CANBERRA — At the 2018 Australasian Aid Conference hosted by the Development Policy Centre and The Asia Foundation on Feb. 13, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong opened the two-day conference with her outline of an Australian foreign policy under a Labor government — a policy that her government will be taking to the Australia public for a federal election expected in the next year.
Consulting widely with colleagues in the Labor party and the development sector, including NGOs, Wong explained that the new strategy would see development assistance a key part of foreign engagement to build the economy and security of Australia’s neighbours. It embraces Australia’s values of compassion, she explained, and it is in Australia’s interests to build a secure region.
Speaking to an audience of development professionals and NGOs, Wong said a Labor party government would work to rebuild Australia’s official development assistance from the current record lows that have seen $11.3 billion Australian dollars ($8.9 billion) reduced from Australia’s aid budget.
While a government target or timeframe was not provided, Wong did outline what she saw as key changes that would be needed to produce a more effective aid program supporting the Indo-Pacific region.
Aid focus under a Labor government
Thematically, the focus of Australian aid would remain similar, but with increased assistance in a number of areas.
Climate change and disaster risk reduction would become a more prominent part of the aid program, said Wong. In Fiji alone, more than 30,000 people are pushed into poverty each year due to climate-related disasters.
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Wong also said there would be need for a stronger focus on health, though the current government is moving in the right direction with the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security and Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, joining the End Malaria Council. But a focus on youth health is especially needed, she said, with vaccinations in the Indo-Pacific low and preventable childhood stunting unnecessarily high — with some regions seeing as many as 60 percent of children suffering from stunting.
Improving youth health not only ensures children are physically fit and able to learn, grow, and work, argued Wong, but it eases the financial burden for developing countries by reducing investment in medical support these children would require later in life.
And Wong also explained that Labor’s Australian aid program would also grow and enhance the gender focus of the aid program, maintaining the target that at least 80 percent of aid investments would effectively address gender issues in their implementation. That would see more investment in sexual and reproductive health, targeting maternal death, childhood mortality and cervical cancer — among the many other health issues women and girls face in the region.
Though she did not specify a geographic focus, Wong did refer to the “region” and “neighbors” suggesting a focus on the Indo-Pacific would remain. But she also noted it was important for Australia to work together with other regional donors, to reduce duplication of projects and ensure all development assistance was creating the best possible outcomes for those they aimed to assist.
Changing the management of the aid program
Wong said stakeholders have raised concern over the merger of AusAID into DFAT, which she called a mistake — but stressed it was a mistake that the program and development partners had to live with.
But the growing focus on outsourcing aid responsibility was something that should be addressed.
Another change that would be set to occur is the way innovation works within the aid program. While she saw innovation as important, she did not believe the work of innovationXchange was adding value to the aid program, saying they were too separate — physically and in policy — and were instead focused on “beanbags and celebrities.”
Her criticism overlooked an important understanding of the difficulty of experimenting with technology and engaging external partners within the main DFAT building. IT security is so tight that being able to access and share information through web services is a daily challenge. And temporary staff, or those on secondment from other departments, are not able to walk around the building without an escort. It is not an environment that currently enables staff to experiment with cloud-based solutions, agile development, and other aspects of innovation. And it certainly doesn’t create an environment open to people walking off the street and discussing their ideas that could help enhance aid impact.
Changing the aid narrative
While Wong was critical of cuts to the aid program under the premierships of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, she praised Bishop’s work behind the scenes to ensure some climate programs were maintained in the aid program despite strong resistance among members of her party, work that has not been publicly noted but needed to be recognized.
Bipartisan politics on Australian aid, Wong believes, will be important long term in changing the public narrative on foreign aid, including within parliament where there was loud vocal opponents from parties such as One Nation. She urged the government to join her and “take the politics out of aid” and help ensure development assistance can be effective in creating regional security.