What's the development debate like in Australia?

December 2, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve just finished a week of debates, seminars and book launches in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. My overall impressions include firstly the huge importance of policy debates over Australia’s Indigenous peoples on wider development thinking, not least because meetings in government, academia and NGOs now begin with the chair intoning variations on the formula ‘I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting and pay respects to their elders both past and present.’ At first this seemed a bit tokenistic, but it accumulated over the course of my visit and must impinge in some subtle way. 

Also striking was the emphasis on Australia’s ‘near abroad’ in the Pacific islands, (Papua New Guinea, Fiji etc), which are a focus for both AusAID (the government aid agency) and NGOs such as Oxfam Australia.

The Pacific focus gave added urgency to discussions at the various seminars on how aid can be designed under ‘ineffective states’. This seems to be the big intractable issue in development thinking, and Australia is grappling with it more than most. No easy answers, but some useful thoughts: for example, life goes on and ‘stuff still works’ in officially ‘fragile states’ such as Vanuatu, so why not ditch the label and think about ‘evolving’ or ‘putative’ states, building on what currently works to help more effective states emerge. This is analogous to the intellectual shift triggered by changing our language from ‘the poor’ to ‘people living in poverty’ – it focuses on the capabilities and possibilities, rather than the weaknesses, of the kinds of political systems prevalent in the Pacific.

One other thought: in development terms, the new government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (the policy wonk’s policy wonk) resembles the kind of new broom which hit the development world in the UK when the Labour government took office in 1997 and set up DFID as a separate development ministry, with cabinet status. Although the new government is reviewing its whole approach to development, focussing on both quality and quantity (it has promised to raise aid from its current 0.3% of GNI to 0.5% by 2015), it is not currently considering upgrading AusAID into a separate ministry – Ausaid remains part of the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, but is that a mistake? Interestingly, Rudd has set up a separate department for climate change, perhaps reflecting massive domestic concern over water shortages.

This kind of structural change may not grab headlines, but it could prove an important part of Labor’s legacy. In the UK, such a move freed up DFID to emerge from the shadow of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, developing its own thinking and ethos at greater distance from the pursuit of military security or national self interest embodied by the FCO. It also gave the Secretaries of State for Development such as Claire Short, Hilary Benn and now Douglas Alexander, a chance to argue their case in cabinet. That may help DFID defend the aid budget as pressure on government spending rises. It led to DFID being given the lead in the WTO trade negotiations, reflecting an attempt to put development on a par with short term trade interests.

In Australia the case for a separate ministry looks equally persuasive: take trade diplomacy, where Australia has been an aggressive seeker of trade liberalization to favour its agroexporters. As long as AusAID remains an agency not a ministry, it is unlikely to be able to make a case for a more comprehensive view of the links between trade, trade rules and development. The question is whether such changes have to be made in the initial honeymoon period, in which case it might be better to argue for its inclusion in the manifesto for the next election, due in 2010, or whether something can be done before then.

Then there’s making the case – clearly there’s a need for a balanced comparison of the costs and benefits of setting up a separate development ministry, using case studies from countries which have tried it. Anyone know of such a thing?


December 2, 2008
Duncan Green