Amid concerns Australia’s foreign aid programs have lost expertise and may face more cuts, a survey of politicians shows how little aid matters to the parliament. By Jo Chandler.

Why foreign aid matters

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong at a Pacific Islands Forum event in Fiji in February.
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong at a Pacific Islands Forum event in Fiji in February.
Credit: Leon Lord / AFP

Forty-five years ago, rice farmers on the island of Dreketi in newly independent Fiji were struggling with crop losses due to drought and seawater inundation.

Even then, people “knew that they were dealing with changed rainfall patterns and that the seas were rising in unusual ways”, Fiji’s deputy prime minister, Professor Biman Prasad, told a packed Canberra auditorium earlier this month.

The Australian government sent engineers and experts who, after listening to local advice about the problems and solutions, built an irrigation system with waterways doubling as seawalls. With crops and incomes secured, farmers could afford to pay bus fares and school fees.

“Two of these farmers in Dreketi were Mrs Bhagwandei and Mr Puran – my mum and dad … On the back of that education, I eventually became an economics professor,” said Prasad, the first Pacific leader to open the Australasian AID Conference in its 10-year history.

“Never forget that Australia’s development assistance touches and transforms people and communities. This is my most important message to you. An agricultural program four decades ago changed the course of my life.”

Such heartfelt evocation of the life-changing power of aid might not seem controversial, but it called out political ambiguity around Australia’s foreign aid mission and the soul-searching it has provoked in a sector conditioned to pragmatism and cynicism.

As 600-plus officials, bureaucrats and specialists spilled into a busy program of expert presentations, one of the first sellouts was a session on “navigating the competing purposes of Australia’s aid program”. Is it about transforming lives, as Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy has declared? Or is it more transactional, focused on political influence and geostrategic objectives (read China), as espoused by Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong? Can it be both? (It’s complicated – see below.)

On the sidelines and in the aftermath, senior figures expressed concern that the depleted ranks of development specialists within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were exhausted and vulnerable, and that a functional review was under way with job losses possible for some highly experienced positions. This was despite government commitments to restore specialist development expertise.

The wounds of the AusAID merger into DFAT, carried out by the Coalition government a decade ago, are as raw as ever. In the words of one source, echoed by half-a-dozen others, “Development practitioners find it increasingly difficult to operate within that aid diplomacy construct, so they fade away.” 

These insiders are unpersuaded that experience will be recruited back anytime soon. With “most of the best and brightest development brains long since left”, one source questioned whether DFAT “understand[s] what proper skills look like”.

There were also rumours a budget blowout in human resources had left the department “scrambling”.

DFAT denies this, saying the $36.8 million committed in the May budget over the next four years to enhance development capability was new and additional funding, and that “the department is not forecasting an overspend on its salary budget and is managing within its approved funding levels this financial year”.

A good deal of the conference was preoccupied one way or another with Australia’s new development policy, unveiled in August and the first substantial overhaul since the AusAID merger. The language around it has only perpetuated confusion about whether the ambition is for development outcomes or geostrategic objectives, argued Heather Murphy, head of analysis and engagement at the Development Intelligence Lab think tank.

In the policy foreword, Conroy wrote it “is not transactional in nature”; speaking in September, he conceded “there’s always going to be an element of that in development policy. I’m not naive about that.”

The upshot is “we are doing them in tandem”, Murphy said, and people at the frontline of programs navigate a tension. Projects such as the one Prasad recalls from his childhood require time and patience, a dance of multiple steps, consulting and circling back and correcting. A transactional, diplomatic, strategic objective might be secured in a swift twostep of identifying and securing an objective.

“The pull towards transactional types of development assistance comes at a direct cost of development results,” Murphy told The Saturday Paper. “When DFAT staff have to keep chopping and changing their programs to respond to the latest geopolitical threat, it’s harder for them to maintain focus on the long-term development goals they’re supposed to be working towards.”

Another session unveiled a recent survey of 23 federal parliamentarians on their attitudes towards the aid agenda. The cross-party sample might be reasonably assumed to skew to the sympathetic, in that they had all been hosted on “learning visits” to see Australian-funded projects in action. Nonetheless, University of Melbourne researcher Dr Tamas Wells felt obliged to preface the presentation with a content warning. The material was not explicit or violent, “but it’s quite depressing”.

The first of his findings was “aid is not an important issue for parliamentarians”. Wells recounted how in one instance, when asked how often aid came up as an issue in the party room, “they said it’s never come up as an issue in the party room”.

The survey was conducted only weeks after the launch of the new development policy, but not one of the interviewees made any reference to it – “so there’s extremely low awareness”.

It also identified a vein of underlying scepticism about the effectiveness of aid unless proved otherwise. “Especially on the conservative side of politics, there’s an assumption that there’s just no positive impact of aid, so that means that the burden of proof constantly lies with the sector,” Wells said.

“What does this mean? It means that while we might all hope that there would be political will to change the current state of aid in Australia, nobody’s willing to be politically exposed over this. Aid is not a hill that the Labor government is going to die on.”

The government was deeply politically squeezed, with the survey identifying “that any kind of bold, ambitious new policy from the government right now would result in criticism … and that would be quite politically effective”. Opposition parliamentarians confirmed that “if aid gets above the radar, there is a very clear sense they will attack that”.

Today, Australia is one of the least generous nations in the world in terms of foreign aid. The country has sunk from 13th to 27th in OECD rankings since 2013. Wells says that won’t change anytime soon, with spending and policy settling into an era of “cautious consensus”.

There was broad cross-party agreement aid would not drop further, but nor would it substantially grow. Change would be incremental, prioritise pragmatic interests and focus on the immediate region.

He cautioned advocates that shaking the consensus could backfire. “There’s a raw nerve there,” he said. “We’ve heard quite a lot of reports that Penny Wong is politically sensitive about the suggestions that she and the government haven’t used their political capital to protect or grow the aid budget.”

What aid champions could and should do, he urged, was continue to tell real, tangible stories of impact and effect. As other commentators trying to revive public connection to the development agenda have long argued, the disembodied rhetoric of “statecraft” has served to obscure the stakes for actual people. The story of the Fijian farmers’ son that opened proceedings provided a powerful case in point.

In his address, Prasad stressed another personal dimension of his story, a caveat that captures a key thread of the conference about the imperative to decolonise and localise aid programs.

While Australian engineers and experts shaped the irrigation program that supported his family, its success relied on the insights of Prasad’s parents and elders. “They taught Australians how to plan waterways so water would flow even during droughts, and how high to build the dams so that seawater would be kept out even during storm surges,” the deputy prime minister said.

“My guidance to you is: work with Pacific Islanders, not for them. If development is not locally led, it most probably is not development.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Aid decamp".

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