Audience Q&A, Development Policy Forum, Australian National University

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s new international development policy, monitoring and evaluation of development effectiveness, Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040.

Jacqui De Lacy, Facilitator: This is a highly anticipated strategy. People have been waiting for it for a long time and I think people have been waiting for a new incoming Labor government to deliver a new strategy for development. So, it's highly anticipated and the reaction to it has been generally positive. A lot of people have seen parts of the strategy that really speaks to their passions on international development. I guess – and you today outlined some of your key priorities for what you want to achieve with the strategy. One of the risks of having a strategy that everyone likes is that it says something to everyone; it doesn't necessarily help make the hard choices that you just spoke about as one of the challenges. How do we decide which opportunities to pursue?

So, my first question is: when you think of the next few years of international development compared to maybe the last five, what are you not going to be doing compared to what you would like to do more of? What would you like to walk away from? Maybe if I put that to you first and then we can take three questions from the floor.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Thank you for that. I would say my answer to that is twofold. In terms of, one, what I would like to see less of, or what we won't do, I would like to see less transactional development projects. And that's no criticism of previous policies but we really are serious about having long-term partnerships with our development partners, so I want to see that. And I would like to see less projects that don't emphasise localisation, that don't emphasise local procurement, that don't emphasise skills transfer. We have seen projects that have been great in conception but follow through has not been great; for example, there hasn't been adequate resources allocated to maintaining infrastructure or transferring skills to train locals on how to maintain infrastructure. So, that's a concrete example I would like to see less of.

Jacqui De Lacy: Can you maybe just outline a little bit what you think of when you're talking about transactional projects?

Minister Conroy: Well, I think one of the challenges or one of the things that we're investing in is DFAT capability – so one of the budget announcements was $36 million to build development capability in DFAT. It's very strong already, but I think one of the hangovers from the AusAID integration into DFAT was that it obviously empowered Heads of Mission a lot more in developing development, and that has its positives. They're the sort of lead person in each country, so obviously they have a focus on that. But I think in the first few years of the integration, some of the development budget became a bit more transactional in terms of helping HOMs solve problems they had in the short term. There's always going to be an element of that in development policy. I'm not naive about that. But I really am serious about stressing how important development capability is within DFAT. That's supported by Senator Wong.

I made a bit of a stir earlier this year when asked about whether AusAID should be separated from DFAT and I said, “No, I want development to take over DFAT”. And that's expressed in our development policy of centring development policy at the heart of statecraft because it's got to be between everything else. But I want long-term relationships with our development partners. I want the development part of DFAT to be driving excellence in everything it does. And I know that's a cliché, but working with missions, having a senior responsible officer in each country, so not just look at the outcomes from each development project, but look at it thematically, so look across all the projects that are helping climate change over a length of time. It's all about longer term planning and partnering with the countries that we partner with.

Jacqui De Lacy: All right. Thank you very much. You did answer that question. So, what we'll do now is take three questions. So, please put up your hand and I've got – so we'll take one, and then there's one at the back. So, one, two and then three. So, here first.

MATT SPANNAGLE: I think it's a small enough room before I get the microphone. Hi. Thanks for your attention, minister. My name is Matt Spannagle, I work for Palladium International. I wanted to pick up first to say it's such a relief to see a development policy that's a change from the 10 years of climate obfuscation, so congratulations to you and the team on that work.

One of your challenges was around how do we measure this transparency and how do we learn from our mistakes? So, I previously worked with DFID in the UK and they had a system where they kind of bring in a group of implementing partners and have a Chatham House exchange with no acknowledgement of who's saying what, but to have that, you know, informal and informed discussion. And I think there's a hunger within DFAT to learn from us and we certainly in the development community would love more frank exchanges with DFAT. So, as a suggestion, perhaps we can have that kind of a system or explore something like that so you can have an exchange of ideas without a fear for what it would mean for contracts and that kind of thing. Thanks very much. That wasn't really a question, sorry.

Minister Conroy: Do I agree?

Jacqui De Lacy: Do you agree?

Minister Conroy: I'll answer it when I answer the three questions.

Bridi Rice: Hello, minister. I'm Bridi from the Development Intelligence Lab. Congratulations on the policy and, more importantly, I think being here as well and taking these tough questions. Good job Jacqui kicking us off in good faith there.

Minister, hearing you speak here today, hearing you speak at the launch, at every stakeholder briefing that you are speaking on, you are speaking the language of what the experts in this room have been saying to government for the past decade, be it localisation, climate, the way we work being more important. But, Minister, you're speaking to a safe crowd here and when you walk out of this development space, this development space that lives and breathes the passion and the capability that you are talking about, you walk out of here into a Cabinet room, into a party room, into a public that perhaps has had headwinds that are stronger than those inside this room and so too do the leaders from your department. So, Minister, as these headwinds push and buffet the difficult choices that have to be made through the DPP process, I wonder: are you going to give coverage to your DFAT leaders to make those choices to shoot for development impact and effectiveness and great partnerships and perhaps to deprioritise the other headwinds that buffet the program, be it the geopolitics, the short-term transactionalism that you've seen in the past? How are you going to give coverage for your government to lead and implement this policy for development outcomes?

Jacqui De Lacy: We'll hold that. That's a really great question. We'll hold that and we've got one more up here.

Sonia Palmieri: Hi, my name is Sonia Palmieri. I'm the new head of the Department of Pacific Affairs here at the ANU. I want to thank Stephen for saying there is such a thing as academic freedom and we do need to be very mindful of that. Minister, I'm very heartened by your point around frank and fearless advice and around learning from failure. I wonder if you've thought about ways in which this community can be more receptive and be more robust to take on the kinds of criticism that says, “Yes, we have failed.” How can we when we say that in the great honesty and transparency to the department that often feeds us, that funds us, that you actually lead?

Minister Conroy: I might tackle the first and third question together because they're along the same theme. And I think that's a really interesting suggestion and I would certainly be very happy to look at what DFID has done in the past there.

I am serious about having more transparency of our program and so more real‑time reporting, more real‑time analysis of the impact and learning from it. So, we've committed to implementing some very different ways of evaluating our aid program and feeding it in as quickly as possible into programs while they're still running. I'm talking to Dr Andrew Leigh about his particular hobby horses around how randomised control trials can play a role in development, and so we're all really serious about it.

I know there's a big debate about whether we should bring back the Office of Development Effectiveness. We decided to go on a more flexible real‑time monitoring approach and to add more transparency, but we do need to create a safe space where you can provide feedback to improve the program. You're both absolutely right that – I see it in both my portfolios. If you think you're worried about losing a contract, imagine a Defence contractor criticising Defence. So, this is an area where we have to do better, so we have to create safe spaces and Rod and I are really committed to doing that. Obviously, I would prefer not to be on the front page of the newspaper, because then we can have a more nuanced response, but we do have safe spaces to do it because that actually goes to your point, Bridi, which is: how do I protect against the headwinds? I do that by two ways.

One is by demonstrating the impact and being able to assure people that the impact of taxpayers' dollars is being spent effectively. We are lifting people out of poverty. We are improving governance. We are helping fight climate change. We are helping build gender equality, so demonstrating not just to my colleagues in the government, but the Australian people that development assistance is being spent effectively is the first way we protect against the headwinds. That's why the safe space is important.

Secondly, putting our development policy at the heart of statecraft is one of the new things here in this policy. I am the first – I'm happy to be corrected, but I think I'm the first International Development Minister to be a full member of the National Security Committee of Cabinet. We are putting development policy at the heart of what we do with statecraft because it is essential to how we engage with the world. It is not a “nice to have” over here which we'll look at when we've got some spare time and money. It is as critical to what we do as our more orthodox diplomatic policy, as defence policy, as international police cooperation. That's how we protect against headwinds and convince people that it's really worth doing.

Jacqui De Lacy: All right. Thank you, Minister. I think we've got time for a couple more questions. Jo. Sorry, I knew you were looking for it, but I didn't know where you were in the room. You need to be taller like me.

Jo Choe: Sorry, I'll stand up. Thanks, Minister. I had a question about ministerial visits and I swear my DFAT colleagues have not put me up to this. I guess ministerial visits are a really important part of diplomacy and of building relationships in our region. They are also highly choreographed affairs. They often lead to transactional approaches with lots of announcements. You don't necessarily hear frank and fearless feedback from the people you speak to because they're highly choreographed affairs. So, I guess my question is in this new era of working differently and thinking about how and thinking about genuine partnerships and moving beyond transactional approaches, what's your experience of visits so far and what is your thinking about how to do them differently so that you are building genuine partnerships and receiving frank and fearless feedback about how things are going on the ground?

Jacqui De Lacy: All right, we can take one more question. So, if you just hold, minister. Over here, sorry. Next to Jo.

Darrin Grimsey: Minister, Darrin Grimsey from EY. Minister, the Prime Minister launched the Southeast Asia strategy last week in Jakarta and with a small special envoy. This report is a bit of a chew, but there are 75 recommendations, I think, something like that, in there. I think four of them have been announced by the Prime Minister with some funding. I wonder whether you can elaborate on how you're going to work your way through the over 70‑odd recommendations that are in that report.

Jacqui De Lacy: Right. We may just go to those two.

Minister Conroy: Sure. On the latter question, we're working through them in a substantive way. Some of them involve funding commitments that we're working through now. So, I think we decided to announce a few, as you do, to highlight the importance of the report, and then work on the rest of them. One of the areas where there's cross over with what I'm doing in the development portfolio is Australian Development Investments – the $250 million impact investment fund that we've announced. That's going to be hugely relevant to what we do in Southeast Asia as well as the Pacific and that's one area where we're sort of lining up development policy with Nicholas Moore's report.

And, Jo, on your point about visits, your cynicism shocks me. I'll make this point. It's actually really important for ministers to meet with leaders of other countries when they reach a region and to hear about what their priorities are. Does that lead to transactional approaches? I'm not sure. There's a fine line between listening and acting on the priorities of your partner countries and a transactional approach, but it is actually really important to hear what other countries are really passionate about. So, I met with Tuvaluan Prime Minister when I was there a few weeks ago and to hear first-hand what they would like us to partner on to help that country survive rising sea levels is really critical. Or when I was in Palau talking to them about their renewable energy transition. Visits are important.

What I do to encourage, for example, is I always make time to talk to the locally engaged staff. That's something that the DFAT team do encourage as well, but I do get a flicker of nervousness from the A-based staff when I start asking – when I go a bit rogue and I find a few of them and I go and ask their views, but that's how I learn. And I remember we did a great morning tea with the PNG locally engaged staff at the High Commission and hearing what they thought was most effective around policing or security cooperation or education was really powerful.

So, ministerial visitors, there's an element of choreography, but I can assure you that I use it to get on-the-ground information and do a bit of wandering myself to actually understand. And that is complemented by the more formal consultation meetings, but it's really important. And, lastly, I do thank the DFAT team. There was a great – there would have been 50 or 60 locally engaged staff on a training course and I really encouraged them to be honest both with the rest of DFAT but with me about what we can do better.

Jacqui De Lacy: Minister, maybe just a quick follow‑up to Jo's point, and thank goodness I don't have to manage ministerial visits anymore, but one of the things in the aid policy that spoke really powerfully to me was the commitment to listening to diverse voices. So, you really want a strong partnership with the Pacific; talking to ministers and the government is really critical, but there are other really important players in these countries that contribute enormously to development impact and their voice is often harder to hear. I'm talking about civil society, women, so there's probably opportunity to push a bit harder in your visits to have more time and space to listen to those diverse voices and map out the commitment in the aid policy.

Minister Conroy: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right to say that listening to local voices isn't just listening to the government of the day. That's really important to acknowledge. They're a critical stakeholder they're not the only stakeholder. That's why we – one of the key centrepieces of this was the Civil Society Partnerships Fund, which is to grow that civil society in the country that we partner with so that we have, a, there's more civil space there, but secondly we have voices we can listen to. I always do try to make an effort. For example, when I was in PNG, I had dinner with a great PNG organisation called The Voice where there were just 20 local reps that was so powerful. I've met people and [indistinct] have come out here. We try to do that where we can as well. We recognise the really strong role churches play in the Pacific, for example. That's why we fund the Pacific Fellowship Church Program. I think I've mangled the name slightly, but that's really good, and I've spent time with them both in country and also when they've had fora here, and they don't hold back about what they think are the priorities and that's great, and I continue to encourage that.

Jacqui De Lacy: Great. Okay. I think we're at time. I want to thank you so much for coming, for talking about your priorities but also being available to answer questions from the audience. I think you've given us three or four challenges. I think the commitment to trying to find safe spaces to learn from what's worked and what hasn't is a really good one and fits neatly under your third challenge for us, but I think we'll take those challenges for during the day and, hopefully, be able to feed you lots of new good ideas on implementation. But thank you very much, Minister.

Minister Conroy: Thank you.

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