Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #12: Disinterest vs. Self-Interest: Australian Engagement with International Development

Nicholas Ferns

23 Oct, 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 this series 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 our page on the ACFID website.

As a historian who is interested in the ways that Australian experts and policymakers attempted to guide "developing" countries in its region through the developmental process following the Second World War, I am faced with a dilemma. I am constantly frustrated by the debates aimed at limiting Australia's financial contributions to the regions to its North. These contributions were ostensibly aimed at improving the standard of living in places such as Papua New Guinea and the countries of Southeast Asia, an enterprise that appears benevolent and humanitarian on the surface.

My dilemma stems from the fact that these programs were rooted in a number of assumptions that took their cues from earlier colonial processes, with their paternalistic and exploitative overtones. "Development" itself is a deeply loaded historical concept, which despite entering a new phase after the Second World War, hardly emerged out of an intellectual, political, and economic vacuum. For as long as we have had an official aid program, a common tactic used by Australian policymakers has been to frame Australian aid spending as being in the national interest. Following the inauguration of the Colombo Plan (Australia's first bilateral aid program) in 1950, Minister for External Affairs Percy Spender sold aid expenditure to Southeast Asia as being "in our interest to foster commercial and other contacts with them and give them what help we can in maintaining stable and democratic governments in power, and increasing the material welfare of their peoples." In the face of low levels of public support for overseas aid spending, appeals to national self-interest have been employed to counter public disinterest.

Aid policy has always been based on a range of considerations, from the humanitarian to the deeply self-interested. The post-war notion of development was rooted in a number of assumptions that shared a long lineage with earlier colonial practices. Socalled "experts" examined the process whereby "poor", "underdeveloped", "backward" countries (the terms were effectively interchangeable) could be encouraged to "modernise" and therefore raise their standards of living. This process could not be properly promoted without the intervention of Western expertise and capital, which was provided on both a bilateral and multilateral basis.

In a groundbreaking article written in 2000, Nick Cullather framed post-war development projects as expanding state power, forcing entry into closed societies and creating an inventory of resources to be exploited "under cover of a humanitarian mission expressed in neutral, technical language." (Cullather 2000, pp. 645-6) Development, through its promotion of cultural, economic, political, and social change serves to reinforce the "naturalness" of various aspects of "Western" social behaviour. This often comes at the expense of "traditional" practices.

One of the logical consequences of developmental assistance being provided according to the interests of those who provide it is that the chosen projects may not be suited to the situation in recipient countries. "Development", which has long been framed as a natural process that can be promoted through economic and technical assistance, therefore becomes something that can be manipulated for strategic and political purposes.

The post-war history of Australian developmental assistance is filled with relevant

examples. Attempts to reform agricultural practices in Papua New Guinea brought villagers who lived a subsistence existence into a market system. While it is important to note that these programs were part of a broader policy that improved health and standards of living, they also produced changes that fundamentally altered the lifestyles of these people. As a result, a program that reflected the Australian conception of development caused social upheaval amongst those who had previously behaved according to "traditional" practices.

Nils Gilman, in his 2003 study of modernisation theory, the dominant paradigm of developmental thought in the 1950s and 60s, reflected upon the universalising tendency of these ideas. Focusing on the global spread of American power, Gilman wrote that modernisation did not incorporate the "world's manifold cultural, political, and economic traditions in a higher order of circulation and exchange. Rather, it meant the imposition of 'modern' (i.e., contemporary American) values on 'backward societies' and the economic integration of all economies into the world capitalist system as junior members." (Gilman 2003, pp. 14-5)

The period of high modernism marked the peak of the connection between developmental change and the imposition of "Western" values in poorer parts of the world. In the decades since, experts have reconfigured their understanding of development to consider the environmental, social, and economic costs. Australia has been no exception to this process, as its aid program has undergone significant shifts since the establishment of the Colombo Plan in 1950.

Nevertheless, while development has a very different meaning to the immediate postwar period, the concept itself is still central to overseas aid policy. The implementation of development has undergone profound change since the mid-20th century, as represented in the establishment of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. These are a set of global aims that would not have been considered in the age of Walt Rostow and his modernisation theorist colleagues. Nevertheless, both sets of ideas seek to improve the lives of people in poorer parts of the world through the promotion of a particular form of development.

The historical legacy of the 1950s and 1960s continues to permeate the field of development studies, even despite the continued evolution of the idea. Attempts to alleviate poverty (itself a concept rooted in earlier developmental thought) throughout the developing world have an obvious humanitarian objective. It would be wrong to suppose that this paper calls for an end to this kind of practice.

However, to rely upon self-interest as the prime consideration for Australian engagement with international development will continue a practice that has existed since 1950, and which has not come close to solving the so-called development "problem". By emphasising Australia's interests in the provision of aid, it becomes too easy to lose sight of the interests of the country that is on the receiving end of our assistance. A clearer acceptance of this balance might help to overcome some of the issues associated with international development.

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.

  • Nicholas Ferns
    Nicholas Ferns

    Nicholas Ferns is a doctoral candidate in history at Monash University. His thesis examines the connections between Australian colonial policy in PNG and foreign aid policy in SE Asia from 1945-75 through the historical lens of international development.


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