. But this data is siloed, varied in its detail and fidelity, and rarely synthesised into actionable insights. Inside government, different internationally-facing departments each prepare their own briefing, talking points and information about countries and regions. There’s no central or authoritative view of, or official line on, the development trajectories or challenges facing the Indo-Pacific.
Policymakers don’t have the bandwidth – or the mandate – to think ahead. Right now, Government is re-calibrating its existing development portfolio to the new international development policy, which has set the direction of travel for the next five to ten years. But given the rapid pace of change in the world, the policy risks being out of date before it’s even fully implemented. Technology, rising fragility and conflict, authoritarianism, geopolitical contestation and climate change are all making the process and practice of development more complex than ever. There is no part of the development ecosystem – inside or outside the bureaucracy – mandated to anticipate and plan for these changes.
Making sense of complexity is getting harder. Already, some country contexts are shifting too rapidly for policymakers to maintain a clear understanding of what’s happening on the ground. As Australia deepens its consultation and engagement with the region, it will need a way to absorb, make sense and act on the information it gathers. Decisions – for example, through Development Partnership Plan (DPP) processes, investment designs, or day-to-day programming decisions – need be informed by a deep and nuanced understanding of these contexts. Policymakers must have the insights and analysis to enable them to anticipate the next big disruption – instead of feeling like they’re constantly scrambling to respond to the last one.
Australia must compete on value, not volume. Faced with increased competition in a crowded donor landscape, Australia has made a series of adaptations to its development program to respond to a shifting context. New programs of infrastructure support, development financing and re-investment in Southeast Asia have made it more competitive in the region. But it won’t be able to win this contest on dollars alone. Serious transformation is needed to make Australia’s development offering smarter, more effective, and ultimately, to more responsive to the evolving needs of the region.
Australian development assistance must work hard to remain relevant to its partners. The value of a development partner is increasingly driven by knowledge, experimentation and creative collaboration – including to anticipate and meet future disruptions. The new international development policy commits to maximising the value of Australian expertise by expanding research funding and outlining a clear development research agenda, but public detail on this commitment is lacking. Meanwhile, the authorising environment for ambition is constrained, program performance is mixed, and geopolitical imperatives are incentivising a transactional rather than transformational approach to partnerships. The development program is increasingly contracted out in large flexible facilities to managing contractors with limited senior strategic direction from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). In Southeast Asia (outside Indonesia), in particular, Australia is at risk of declining in relevance and influence as a development partner – if it doesn’t invest now in becoming more future-fit.
Powerful statecraft demands a shared vision. The Albanese Government has said that development policy is at the heart of its approach to statecraft – the goal of which is shaping a region that is stable and secure. But to harness the talent and power of those organisations and individuals delivering the majority of the Australian development program, it needs to build and communicate a shared vision of the region. That means, as a critical first step, getting on the same page about what development challenges will be in the future, and what will be needed within organisations to respond.
Understanding the impact of the polycrisis. Partner with regional bodies (for example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] and/or the Pacific Islands Forum [PIF]) to commission a multidisciplinary report on how compounding challenges like disasters, inequality and conflict will impact the region. For example, the World Bank’s Pacific Possible report series could be updated and re-scoped to broaden its focus beyond sources of economic growth. Such analysis should draw heavily on insights and analysis from those in the region – not just represent a Western research or analytical institution’s world view. This must be a public document so all parts of the development ecosystem can benefit from its findings.
Establishing a central development insights unit. Resource and prioritise the production of in-house cross-cutting analysis and policy briefs for the use of country, regional and global programs. Past reviews of Australian development policy highlighted the value of an ‘internal think tank’ function within government to synthesise and disseminate findings about development effectiveness. This could be a new function within an existing business area of DFAT or a new unit either inside or outside the department (for example, the Expert Group for Aid Studies in Sweden). It would monitor major trends in global and regional development policy and practice, areas of innovation and impact, and absorb the latest reporting and evidence about what works in development. The value of a dedicated internal function – rather than, for example, drawing on an existing research or analytical body within the development ecosystem – is that it could be highly responsive, policy relevant, and attuned to the specific needs of policymakers.
Keeping up with the evolving nature of development cooperation. Develop a process or product to relook at different models for development cooperation and consider the implications for Australia. This could take the form of a DFAT-commissioned study, a standing capacity within a research or analytical organisation, or a conference within the development ecosystem. It should aim to compare and contrast the different options in terms of broad approaches or modalities within development – e.g. development financing; policy dialogue; technical assistance, etc. It should evaluate what other development actors are achieving through said modalities and offer insights to guide Australia in its ambition of being a world-class development partner.
Making knowledge partnerships Australia’s signature. Offer countries a partnership built on a two-way exchange of insights, expertise and learning. Something that sets Australia apart from some competitors is that it prioritises strengthening partner countries' own capacities, systems and resilience. Doubling down on this could provide a further point of differentiation in a crowded donor landscape. This would be particularly relevant to middle income countries in the region and help to undergird partnerships that extend beyond those nations’ graduation from grant aid. This would also directly contribute to Australia’s overarching objective of being more influential in the region, by providing expertise and know-how to inform countries’ own policy choices.
To make this shift, Government would have to consider its capability and implementation modalities. It would need a serious plan to attract development expertise into DFAT – it’s unlikely that the kind of cutting-edge development expertise could be gained in-house. It could consider a dedicated resource of Australian Government officials that can directly implement development solutions with partners (particularly areas of shared national interest) – moving past the outdated paradigm of ‘capacity building’ towards meaningful development cooperation.
Setting government-to-government assistance up for success. Build the cross-cultural competency of Australian officials sent overseas to work in advisory positions with partner government officials. These individuals often have technical know-how but limited advisory experience. If government-to-government advisory programs are going to be a key way Australia builds people-to-people links with the region it should invest in equipping people with the training and skills they need to be effective.
Nurturing Australian scholarship on development. Fund or establish an institution to generate evidence and analysis on the role of development assistance in statecraft. As the National Security College fosters research and executive development for defence and national security professionals, a similar organisation could do the same for Australian development practitioners and diplomats. It would have an explicit learning and development function, offering scholarships to the region and executive education alongside its research and policy engagement.
Reconnecting Australia with key debates around development effectiveness. Staff exchanges, secondments or joint analysis with international bodies like the OECD-DAC. Observers note that Australia is less present in global conversations about how to do development assistance effectively than it once was. More engagement could seed Australian perspectives in global debates and help cross-pollinate the latest evidence and emerging good practice into the development ecosystem.
Supporting an open-source development assessments capability. An independent analytical unit or centre to conduct objective research and produce publicly available information for broad consumption by government and non-government users. This wouldn’t necessarily have to be government-led: capabilities like this exist in the private sector (for example, the Economist Intelligence Unit). Its assessments could inform DFAT’s DPP processes and broader Australian engagement by universities, businesses, NGOs and other community groups.
There’s a temptation to believe that, now that the new international development policy is out, the job on development thinking is done. But as we’ve previously written, the policy requires major shifts in the way Australia thinks, plans and engages. Tackling the supporting architecture for implementation is a smart first step, but at some point Australia will have to embark on a serious intellectual effort to remain an influential and relevant development partner for the region.
Others still would argue that smarter or more sophisticated development assistance is not what the region wants of Australia: in many contexts, it is competing with China (and others) to meet countries’ real needs for hard infrastructure, technological solutions and financing. So they’d argue that Australia won’t win that contest on smarts, just on speed and agility.
But this strategy only works in the immediate term. Australia can’t keep up on sheer spend or the other tactics the People’s Republic of China and its firms use to build influence – as Hugh White wrote for the Lab, they have deeper pockets and fewer scruples than us. If it smartens up, Australia can play a different game – marshalling its expertise, institutions and relationships to be a genuine, modern development partner, working alongside the region at the forefront of development challenges.