In search of a strategic aid program: five messages for the new Australian aid policy

(Credit: Yvonne Green/DFAT/Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The new international development framework presents a strategic choice for Australia: will it use its development program to ‘gain influence’, to counter the growing power of China? Or will it tackle deeper but more intractable drivers of regional conflict, economic stagnation and inequality?

The decision about where Australia comes down on this spectrum is critical. It will determine priorities, budget allocations and management approaches, as well as how Australia measures success.

We have five messages for the new development framework, building on what we said in our 2017 submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper.

1. Play the long game – address causes not symptoms

Our overarching message is simple: focus the majority of development on the long game. Refocus effort to address the underlying drivers of instability, inequality and poor growth in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, thereby shoring up Australia’s national interests in the region and its position as partner of choice for coming decades – not just months or years.

Responding only to proximate and immediate threats as they emerge (e.g. natural disasters, intra-state violence or fiscal crises) is important, but will not address the fundamental drivers that perpetuate conflict, economic stagnation and inequality.

2. Go for depth not breadth

The aid program is operating in a constrained budgetary environment. Choices must be made to invest in areas that will have the greatest return on Australia’s investment.

If Australia wishes to prioritise the core drivers of insecurity, instability, inequality and economic stagnation (our aid submission has more detail) – and secure its long-term interests in the Asia-Pacific – we recommend Australia focus on three key issues:

1. The inability of states to enforce rules and deliver core services: conflict is lower, and GDP is higher when states can legitimately enforce laws and regulation (and not just further narrow interests), extend authority over borders, and help ensure people are healthy, educated and employed.

2. Inequality of opportunity and income: communities, workplaces, countries and economies do better when women are given equal opportunities in all aspects of public and private life.

3. Environmental and transboundary threats: the impact of climate change, transnational crime and disease (e.g. coronavirus) are being borne unevenly by the Asia-Pacific region – and pose real threats to Australia’s interests. Strong prevention, preparedness and emergency warning and response systems can reduce the impact of these challenges.

This would translate into four sectoral areas for the aid program: health and education; gender and social equality; climate change and resilience to disasters/epidemics; and effective governance and leadership.

While there is much we have left off this list, that is the point of prioritisation. Likeminded development partners can be encouraged to ‘pick up the tab’ in sectors where Australia will not focus.

3. Change how we talk about our relationship with the region, especially the Pacific  

The new international development policy is an opportunity to talk of common values and beliefs. The Asia-Pacific outpouring of support for the bushfire crisis reminds us there is more that binds us to our neighbours than sets us apart. Australia can use the new policy to reframe how it wants its relationship to look in the region. Adversarial, Hobbesian and protectionist rhetoric that pits the narrow country interests of one against those of the other – ‘protecting our interests’, ‘contain geopolitical threats’ – should give way to concepts that foster mutual respect and common experiences and values.  The damaging debate over Australia’s position on climate change is a good example of how protecting our domestic interests can undermine our regional ones.

Development is not a zero-sum game, and many of Australia’s closest neighbours – Melanesia especially – want a partnership of respect and equality with Australia. They desire a more equal cultural, commercial and political exchange, focusing not just on what Australia can ‘do for them’, but what they can give back.

4. The Pacific matters, but don’t forget Southeast Asia and Indonesia

While we support Australia’s focus on the Pacific, there are significant economic and strategic challenges faced by Indonesia and Southeast Asian (SEA) nations – which also matter to Australia. Even though many SEA nations have achieved middle-income status, this should not obfuscate rising inequality, pressures for state fragmentation and religious radicalisation, challenges to core institutional arrangements that have supported growth to date, and urbanisation and youth unemployment. These challenges do not disappear once a certain GNI per capita is reached; and for some countries these factors limit future growth.

Australia should protect aid allocations to Indonesia and a small number of priority SEA countries where insecurity, instability and economic stagnation is pressing and matters to Australia.

5. Treat monitoring, evaluation and learning as core to the aid program – not a ‘nice to have’

The aid policy is to be accompanied by a “streamlined performance framework”. In order to ‘measure success’ of the framework, investment must be made in monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL). The quality of DFAT’s results reporting will only be as good as the investment made in MERL at the country and program level. Quarantining 5%–10% of all ODA budgets for country and program-level analysis and MERL would be a great start.

It is important that the MERL agenda is not captured only by accountability needs. Aid programs are more effective (and therefore spend taxpayer money better) if investments are made in applied research, learning and evaluation during project implementation. These are core to effective aid, not a ‘nice to have’.

Final words

Australia needs to reinvigorate its reputation for generosity, innovation and risk-taking. The new development framework is an opportunity to do this by focusing on the long-term drivers of stability, security, equality and growth, protecting support for Indonesia and select SEA nations, and showing that we are committed to building trust and addressing the critical global and local issues that matter to our region. And if we get this right, the implications will be more than just words on a page for how the region perceives, acts and responds to Australia over the coming 5–10 years.

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Jacqui de Lacy

Jacqui De Lacy is Managing Director of Abt Associates Australia. She is a thought leader on development issues in the Asia-Pacific region, and previously held various positions in the Australian Aid program, including head of AusAid Indonesia, head of the Food Security Branch, Global Crisis Response Coordinator, and head of the PNG Branch in Canberra.

Lavinia Tyrrel

Lavinia Tyrrel is the Deputy Technical Lead and Practice Manager for the Abt Associates Governance and Development Practice.


  • I agree with number 5, but it shouldn’t stop at a framework. Far too much debate is about money, priorities and effort leading to improved frameworks.

    What is and has been missing for a long time is publicising the results – where Australian aid has made a demonstrable difference to helping in the fight against hunger and poverty. Consequently, the ignorant on the far right get a free kick by saying that our aid is wasted and should be stopped until poverty is ended in Australia.

    There is little understanding – in the general, voting community – of what poverty is in the developing world/third world or whatever other euphemisms are employed in referring to the real people in the following World Bank excerpt:
    “There has been marked progress on reducing poverty over the past decades. The world attained the first Millennium Development Goal target—to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015—five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. Despite the progress made in reducing poverty, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally remains unacceptably high. And given global growth forecasts, poverty reduction may not be fast enough to reach the target of ending extreme poverty by 2030.

    According to the most recent estimates, in 2015, 10 percent of the world’s population lived on less than US$1.90 a day, compared to 11 percent in 2013. That’s down from nearly 36 percent in 1990.
    In 2015, 736 million people lived on less than (US) $1.90 a day,………..”

    I have not heard Australia’s Foreign Ministers speak publicly about demonstrable aid successes. All I’ve seen is billions of dollars cut from the aid Budget and AusAid amalgamated with DFAT.

    Your 5 key points are very much bureaucratic ones aimed at those who manage the aid budget. Absent seems to be any priority of reaching the Australian public with aid successes.

    Let me give you one – in Afghanistan. I helped fund a project that trained 40 women to be paralegals and act as defence counsel in domestic violence cases. Details here:

    Never saw one account of it in Australia. In public.

  • The article lists the broad characteristics of strategic aid programme. Useful in other contexts as well.

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