Rebooting Situation Analysis.

Rebooting situation analysis to better understand the countries we work in.

What's the idea?

Situation analysis — the first step in Government’s country planning — sets out the interests and challenges countries face so the Australian Government can determine where, how and to what end its development dollar should be spent.

However, the complexity of development challenges in the modern world means we need to rethink what ‘development assistance’ looks like and what opportunities it addresses. To do this, we must understand how the development challenges in our region are increasingly intersecting. Rebooting situation analysis means a new interdisciplinary framework, the power and utility of which will come from it being a ‘thinking tool’ rather than a forgotten piece of paper. This will allow structured examination of complex challenges and give policymakers clear criteria.

What problem does it solve?

With a new policy imminent, now is the time to reconsider our approach to situation analysis in the development program.

Partnerships for Recovery was a rapid stop-gap policy measure guiding Australia’s response to COVID-19. It expires in 2022 and its approach to country planning was to establish Country Response Plans guiding Australia’s development spending. Given the emergency circumstances, these processes did not involve comprehensive situation analysis and were rightly focused on acute pandemic-related emergency responses. For years now, we haven’t seen country planning standardised or rolled out with formalised approaches, which we suspect results in remarkably similar documents year-on-year, without a meaningful examination of issues and how they’ve changed. Now is the time to revisit the role of situation analysis in country planning, and while we’re at it, modernise our approach.

Policymakers need new methods to balance competing interests and grapple with new development dynamics.

Traditionally, assessments privilege formal institutions and are organised around discrete analysis of sectors such as health, education and environment, which are then tackled in equally separate programming endeavours. They often involve development partner perspectives, but do not place them at the heart of the process. Assessments can be blind to emerging development challenges such as the rise of misinformation, geopolitical shifts, threats to human security and technological change. They also lack a consistent way to assess challenging choices between immediate and longer term needs, systemic and acute needs, and beneficiary communities (for example, choices between investments that benefit emerging leaders, established leaders or vulnerable communities).

A mechanistic approach is no longer tenable.

The ‘classic’ development challenges of poverty and inequality interweave with everything from pandemics to extreme weather events and a volatile strategic environment. ANU Professor and renowned interdisciplinary thinker Anthea Roberts describes the current environment as a ‘white water world’, where the mindset of distinct, definable challenges is archaic.  Present assessment tools are good for the equivalent of a placid lake; a more robust vehicle is needed to help navigate today’s rapids.

Why now?

We need new frameworks to understand a rapidly changing world.

As Roberts has observed, new tools are needed to help move beyond black-and-white thinking and engage in ways of balancing risk, reward and resilience to meet the multitude of interconnected challenges that lie before us.

We need to reflect new thinking about institutions.

Previous assessments heavily focussed on ‘the state’ or ‘the government of the day’ as the institutions to work with. There is now increasing understanding that the state is only one side of the coin and that great sources of resilience lie beyond government offices: in communities, churches, universities, small businesses, NGOs, faith-based organisations and individuals. Former iterations of situation analysis were also often ‘deficit-focused’, overlooking strengths and resilience that might also exist. To be truly reflective — and informative — they should also consider deficits and strengths.  

We need a vehicle for strategic coherence.

Traditionally, assessments risked generating attention primarily within the cloisters of DFAT. A more encompassing framework would bring together not just the ‘development’, ‘political’ and ‘trade’ arms of the Department, but include other agencies with a stake, such as Attorney General’s, AFP, Treasury and Defence. This would give tangible form to what Foreign Minister Penny Wong said that Australia must ‘get better at’, that is ‘integrating different aspects of state power, which includes improved co-ordination of government agencies’.

Situation Analysis processes can cast a wider net for fresh thinking and expertise.

Communities, universities, think tanks, and consulting outfits in Australia and partner countries are working on issues relevant to the development program. These groups could well be engaged in providing input into the assessments. Thinking ahead, they may also have the instructional know-how that is important to helping embed this new way of thinking through executive education, coaching and support.

How would we implement this?

First steps would be ...

Developing a new framework for modern situation analysis by working with a body of experts from the region, development practitioners, universities and think tanks. Government should take the lead in terms of producing the framework, since contracting this endeavour out would repeat the present problems where writing is done externally, and the thinking is not necessarily internalised. The framework would set out a comprehensive way of understanding Australia’s partner countries, factors Australia should consider when engaging, and methods for undertaking the analysis that forms the basis of Australia’s development investments.

Piloting modern situation analysis and forecasts in three priority countries as part of country strategy development. It may be logical to choose countries where Government is already working with integrated strategies and with high levels of whole-of-government coordination, such as in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, alongside countries where the development program is the primary means of engagement, such as in Polynesia.    

Bigger steps would be ...

Introducing modern situation analyses as part of country planning under a new Australian development strategy. This will likely require the establishment of a support team of analysts, facilitators and coaches to support the Department in undertaking the analysis in a high-impact and time-sensitive way.

A comprehensive response would be ...

Establishing an open-source analysis centre to conduct objective research and produce publicly available information for consumption by Government, NGOs, civil society, business and regional actors. Its assessments could be relied upon in an open-source manner to inform broader country planning processes, as well as the non-Government operation of Australian engagement overseas by universities, businesses, NGOs and other community groups.  

What's the policymaker's take on this?

There are two compelling arguments for this type of modern situation analysis. The first is intellectual: nuanced understanding of a country is a prerequisite for effective decisions; thin analysis leads to superficial programming, opportunity cost and poor impact.

The second is almost actuarial. So many factors — national capability, national interests, development outcomes, short- and long-term ramifications — must be weighed when trying to make far-sighted decisions. This can feel overwhelming and the default is turning to ‘rules of thumb’ or what we did previously. Having a systematic framework helps mitigate the risks of chaotic, fatigued, or rushed decision-making. There is also something of a ‘back to the future’ quality to this idea; Australia used to do more rigorous situation analyses than we do now.

There are risks though. There is always a danger that such an effort can turn out to be a bureaucratic variant of ‘old wine in new bottles’. Or, that despite the value of such a process, it is not then used to underpin investment decision-making by Government. Success needs everyone to be on board and not regarding the exercise as a chore. It also means those preparing the products need exceptional skills to accurately communicate the nuance of the situation and with it, the comfort to write unhindered by sensitivities.

Accordingly, there’d need to be consideration of the extent to which these analyses would be made ‘public’. The reason analysis of development investments can often read so judiciously is because one well-turned phrase might occasion a diplomatic incident. Obviously, policymakers will need to retain classified and potentially sensitive briefings that are not for public consumption. This makes the idea of backing an independent analytical unit to produce such assessments — potentially supported by other donors — all the more worthwhile to consider.

Applying this type of thinking goes beyond the development program. It provides a structure for thinking about the world under the auspices of the Quad or AUKUS, for instance.

What inspired this idea?

Anthea Roberts argued eloquently in The Intel that we needed to ‘break down silos’ and ‘bring together multiple stakeholders in order to forge new ways forward’.  

Previous analysis conducted by the Office of Development Effectiveness provides an example of the work that used to be caried out.

Forthcoming Lab analysis by Madeleine Flint and Richard Moore that identifies country planning and situation analysis as one of four critical success factors of Australian development policy.

Research and analysis team

Gordon Peake, Richard Moore, Bridi Rice, Izzy Coleman and Jason Staines.

The complexity of development challenges in the modern world means we need to rethink what ‘development assistance’ looks like and what opportunities it addresses.

The ‘classic’ development challenges of poverty and inequality interleave with everything from pandemics to extreme weather events and a volatile strategic environment.

Nuanced understanding of a country is a prerequisite for effective decisions; thin analysis leads to superficial programming, opportunity cost and poor impact.