As more cuts loom, Australia's aid sector must confront its failures
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As more cuts loom, Australia's aid sector must confront its failures

We need a complete rethink of our international development efforts.

So here we are. Almost five years after the start of the Abbott government's 30 per cent cut to Australia's international development cooperation, we have talk of more cuts. Fairfax Media reported last week another 10 per cent may be lopped off Australian aid in the May budget. Coming a mere three days after the OECD castigated Australia for spending so little, it illustrates contemptuously the aid sector's lack of impact and influence.

The chances are the media report was leaked by those who support further cuts – or by those who oppose them! It is a test of whether this is an easy budget saving or whether it will have a political sting.

No, disaster relief like this is not development assistance.

No, disaster relief like this is not development assistance.

Photo: SGT Ray Vance

But more importantly, this mooted measure is a test of whether the Turnbull government has a strategic, long-term vision of how we work with countries in the region, to mutual advantage. Further reducing our capacity to do so would be national negligence.

Conservative governments typically start with a sceptical view of "foreign aid" but, in time, come to realise just what development cooperation can achieve. John Howard reset the relationship with Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami with a $1 billion investment that delivered one of the world's best development programs. Unfortunately, there's little sign of such a renaissance in the border-force era.

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Julie Bishop in her department's "Innovation Xchange" unit in 2015, which develops ideas for delivering aid differently.

Julie Bishop in her department's "Innovation Xchange" unit in 2015, which develops ideas for delivering aid differently.

Photo: Andrew Meares

How the Asia-Pacific region fares, how it works together, and the rules and values that predominate are critical to our future. Belatedly, we seem to be recognising this, but are showing signs of panic over the rise of China and its influence on regional countries.

Our development programs can help here – addressing common problems, building enduring partnerships, strengthening our regional reputation – but, unfortunately, we have settled for a very limited, inadequate and shrinking role for "aid".

If aid is just charity for the poor, the regional case for it is clearly diminishing. However, if it's about working collaboratively to reduce threats to stability – including accelerating inequality – and build the governance, norms and modes of cooperation that allow us all to prosper, then the case has never been stronger, especially in Asia.

Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop understand this, but many others in Parliament and the bureaucracy do not. A complete change of tack is required.

We must recognise that NGO and government assistance are different products and stop trying to turn one into the other. We should separate aid and development cooperation so that each can be presented, funded and organised to suit its purposes.

"Aid" would be what the public takes it to be: emergency assistance, direct poverty-alleviation programs and support for non-government grassroots efforts. It would often be welfare-related and have as a purpose the immediate alleviation of deprivation. It would be needs-based, with less emphasis on geographical focus. As a much smaller part of the whole, it might be easier to win aid increases.

Development cooperation, on the other hand, would have a long-term focus and a much more overt national-interest rationale. The objective would not be to underwrite a trade deal here or an asylum-seeker agreement there, but to focus relentlessly and rigorously on what is needed to maximise long-term regional development in our neighbourhood.

It would be policy, institution and systems-focussed, rather than project-based. It would have a high intellectual content and help drive policy coherence across our diplomatic, security and economic agendas. Funding decisions could then be made rationally on the basis of much better-informed consideration of international threats, opportunities and shared interests.

Unfortunately, Australia has settled for a very limited, inadequate and shrinking role for 'aid'.

This division of labour would allow Australia to become a thought and practice leader on development in Asia and the Pacific. This is an ambitious but achievable aspiration, even if we are now moving further away from it.

We might be pleased that the OECD recently commended our focus on small states, but that should be small comfort. There is no doubt we are good at articulating the problems of Pacific states and forcing them on the international agenda. We are less good at creative policy responses that would seriously address small-state issues, such as integrating our labour markets.

The China challenge has led to calls for more Pacific aid, but this in itself might not be developmentally successful, nor more tightly link Pacific states with Australia and New Zealand to the extent required. If we really want to achieve that, we need a much better offer on the table, involving new forms of political and economic cooperation – some sort of loose Australia-New Zealand-Pacific block.

While there is much to do in the Pacific, there is a real risk that we will overfocus our development cooperation there. To date, aid cuts have fallen most heavily on Asia. This is a strategic mistake. To avoid this, we should complement our small-state focus with an equally intense focus on sustaining development in the so-called "middle-income countries" in Asia.

Where is the leadership that could reframe this? Unfortunately, it is absent.

While there are many commendable features of the government's foreign affairs white paper, especially our need to deepen and diversify regional relationships, its treatment of development was weak. From the opening picture of a Defence Force officer carrying an IKEA-like carton of "Australian aid", through a statement of purpose with a title almost identical to Alexander Downer's 2002 parliamentary statement, to the unconvincing presentation of aid as a balm for big problems, old-style aid was barely given a new veneer. Policy-based and integrated this was not.

Unfortunately, the opposition is also trapped in a model that focuses on aid transfers – even if the contents of the box differ. Penny Wong's strategy of building backbench interest, knowledge and support is commendable, but the results of NGO consultations have been underwhelming to date.

The shadow minister's recent speech to the 2018 Australasian aid conference did not proceed from a sharp analysis of how the region has changed, what the big new issues and challenges are, and how best we can reconfigure the efforts of the combined department to deal with what we see. That's a shame, because Wong's earlier statements on regional engagement and Chris Bowen's FutureAsia work suggested we might be heading to more joined-up, big-picture, long-term thinking.

NGO colleagues told me they liked the speech because it promised more money and more focus on health and education. They are easily bought. The monetary commitment is feeble – merely to increase spending above current amounts. More to the point, allowing the central issue to be defined as how much we spend focuses the debate on spending for its own sake. Ironically, that makes it all the more vulnerable to cuts.

Given the last five years, the Australian Council for International Development's membership must now confront its collective failure to articulate and propagate a modern development vision that appeals to policymakers and the public. This calls for radical changes to strategy, if not reinvention of the institution itself.

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A complete rethink of Australia's international development effort is required. It is more urgent than at any time since the 1984 Jackson report. The world has changed. We must think out of the box.

Richard Moore is a former deputy director-general of AusAID.

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