Politics and development: Insights from dialogues in Canberra

The Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Photo by: JJ Harrison / CC BY-SA

CANBERRA — Sitting weeks of Parliament bring a hive of activity to Canberra as lobbyists, protesters and events in the nation’s capital seek to influence politicians and their decision-making.

The week of August 7 in Canberra was one such week. The city hosted a number of forums discussing foreign aid and development, foreign policy and even data with the potential to influence the way the Australian government operates.

Devex has the highlights of a week’s worth of discussions and a look at how they can influence Australia’s aid program.

Australian aid evaluations: Basic education

The week began with the Australian aid evaluation forum, hosted by the Development Policy Centre with Office of Development Effectiveness, to discuss reviews of recently concluded high-value Australian aid programs due to their potential impact.

The Basic Education Assistance for Muslim Mindanao (BEAM-ARMM) program — a $34.4 million program that aims to improve basic education in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and was managed by Cardno between October 2012 and June 2017 — was one of the programs discussed.

Ty Morrissey, from Morrissey Consulting International, and Ina Aquino, program director for BEAM-ARMM, explained to the audience that the program had achieved set goals. But there were many improvements still to be made.

Elementary completion and enrollment rates improved, but completion rates for eight of nine divisions within Mindanao were still below 55 percent. And while 12,250 teachers were supported through a cascading training program leading to an improvement of in-class education, almost one-quarter of teachers still have an oral reading proficiency level of basic or below basic.

Training and development of teachers, the evaluation revealed, did lead to improved learning outcomes for students. But the systematic approach required for teacher development — especially in areas with very weak governance systems — needed complicated support networks. And for many parts of the program, establishing such networks was simply impossible. A longer project with wider scope may enable better developed teachers, systems and a greater impact on education.

Australian aid evaluations: Emerging infectious diseases and pandemics

Also under the microscope at the aid evaluation forum was Australia’s ability to create stronger health systems in the Asia-Pacific region through investments targeting emerging infectious diseases and pandemics between 2006 and 2015.

The evaluation, presented by the ODE evaluation team, identified that while Australia’s aid investment in health projects had successfully made improvements in quality and timeliness of reporting of infectious diseases, systematic and political factors had limited the level of public health value achieved. Greater integration of emerging infectious diseases into the work of national health systems and programs would lead to more success, the analysis said.

Veterinary systems also require stronger targeting, with greater investment in animal health systems recommended. Veterinary systems are key to identifying and targeting emerging infectious diseases associated with animals, but the evaluation found that associated systems, governance and linkages are weaker than human health systems.

With community engagement, there was some success, but limited support at national levels — meaning engagement programs did not meet their full potential. Engagement of communities, the research found, was “essential but complex and resource intensive.” The nature of the region the Australian aid program operates in — the Indo-Pacific region — was a key to this, but supporting skills development within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to engage in policy dialogue about system strengthening approaches for regional health security was thought to be a way of creating greater and consistent regional security for health.

Bringing education to the forefront of the SDGs

Monday evening at the Development Policy Centre saw discussion turn once again to education, but on the global front.

Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, visited Australia for a variety of engagements to discuss education and to promote and advocate for an increased focus on education in development. Her visit included meetings with DFAT, InnovationXchange and the ambassador for women and girls — as well as Monday evening’s forum.

At the event, Albright explained the importance of focusing on education to build strong economies and ensure sustainable development. “Education is central to ending extreme poverty, to improving health outcomes, fighting disease, creating jobs and sustainable growth,” she told the audience. “It is also a significant contributor to longer term stability.”

But despite this, she said the response to sustainable development goal four — inclusive and quality education for all — was “way too slow.”

“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting the transformative results we want,” Albright said. And the risk was that hundreds of millions of young people could be left behind without the skills required to prosper in the workforce of the future.

Albright outlines the key steps GPE has identified to ensure SDG four is successfully met. Financing, she explained, was falling well short. Developing countries’ partners required $2 billion per year by 2020 to support education needs, and donor assistance is needed to meet that. GPE are running a “replenishing campaign” urging donors to contribute $3.1 billion over the next three years.

Strengthening education at the national level was also an important goal to ensure education had strong national leadership, consistent approaches and consistent funding throughout the country.

And innovation, Albright said, was a third important factor. “We need to disrupt the sector with new ideas and new partners, recognizing that business as usual won’t achieve SDG four.”

Australia’s foreign policy in discussion

On Tuesday, an important conversation on Australia’s foreign policy was held at Old Parliament House.

Australia360, an annual foreign policy dialogue hosted by the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, brings together academics, practitioners and government officials to discuss Australia’s political, security and economic positions and relationships in the Asia-Pacific region.

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In the era of Trump politics, discussion strongly highlighted the growing disconnect Australia faced by putting international relations with the U.S. ahead of its neighbors.

The keynote speech from Penny Wong, shadow minister for foreign affairs, discussed the former government’s strong ties and relationships with Asia. But today under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, this relationship is faltering with potential risk not only to foreign policy but economic growth

“Without a plan for these key relationships and a better roadmap in Asia, Australia will not be able to manage the disruption currently facing contemporary international relationships,” she told the audience.

Leadership on climate change is essential, Wong said, but also a relationship with China that was less focused on negativity and risk. “We need a China policy that begins with what China actually is, rather than through the lens of risk management.”

Speakers agreed that Australia’s foreign policy had lost focus and despite ties to the region being important for political, security and economic stability, discussion highlighted Australia’s prioritization of their relationship with the U.S. over the neighbors — a criticized strategy.

“I think what we’re seeing on the diplomatic side is the Trump administration moving in the direction of a military-centric foreign policy,” Geoffrey Wiseman, head of the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy, said. “The Trump presidency will be characterized by a highly personalized, unpredictable and, dare I say, less great future over the next three and a half years.” Australia needs to take a step back and develop an Australia-U.S. relationship that is deeper, wider and less personal to avoid being sucked into a void.

A harsh reality check is also required for Australia to understand that its power is diminishing.

“Australia is a middle power with soft power pretensions,” John Blaxland, director of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute, told the audience. “We need to think of ourselves as having regional influence.”

A “reimagining” of foreign policy was required with a switch back to improve ties with Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. “Australia needs to shift focus back to Southeast Asia,” Blaxland said. “ASEAN is very important to Australia.”

Using data and innovation to influence government policy

“One day budget cuts will come again,” Dr. Peter Thomas, director of policy and operations for the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, warned attendees at the Science meets Policymakers workshop. “It’s inevitable.”

As foreign policy was being discussed in Canberra, so was the government’s use of science, innovation, data and analytics to build effective policies. The workshop, held on August 8, sought input from science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals to develop a plan for improved government policy driven by innovation and data.

Speakers including Thomas highlighted the importance of data for external organizations, including NGOs, seeking to influence government policies and discussed how to best communicate this message. Backing up an argument with clear facts needs to go hand in hand with being an effective advocate and communicator — which means being authentic, setting common ground in discussions and working from there, according to Merryn McKinnon, a lecturer with the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.

The day provided recommendations for developing a long-term science and innovation strategy to support the 2030 Strategic Plan for the Australian Innovation, Science and Research System.

Embedding innovation within culture was important to ensure it is not just a buzzword of today but a reality of decision-making in the future. Breaking down barriers to silos within government for better collaboration was also seen as important to improve innovation, as well as policies supporting science and innovation lasting longer than one election cycle. And the planning for the future was also considered, looking to develop science, innovation and data capability outside academia, including within the education system to make data a core understanding within the workforce.

Discussions and recommendation also focused on data and analytics, asking how it could be utilized better by decision-makers and policymakers within government — including Australia’s aid program.

A key issue highlighted was the fact that while data volume has increased, analysis and information had not improved at the same rate. Attendees recommended recruiting skilled staff, developing appropriate systems, cross-sectoral linkages and a supportive culture to improve the use of the data.

The importance of time-series data was discussed as being crucial in preparing for disaster — by being able to identify and show long-term trends, better informed decisions and policy could be formed compared to the limited analysis capability that could be achieved through a basic snapshot of data.

And working with uncertainty in data was an issue highlighted by researchers in attendance, but with discussion suggesting it was not an excuse to reject it from use. Building uncertainty into the analysis with the option of multiple scenario results, reproducing results and risk-based assessments were discussed. And its ability to improve understanding of statistical analysis was seen as an important reason for maintaining the uncertain data.

The advice and recommendations coming out of the workshop have the potential to influence whole-of-government approaches to decision-making. And for DFAT in particular, this could lead to support for a wider use of innovation and data-driven decision-making in the aid program leading to a better aid program that can easily communicate the reason for funding decisions.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.