Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #1: Australia must forge a new path through a rapidly shifting international development landscape

Danny Sriskandarajah

30 Sep, 2016

This post forms part of ACFID’s blog series on Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. Views contained in submissions to Australia Ahead of the Curve are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFID or its members.

To learn more about this series, read the introductory blog post. To view other submissions and find out how you can contribute your ideas on the future of development, visit the page on the ACFID website

For the last three years, Australia’s foreign aid budget has been in free-fall. As a proportion of Gross National Income, it has now sunk to its lowest level in decades. Indeed, on every measure of aid generosity that there is, Australia is tumbling down the international rankings. And, if the first budget of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s coalition government is anything to go by, this downward trajectory won’t be reversed. A further $224 million has been cut from the aid budget, leaving aid at just 0.22% of GNI in 2017-18, with no projected increase over the forward estimates.

These dramatic cuts come at a time when the international development landscape is changing dramatically. In one way, Australia’s approach seems fitting: after all, development is no longer simply a question of how much aid should be provided, or about what the rich world can do for the poor. But it is about our shared responsibility to achieve a more sustainable future for everyone. And it is in this regard that Australia’s new government must now seek to carve out an international role for the country.

Constructing the new development landscape will require a two-fold approach. On the one hand, it must be about protecting the core values that lie at the heart of the development project as a global public good; maintaining – or in Australia’s case returning to – commitments to a 0.7 per cent of GNI minimum for development spending; and safeguarding all that is good about the current system and its foundational principles.

On the other hand, dismantling the ‘development-industrial complex’, that has shaped and dominated our landscape for the last two decades, will be crucial. Gone are the days of aid being flown into an impoverished global South by wealthy Northern governments and NGOs; gone are the days of rich countries bestowing their charity upon the poor. The new way of thinking about development has nothing to do with charity and everything to do with solidarity.  

Finding this middle ground between protecting what is good at the heart of our current system and branching out into new, unchartered territory won’t be easy. Already, tensions are clear to see.

Despite public assertions to the contrary, the latest round of Australian government cuts to foreign aid spending seems to have little, if anything, to do with the quality or effectiveness of development programs. Nor can it be attributed to a crisis of funds, as Australia’s most recent budget increased defence spending to 2% of GDP. But, the changing face of development elsewhere in the world does offer us some clues as to what might lie behind Australia’s new approach, as well as its potential pitfalls.

Increasingly voluble government rhetoric in the global North – echoed in Australia – is seeking to cast development priorities as synonymous with national interests. Such a narrative is understandable; we’re talking about spending taxpayers’ money after all. But it also signals a worrying retreat from the notion of shared responsibility and the commonality of our struggle for a more sustainable future. The national interest and the global public good cannot always be served at the same time, or in the same way and, seeking to protect the former at the expense of the latter, can be a false economy in the long-term.

The same could be said for the increasing corporatisation of development. More and more development dollars are being channeled through the private sector. In Australia, the focus for aid spending is now very much on investing in the key drivers of economic growth. By 2020, 20% of Australia’s aid budget will be allocated to aid for trade investments and public commitments to a ‘major role for the private sector in development’ have been reiterated by successive Ministers.

The problem with this kind of commitment to prioritising the private sector is that development is about much more than efficient delivery. It is about empowerment, ownership, longevity, strengthening citizen voice and democratic institutions. The science of delivery should not be confused with the art of social transformation.

By prioritising the private sector and the national interest, Australia is following a trend seen, to varying degrees, across the global North. In part, this trend seems to be a response to the move away from traditional aid patterns and the search for new aid modalities. But it is a trend that sits uneasily alongside the new global Sustainable Development Goals, the targets that will – or should – shape our development landscape over the next 15 years.

A new index designed to compare the progress of different nations against SDG targets has already ranked Australia 20th in the world, behind Canada and many European countries. If Australia wishes to carve out a role for itself in this new era, it will need to recalibrate its areas of focus.

First, it could buck the global trend towards prioritising the private sector and instead strengthen its commitment to civil society as a crucial development actor. The only sector that can build lasting resilience in a country long after other aid actors have departed, in middle-income countries in particular, civil society often acts as the buffer that prevents the unraveling of democracy once the attention of the world has turned elsewhere. Last year, my colleagues at CIVICUS recorded serious violations of civic space in 109 countries. Now is not the time to renege on our commitments to protect and strengthen the rights of civil society to mobilise for change.

Second, Australia could lead the way by allocating a large proportion of its aid spending to civil society in the global South; not through sub-granting or through chains of Northern-based ‘fundermediaries’, but through direct funding of the kind that enabled civil society in the global North to establish itself. Building capacity in the global South has become critical to achieving our development goals, though this need not necessarily mean impending extinction for Northern NGOs. Often, Northern development organisations – now massive, competitive service-delivery oriented bodies – started out as social movements and increasingly, they are returning to these roots. NGOs like Oxfam are rediscovering their original identities as membership networks, families of people interested in development issues and powerful political voices for change.

Australia, like other countries, needs an agile civil society like this; one that is robust, engaged in development issues, a champion or critic of the government as circumstances require. In the country’s recent elections, a record number of voters gave their first preference to minor parties and independents and the declining trust – the disconnect – between citizens and the political system has been well-documented. Polling, prior to the election, showed discontent with Australian cuts to aid and the country’s retreat from world issues; ending poverty and increasing aid were influential factors in people’s vote, yet neither major party made this a centrepiece of their election platform. 

Thirdly therefore, the Australian government should seek to ground its development work, and policy, firmly in Australian civil society; not in technical fundermediaries designed to deliver aid elsewhere and not in private sector organisations that deliver an efficient, but hollowed out version of development at a time when sustainability and inclusivity is key. This grounding in Australian civil society would help to reconnect its citizens with the political system and ensure that Australia’s development priorities are shaped, owned and driven by its own people. As we operate on the development landscape, we need to ensure that we keep people and principles – the lifeblood of our endeavours – at its heart.

This post has been adapted from a submission to Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. The full submission is available here.

  • Danny Sriskandarajah
    Danny Sriskandarajah

    Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is an Australian national who is Secretary General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance headquartered in Johannesburg. @civicussg 

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