What NGOs want from Australia's foreign policy white paper

Photo by: Laura Taylor / CC BY-NC-ND

From March 28 to 30, Australia’s global ambassadors will be gathering in Canberra to discuss a range of topics on foreign affairs and trade. At the top of the agenda is the forthcoming Foreign Policy White Paper — the first in 14 years. The white paper will set Australia’s priorities for global engagement moving forward, including the aid program.

Australia’s NGOs have had their say through an initial call for public submission, which closed on Feb. 28. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a white paper taskforce, and Australia’s ambassadors now have the job of reviewing, debating and incorporating the diverse views and needs of individuals, groups and organizations with a stake on Australia’s foreign policy.

So what do Australia’s NGOs want from the Foreign Policy White Paper?

A consistent, and unsurprising, message from NGOs in their submissions to the white paper review is that foreign aid needs to be a clear, high-priority objective moving forward.

Caritas Australia called for aid and development to be “central to the pursuit of Australia’s national interest” and not a subsidiary program.

The Campaign for Australian Aid said international development and aid should be “a key foreign policy tool to deliver a fairer, more sustainable and peaceful world.”

And the Australian Council for International Development said a white paper should demonstrate Australian aid as a “key tool in both reflecting and projecting Australian values.”

The submissions from Australian NGOs covered a range of topics — some consistent and some unique to their areas of expertise in development.

NGOs want clear statements on official development assistance

A white paper containing a strong focus on aid, development and humanitarian assistance also requires clear statements and support for official development assistance, according to Australian NGOs. “Recognition of the critical role overseas aid plays in helping foster human security should mean the Australian government moves to reverse the deep cuts that have been made to the overseas aid budget since 2011,” Paul Ronalds, chief executive officer for Save the Children Australia, told Devex.

“Recognition of the critical role overseas aid plays in helping foster human security should mean the Australian government moves to reverse the deep cuts that have been made to the overseas aid budget since 2011.”

— Paul Ronalds, chief executive officer for Save the Children Australia

In their submission, RESULTS Australia asked for a “commitment to sustained growth in the resources for overseas aid, reaching $10 billion per year by the mid 2020s.” And World Vision Australia called for ODA to be elevated as a core asset of Australia's foreign policy.

“ODA is an essential component in Australia’s ability to respond to emergencies and support economic growth in the region,” Susan Anderson, head of policy and advocacy for World Vision Australia, told Devex. “It can be used to leverage innovative opportunities to finance international development through other sources, including the private sector.”

But strong statements on ODA also allow for NGOs to plan and prepare programs with greater confidence that funding will be available.

“With so much movements in commitments of foreign aid internationally, including the U.N. system, we need predictable resources and predictable investment,” Amy Lamoin, head of policy and advocacy for UNICEF Australia, told Devex. “This lets us make investments reliably and get the best outcomes.”

NGOs want an inclusive foreign policy

NGOs also put forward a strong message on the need for the white paper to be inclusive for all demographics — including women and girls, elderly, children and people with disability.

Disability inclusiveness is an area of that has received support for prioritization in the white paper and follows on from DFAT’s leadership in this area.

Vision 2020 have called for the white paper to promote disability inclusiveness and gender equality in their submission, with initiatives including providing vision care in the Asia-Pacific region.

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And the Australian Disability and Development Consortium said the paper should adopt inclusion as a core value, including greater financial investment and support for disability data. “More governments are beginning to understand the importance of recognizing and advancing the rights of people with disability in development contexts, and are taking action in their spheres of influence,” Erin Ryan, executive officer for ADDC, explained to Devex. “If Australia remains committed to leadership, the white paper needs to articulate a wholly inclusive foreign policy approach to ensure that people with disability are included in mainstream development priorities, diplomacy and humanitarian preparedness and response not just as beneficiaries, but as agents of change.”

Empowerment of women and girls is a strong aid focus for Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop. But NGOs believe it is important to make this a clear priority within the white paper for consistency and funding moving forward. ActionAid have called for the Australian government to “ensure its foreign policy is firmly grounded in a feminist vision that advances gender equality by strengthening women’s rights, equal representation and access to resources.” Children should be similarly treated with statements identifying their focus in foreign policy, according to UNICEF.

“The white paper needs an unequivocal and clear statement on children,” Lamoin explained to Devex. “Violence against children is endemic globally and levels in the Asia-Pacific region are concerning. Addressing violence against children needs to be an ongoing, stated priority that is stated clearly as part of Australia’s ODA investment.” And protection of children is not just fundamental in statements of aid, but in all engagement of Australian government and businesses on foreign soil.

But foreign policy can be further inclusive by ensuring there are action plans in place to engage a range of country and sector perspectives, including NGOs, according to the Australian Red Cross.

“Foreign policy needs to bring in a broad constituency,” Fiona Tarpey, manager of strategy and policy for the Australian Red Cross, told Devex. “This includes civil society, organizations like the Red Cross and the private sector to build partnerships. And this needs to be brought into the various DFAT departments, including aid for trade, to allow us all to hear from each other for stronger communication.” An idea from the Red Cross is for the Foreign Policy White Paper to establish a formal regional dialogue with various sectors, corporations, recipient countries and DFAT to improve communication and discuss a range of foreign policy issues, including aid and development.

For NGOs, the importance of statements about inclusiveness in the Foreign Policy White Paper mean issues are easier to discuss and the development and implementation of program better supported.

“Explicit statements from the government make these policies easier to implement,” Lamoin explained. “The aid program and Australia’s partners will need to take these statements seriously moving forward, including donor and recipient countries.”

NGOs want Australia to be strong on sexual and reproductive health

The ‘global gag rule’ is creating negative impacts on programs for sexual and reproductive health and Australia is one of the many nations that has rejected the stance taken by the Trump administration. But for NGOs, the Foreign Policy White Paper is an opportunity to make a strong statement in support of the rights of women to health services.

“With the current political climate, and subsequent decline in funding for sexual and reproductive health and family planning from the USA, a strong statement from Australia becomes even more important,” Batya Atlas, senior manager of external relations for Marie Stopes International, told Devex. “A policy with strong sexual and reproductive health objectives, backed up with a funding commitment, could help transform the lives of millions of women and girls in the region.”

“A policy with strong sexual and reproductive health objectives, backed up with a funding commitment, could help transform the lives of millions of women and girls in the region.”

— Batya Atlas, senior manager of external relations for Marie Stopes International

The white paper, Atlas said, provides an opportunity to frame sexual and reproductive health within the broader foreign policy context. MSI are among a number of NGOs, including Oxfam Australia and ActionAid, calling for an increase in support and funding for this area of the aid program, which currently makes up only 0.7 percent of Australia’s ODA.

“A greater, significant investment in this area would have both immediate and long-term development benefits that would contribute directly to promoting prosperity, peace and stability in the region and beyond,” Atlas said.

NGOs want a foreign policy strong on climate

Climate change is an important concern for the global development community, and Australian NGOs are no different. Oxfam, RESULTS Australia, Save the Children, WWF and World Vision are among the NGOs calling on Australia to deliver a foreign policy with clear and strong statements on climate as part of their white paper submissions.

“World Vision believes that Australia’s foreign policy must address climate change and that it should be an explicit focus of the Foreign Policy White Paper,” Anderson explained. “We are concerned about the threat climate change poses to the security of already vulnerable people living in poverty, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Climate change is a challenge that does not respect national borders, and demands urgent coordinated international cooperation and response.”

With research from the Red Cross showing the Asia-Pacific region is the most disaster prone, and natural disasters set to increase, NGOs say the Foreign Policy White Paper must clearly demonstrate Australia’s leadership in this area of critical importance for long-term regional security.

“Australia must be a positive and engaged global player advocating and doing its fair share of the work to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and help prepare vulnerable communities for the unavoidable effects,” Ronalds said. “As an influential middle power we have also seen how Australia can play a significant role in promoting and advocating for progress on numerous human rights issues, and it must maintain this voice.”

Statements showing strong support for climate action should be supported with an aid program encouraging disaster mitigation, energy efficiency and environmental protection. But NGOs say this needs to be met with strong and clear climate action within Australia to cement the country’s role as a leader in this space.

NGOs want a food secure world

Climate has strong links in creating political, social and economic instability, as well as impacting food security. And in addition to a Foreign Policy White Paper placing Australia as a leader in climate change policy, NGOs want a white paper that will help build a food secure world.

The Crawford Fund has called for the white paper to reflect the important role sustainable and inclusive food systems have to support global stability and human security, healthy communities, and robust and resilient economies.

Increased aid investment in sustainable food systems, including low-footprint aquaculture and climate-smart agriculture, is an important part of this approach. And Australia should be encouraging protection of forests, conservation of biodiversity and protection of water resources.

The WWF are calling for Australia’s policy on food security to cover both agriculture and aquaculture. Trade policy can be an important way for Australia to promote and create incentives for sustainable food production and Oxfam believe this will additionally help address economic empowerment for women working on small-scale farms in developing countries.

NGOs want Australia to be strong on human rights

As with calls for strong leadership on climate, NGOs believe the Foreign Policy White Paper provides Australia with an opportunity to provide leadership on issues of human rights — and with Australia bidding for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, it is a timely opportunity for Australia to respond to questions of human rights abuses. In its submission, Save the Children said support for strengthening international law and human rights was important for Australia’s priority of regional stability through the aid program.

“A failure to address worsening human rights abuses means significantly greater global instability.” Ronalds said. “Australia has enjoyed seven decades of peace and prosperity underwritten by relative global stability, but that is increasingly under threat.”

Humanitarian action needs to be at the forefront of Australia’s global policies, according to the Red Cross. “This is an important opportunity for us as the Red Cross to highlight the importance of investment not only in humanitarian action and response, but also in increasing investment in preparedness,” Tarpey explained. And humanitarian action needs to be considered throughout aid and foreign policy programs with counterterrorism activities, for example, factoring in and not impacting humanitarian work.

As with climate change, strong leadership begins at home and Australia must protect human rights and international law at home through processing and programs to support refugees.

NGOs want a vision for future generations

For NGOs, an overwhelming message is that this white paper needs to be a vision for future generations, not necessarily the politics of today. In its first recommendation, World Vision said that the new Foreign Policy White Paper should be framed by “national interest in terms of securing a peaceful, stable and prosperous world to benefit current and future generations”.

It was a sentiment echoed by more than 9,000 Australians who submitted statements in support of Australian aid through the Up to Us website, established by the Campaign for Australian Aid to support their white paper submission.

“Australia’s interests are best served by a focus not just on today, but also on future generations. We must be a global leader helping to solve the world's toughest challenges and advancing a fairer, more sustainable and peaceful world,” Tony Milne, director of the Campaign for Australian Aid, told media. “Australian aid and international development must be a key pillar of foreign policy to help achieve this vision.”

According to NGOs, Australia’s first Foreign Policy White Paper in 14 years will need to pre-empt and address issues associated with environment, population growth and economics. It will need to think about urbanization and pressures on services. It will need to consider issues at home. And it will need to create awareness of how instability in the region can impact Australian overseas and at home.

And to achieve that, Australia’s NGOs believe the Foreign Policy White Paper needs a strong aid program that is a central and integral part of foreign engagement and diplomacy moving forward for the next 14 years.

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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.