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Possible downsides to a new international development policy

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On 10 December 2019, the Australian Government announced that it would develop a new international development policy and performance framework. While it sounds like a step in the right direction, I’m worried, for five reasons.

First, the timing. The new policy announcement was made with a caveat that it was not about the money: the aid program would remain at $4 billion. (Not even a mention of inflation indexation, which was the only position the Coalition has taken to an election.) Since then, we have had the bushfire crisis, and there are already calls to cut aid to pay for the response.

Second, if, as per the December announcement, the new policy is to reflect the government’s Pacific Step-up there is a risk that it will result in more aid to the Pacific at the expense of all other aid (given that there will be no increase in total aid). In an interview late last year with the podcast Good Will Hunters, Minister for International Development Alex Hawke indicated that the proportion of aid to the Pacific is going to continue to “tick up”. Given the relatively poor performance of aid in the Pacific, this would be bad for Australian aid effectiveness. The graph below (based on annual DFAT performance reports) shows that by DFAT’s own reckoning its aid to the Pacific achieves less than aid to other regions.

Third, some of the language around the new policy is concerning. My invitation to a roundtable last month told me that “The new policy will set out how Australia’s engagement will remain flexible in order to respond to emerging priorities”. That struck me as odd. Australia’s aid in fact has a reputation for being pragmatic and flexible. What is the threat to flexibility that needs to be mitigated? Since the commitment doesn’t make sense at face value, one is forced to try to read between the lines. Is the real intention in fact not to retain but to increase the flexibility of the aid program, and if so, why? Is the aim perhaps to insert more ministerial discretion into the aid program decision-making process – especially now that we have so many Ministers travelling to the Pacific, who are no doubt receiving endless shopping lists from welcoming hosts?

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