Looking Forward. Up. Out: Australia's Development Policy and Programme in 2025

Leanne Smith

05 Feb, 2017

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. Views contained in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFID or its members. To view other submissions on the future of development, visit our page on the ACFID website.

National Governments, regional organisations and multilateral institutions spent much of 2015 and 2016 making concerted efforts to learn lessons and identify methods for improving the way they engage and intervene around the world. These last two years have seen a range of reviews covering almost every aspect of international engagement – from humanitarian intervention to the sustainable development goals, peace operations and peacebuilding.

As a UN Secretariat official working across or alongside these processes, I found all of them to be interconnected. Each of these reviews had a similar scope and reflected many of the same drivers for change: frustration with lack of progress and innovation; lack of patience with continuing ‘siloed’ efforts in each sector and across different bilateral, regional and multilateral actors; pressures on national governments to show donor effectiveness and a sense of domestic voter donor fatigue; the need (or perceived need) for a new ‘grand bargain’; and a real sense of pressure in each sector that if we can’t do better, get it right, learn the lessons and deliver more effectively, then the time is coming when the whole international engagement system underpinning these efforts will lose all legitimacy and fall apart. There are many lessons here too for Australia.


I believe Australia desperately needs a more holistic analysis of the contexts for our engagements, relationships and interventions and how they relate to our national interest before determining the ways and means we engage or intervene. In an article I wrote for The Conversation in 2016, I argued that it is important for Australia’s international standing, our diplomatic relations and our place in the world that we shift our focus to make Australia less unpredictable in terms of our policies and engagement strategies and also to make Australia less reactive to short-term shocks. To that end, I believe Australia needs a clear bi-partisan vision of its role in the world and a strategic agenda for the long-term national interest.

We need to get better at analyzing what humanitarian assistance and development aid contribute in their own right to diplomacy, trade and security. We should think of what it contributes to diplomacy in contexts where we have no political clout, - look at the impact China’s development assistance has made to their trading relations in Africa. And in terms of defence, we should consider how helping to build stable and prosperous nations, particularly in our region, benefits our own security.

I advocated that we need to think about our national interest more broadly, including by linking our purported values to our international positions. A case to consider might be our policy position on asylum seekers butting up against our foreign policy goal of a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.  Countries such as New Zealand and the Nordic states provide good examples of better policy cohesion in this regard. It is time we ensured coherence between our political, trade, security, aid, development and peacebuilding approaches to engagement. Each impacts on the others -- they can conflict or they can enhance each other’s effectiveness, especially in country-specific scenarios.

A more holistic approach would of course support more coordinated government approaches to our foreign, security and development policies, but it would also broaden the policy space and take advantage of Australian knowledge and expertise wherever it exists – academia, think tanks, professional associations, NGOs and in regional and international organisations.

How can Australia better marry a values and principled approach with an outcome-driven, efficiency-based approach? Perhaps by focusing more on our core values and strengths, knowing our weaknesses and working in partnership, and engaging based on our own comparative advantage. A longer-term conception of our national interest would see us focus more on what we can contribute to the global good, rather than just on considering what’s in it for us. This would mean knowing what we are good at, sharing that knowledge and being more humble in acknowledging that other’s experience – different partners, countries and regions – might have something of value to uniform our own policy. Of course we need to define our contributions and spend our resources based on where we have the most direct interest and can be most effective but not at the expense of staying engaged globally, in good faith with an eye to the future.

Much has been said, most often critically, of the motivations behind and the state of implementation of the DFAT/AusAID merger.  The union has been uneven, is unfinished and doesn’t utilize respective comparative advantage to its best potential, including for that more holistic assessment and analysis. However perhaps through the Government’s current Foreign Policy White Paper process there is room to generate support for a more genuine partnership that would lead to greater coherence in our international engagement.

A final thought in this regard, it seems there is still much work to be done in making the case to Australians for international development. It is worth considering whether we as a sector are doing enough to show solidarity with the genuine and very real daily struggles of average Australians. It’s imperative to recognize that Australians too might have difficulty accessing government services, good education and healthcare, shelter and so on, because this recognition can draw connections and build empathy with those struggling elsewhere. Perhaps we need to think more about how we as a sector make time to connect with such domestic concerns. The Sustainable Development Goals might be one such entry point.

PRINCIPLES FOR GETTING TO 2025: looking forward, up and out

Particularly in the context of the White Paper discussions, this sector needs to have in place some clear principles to underpin our strategic goals for getting to 2025. Here are but three to consider:

LOOKING FORWARD: Let’s push for a bipartisan strategy for Australia’s engagement with the world, along with a financial commitment for medium- and long-term engagement that can generate stability, coherence and efficiencies in delivery. This should also include a forward-looking community engagement strategy to keep and build support from Australians. It must also involve scenario-based planning and ongoing risk assessment and review mechanisms, particularly given the current state of geopolitics and environmental uncertainty.

LOOKING UP: We need to aim high and hold ourselves to account for delivering effectively to those in need. We must evaluate our efforts, seek out lessons and draw on best practice wherever it may be. We must hold ourselves to account for the people we intend to serve first and foremost, but also for our other stakeholders, including governments, taxpayers and voters. We must get better at documenting and demonstrating our impact.

LOOKING OUT: Australia will do itself no favours by pursuing an isolationist approach. Let’s not limit our perspective by region or theme, but be open and engage in good faith. This does not mean overinvesting mindlessly across the globe of course, but we can work better with targeted interventions grounded in the global context, in partnership, learning from other experiences and contributing our own vast knowledge. There is much to be learned from looking at how others deal with similar challenges and seeking out strategic partnerships.

  • Leanne Smith
    Leanne Smith

    Leanne Smith is an Australian diplomat and human rights lawyer who is on sabbatical from her position as the Chief of the Policy and Best Practice Service of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York. She is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Diplomacy, and a Masters of Public Policy Graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. She has recently taken up the position of Associate Director at the Whitlam Institute.

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