Q&A with Australia's minister for international development and the Pacific: Part 1

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development. Photo by: DFAT

At the inaugural aid supplier conference of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, discussed the private sector’s role in delivering the “complex challenges of an aid program.”

After the conference, Devex sat down with Fierravanti-Wells to discuss a range of topics impacting overseas development in Australia and internationally. In part one of our interview, the minister talks about reframing the aid program, private sector engagement, the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the value of innovation competitions. Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You discussed the need for bringing the Australian public into the aid program. What are some of the strategies needed by the government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to better educate the Australian public on the aid program?

There is a need to change the thinking. In the past, it was about what we were doing. Now it’s more a focus on why we are doing it, but more importantly, what the benefit is to the Australian public.

The Australian public has been traditionally a very generous public. One of the interesting responses after Cyclone Winston, apart from the generosity of the Australian public, was to actually see more Australians going to Fiji on holiday — the cyclone didn’t deter them. And there was this little bit of a sense that we want to help our neighbors.

But there is also a responsibility to ensure that as part of that generosity, that we spend Australian taxpayers’ money in the most efficient and effective way possible. Therefore, in relation to overseas development assistance, it is development assistance.

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Aid, as it has traditionally been referred to, is not charity. It is development assistance designed to help countries to develop and to grow their economic viability and their economic prosperity.

But the other key point is that, as the defense white paper says, the defense and security of Australia is our primary concern. But the security and prosperity of our region is second only to the defense of Australia. So therefore to have a secure, prosperous and stable Australia, we need a secure prosperous and stable region.

This is the inaugural DFAT aid supplier conference and we have suppliers coming to engage with DFAT and the government. What is the message you want to tell them about the aid program, its directions and the importance of involvement from far and wide?

There are three points I really want to make.

One is the changing political paradigm. While the focus has been on what we have done, it is now more important to talk about why we are doing it and what the benefit are to Australia.

Second, [it is key] for [suppliers] to look at what they’re doing and consider how that fits into the new paradigm.

But more importantly, whatever we do in the overseas development assistance space, there has to be a formal framework and that is efficiency and effectiveness of what we are doing.

These are the key messages and overriding all of this is communication; talking about what is and what is not working. But, basically, communication is going to be of vital importance at all three levels.

Probably something that is not being shared as well within the development sectors is how programs have both succeeded and failed. How are we going to get these lessons learned?

This is what this conference really is about. It’s really good to see so many suppliers and people here because when you think about it, the development assistance network is a relatively compact network. It’s one where you have both large and small suppliers — but it is a framework and a family, if I can put it that way — that has been doing this work for a long time in very, very difficult circumstances.

We’ve certainly seen improvements, we’ve certainly seen things that have and haven’t worked. And so part of the important dialogue in a conference like this is to ensure that you learn from your mistakes of the past — ensure that we do adopt what works. There are some things that will work in some countries and some things that won’t work in other countries. So from our Australian perspective, we have our overseas development priorities — those priorities are the ones that are prominent in what we do — but also prominent in aid investment plans that we have with countries on a bilateral basis. It underpins the work that we do on a multilateral level as well.

Therefore it comes down to what works and what doesn’t. And that’s part of what we’re doing here today, it’s part of the work DFAT is doing in other ways. It’s part of the ongoing dialogue.

What is really important for all the players involved in the development assistance framework is actually understanding the shifting paradigm. The paradigm has shifted in Australia — as it has in Britain, the U.S. and in other places. But it still comes down to that basic point. And that is: what are we doing — more importantly why are we doing it — and what its direct benefit is to the donor country. This is a dialogue that I have even with other countries.

Does better engagement with the private sector help in communicating benefits of the aid program through demonstrating financial benefits of Australian companies engaging with developing countries?

We want the private sector to be more engaged. Why? Because ultimately governments don’t create jobs. It’s the private sector that is the primary driver. Governments create the framework within which job creation can eventuate.

Therefore it is important when you do have a developing country that the private sector assesses what the potential options are for us to be involved, what the opportunities are, and what eventual trade opportunities are possible in a country.

Our job is to assist and contribute to the appropriate framework for the private sector to be involved. But their involvement is not only for their own downstream trade opportunities — it’s also how they can be innovative in different ways of doing a business.

Last year we had a humanitarian challenge with about 130 different submissions — ideas that came to us — and we ended up funding five of those ideas. If those ideas come to fruition, those ideas will have an impact. Not just in the country where they may be piloted, but right across the world and are available for other countries and organizations to use and develop and apply in the places where they deliver assistance.

The foreign minister announced another upcoming innovation prize focused on education in humanitarian response. Are there other areas you feel the aid program can benefit from these challenges? Are there any problems in the developing world you are keen to have a competition for?

We’ve seen the challenges have been a very useful way of generating new ideas — whether it’s in health, water, education, whatever the area — there are people out there with great ideas as to how you can do it better. Of course, changing technology has meant we can do things much more innovatively and cheaply than we have in the past. And therefore the practicality of rolling out different ways of doing business are going to be more cost-effective.

Challenges are great because once people start putting on their thinking caps, they come up with all sorts of ideas. The 130 ideas [from the humanitarian challenge] didn’t just come from Australia — they came from all over the world. So challenges stimulate ideas. Ideas use new technologies, and that’s how we progress.

At this point, our challenges are focused on our priority areas and I’m sure that in the future, there will be other areas that we may look at. But at this point in time, our overseas development assistance is focused on our key priority areas, and that is where we are putting our attention.

Recently you have been to Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Africa. Everywhere we go in Australia we are hearing about President Trump and Brexit — what are some of the discussions happening in developing countries? What concerns and issues are they raising on the changing political landscape?

Obviously we will see what the new administration does, and in particular in relation to overseas development assistance.

The reality, though, is that we have an international framework, particularly the United Nations. I attended the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, and what came out of that was the grand bargain. Now the grand bargain really is about reform of the U.N. system. There is a growing concern around the world about silos at the U.N. Some of our U.N. agencies operate effectively and do very good work internationally. But I think what is happening internationally is now going to focus on the most effective and efficient way that we can utilize taxpayers’ money around the world to get best value for money for taxpayers all over the world.

Therefore, it is legitimate that donor countries are involved in that process, as we are. But it is incumbent on international organizations and those organizations that do receive money to deliver development assistance overseas, that the money be used in transparent and appropriate ways to provide the best value for money for taxpayers, wherever those taxpayers come from.

With upcoming country visits, where should we be expecting to see you?

I am off to Fiji this week. I am obviously in the Pacific and I have different areas. I hope to go to the Indo-Pacific, as well and different countries in Southeast Asia. Obviously part of the work we are doing on the Human Rights Council. So I’m going a bit here and there!

In part two of the interview, Fierravanti-Wells discusses Australia’s bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex 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.