US elevates development in policy hierarchy - Australia to follow?

13 January 2011

by Annmaree O'Keeffe, Research Fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy

The Obama administration has clear ambitions for its aid program. In September last year (2010), President Obama signed a Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, the first of its kind by a US administration.  That directive described development as a core pillar of American power. It recognised development as an essential component of its national security approach and described it as a strategic, economic and moral imperative for the United States. It looked at underpinning aid policy coherence across government.

Four months later in mid-December, the report of the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), commissioned by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton 18 months earlier, was released.  It echoed the President’s directive, repeating the description of development as a “strategic, economic and moral imperative”.  However, what sets the review’s report apart is its emphasis on the non-military strength of development and diplomacy. But what is truly remarkable is the equal billing development is given alongside diplomacy as the twin pillars of America’s civilian power.

This policy elevation of development and emphasis on the role of civilian power is strongly reflected in the review’s four main recommendations:

  1. Build America’s civilian power, bringing together the unique contributions of civilians across the federal government to advance US interests
  2. Elevate and transform development to deliver results
  3. Build a civilian capacity to prevent and respond to crisis and conflict and give our military the partner it needs and deserves
  4. Change the way we do business by working smarter

Overall, the review’s report is a rich document and no doubt the team reviewing Australia’s aid program will be looking at the elements which have resonance for Australia. Two overarching features that stand out relate to the aid agency responsible for implementing much of the aid activity and the role of the State Department in supporting development. In the case of the aid agency, the review calls for the rebuilding of USAID as the pre-eminent global development institution. At the same time, the State Department is urged to strengthen its efforts in supporting development.

Three other features worth highlighting are the recommendations on coherence and prominence of development policy; the role of traditional diplomacy in developing states; and working smarter.

Both the President’s directive and the QDDR are strong on the need for policy coherence although in slightly different ways. The Directive calls for an Interagency Policy Committee on Global Development; the QDDR sets out how State and USAID in particular should be harnessing civilian resources and power across government to advance the national interest. In both cases, the policy role and contribution of development is elevated to equal footing with diplomacy and defence.

To date, this has not been the traditional position of development and aid within government – whether the US or Australia. Development has been the junior sibling in foreign policy discussions; a deal taker, certainly not a deal maker.  But it’s worth pointing out that the Directive draws heavily on the National Security Strategy in reinforcing the role of development as a forward defence tool. The QDDR speaks eloquently and frequently about the role of civilian agencies – both within government and in civil society – in advancing the development goals.

This elevation of development is also reflected in the fact that the QDDR has recommended that senior diplomats should spend more time advancing development issues and that development diplomacy should be a discipline at State.

Working smarter is a focus of both the President’s Directive and the QDDR with both recognising the need to focus the aid investments and to be more selective instead of trying to do too much across a broad range of sectors and countries.

No doubt, debate between different parts of the Obama Administration including between the military and non-military, will continue on how the Directive’s guidance and the QDDR’s recommendations can be brought together to ensure policy coherence. What is important, however, is that there has been a substantial attempt to describe and give serious credibility to the role of development as part of the US Government’s international agenda and approach.

So is there anything in this fresh look at America’s aid program that might be relevant for Australia? Is there any possibility that Australia’s aid program could also be anointed by its head of government as a core pillar of Australian power and essential component of national security?

That Australian aid is a strategic, economic and moral imperative has long been recognized, at least in the rhetoric, and is reflected in the current and previous objective for the aid program.  The difficulty for the review team will be identifying ways to tackle the longstanding image AusAID has across government and the bureaucracy as a repository for easily accessible cash to finance big international ambitions, clothed in the respectable suit of aid. The even bigger challenge will be for the rest of Canberra to accept that the aid program through its administrator, AusAID, has the authority and credibility to be a twin pillar of civilian power alongside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Photo by Flickr user Bethany.Egan


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