Australia holds a distinctive position within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in that it is a developed country in a mostly developing neighborhood. Of its neighbors, only Singapore, New Zealand, and Brunei are similarly high income countries. This should make development assistance a pronounced tool of Australian statecraft, not only as a way to engage with the concerns of its neighborhood, but as an investment to enhance the common prosperity of the region – something that would be highly advantageous to Australia.
In her address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong spoke extensively about development assistance. She spoke of the displaced and hungry, of those affected by climate change-induced extreme weather events, and how the COVID-19 pandemic had pushed over 100 million people back into poverty. The speech was designed to project the image of Australia as a responsible international actor, one that recognizes the most pressing global problems and is willing and able to assist with solutions.
Wong quite rightly stated that “Australia’s investments are a statement of our belief that social and economic progress are preconditions for peace.” Yet there is one glaring detail that contrasts with the content and tone of Wong’s speech – among OECD countries Australia has one of the lowest contributions to development assistance as a percentage of GDP. The money Australia is willing to spend on development assistance doesn’t match the country’s rhetoric.
While Southeast Asia and the Pacific have made great strides in recent years in improving development outcomes, many still lack important elements that would allow them to flourish. These elements include education and skills development, the adoption of more efficient and effective technology, and the infrastructure to improve social and economic capabilities.
These are aspects of development that are more complex to deliver than the provision of food and health. Making the jump from low income countries to middle income countries is easier than taking the next step to becoming a high income country. Yet for Australia, finding mechanisms to partner with its neighbors to make this transition should be considered a national imperative.
I am currently writing this article from Sweden. Here, it is not difficult to see how being surrounded by countries of similar prosperity creates enormous amounts of trust and high levels of cooperation. Wealth provides a major security dividend. It is only Russia that causes any great security concerns in the region. While cultural similarity also undoubtedly helps northern Europe, it is the common prosperity that provides the bedrock of confidence neighbors have in each other.
Australia lacks this trust within its neighborhood. It maintains a visa system that is highly suspicious of its neighbors. The hoops it requires Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders to jump through to enter Australia leave no doubt that Canberra views its neighborhood with an extraordinary lack of trust. Only recently – after significant lobbying from Jakarta – has Canberra moved slightly on visas for Indonesians wishing to travel to Australia for business purposes.
Canberra likes to refer to the Pacific Islands as part of its “family” but no family frisks its members at the door. For this diplomatic strategy to be considered more than just a rhetorical device, there needs to be a much higher level of confidence in its neighbors from Canberra – yet realistically this won’t come without increased prosperity throughout the region. Advancing this prospect should be a central pillar of Australia’s national strategy.
The recently released International Development Policy produced something of a realignment of approach to Australia’s development assistance – recognizing that development is an important tool of statecraft that works in unison with Australia’s other foreign policy goals. Yet the policy included no great increase in actual funds.
Obviously, development assistance doesn’t play well domestically, and increases in Australia’s aid budget can create resentments within the general public. Yet a skilled politician would be able to explain how common regional prosperity is a direct and unambiguously positive for Australia. Finding the language to communicate this recognition should be just as important as finding the dollars.
What a country funds is the most direct indication of what that country values. Or, to put it another way, what it funds is an indication of how it understands its place in the world. As a wealthy country in a developing region, it would make sense that development assistance would play a greater role in Australia’s neighborhood engagement. The sooner both Southeast Asia and the Pacific transition to high income countries the sooner the security, economic, and diplomatic benefits will accrue for Australia.