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COVID-19, Aid, and Australia’s Strategic Imagination

31 Mar 2022
By Dr Benjamin Day
Australian Embassy official Eva Yazon on site observing humanitarian relief efforts in Guiuan, The Philippines in 2014. Photographs: Gemma Haines / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,

As strategic competition in the Pacific ratchets up, so too does the temptation to frame Australia’s interests in narrow, security-oriented terms. For years, Australia’s aid response has remained stubbornly “targeted and temporary,” but neglecting the role of international development constitutes a failure of strategic imagination.

In mid-2020, just months into the pandemic, my colleague Tamas Wells and I interviewed 19 aid-friendly parliamentarians, canvassing their views on the impact they believed COVID-19 would have on the future shape of the Australian aid program. Three clear priorities emerged. First, respondents were keenly aware of the need to balance humanitarian needs and Australian interests. They appreciated that COVID-19 would impact Australia’s neighbours and were eager to assist. But at the same time, all MPs conceded Australia’s own health, security, and stability were important. They also recognised there was a kind of “reverse Jerry Maguire” dynamic at play — by helping others, Australia would ultimately be helping itself.

Second, parliamentarians on both sides of the political aisle were concerned about China’s growing influence in the region. They were alert to the possibility that China would leverage the pandemic to strengthen relationships, including through vaccine diplomacy. Third, almost all the parliamentarians involved were also concerned about a domestic backlash against the aid program at a time when many Australians were struggling with job cuts, lockdowns, and COVID-19.

On the basis of these interviews and additional analysis of Australia’s aid program, we concluded that, in the aftermath of the onset of COVID-19, a new political consensus was forming around Australian aid, one we labelled the “cautious consensus.” We ventured that the principles guiding this consensus were incrementalism, circumspection, and pragmatism. It has been almost two years since we conducted those interviews, and the looming federal election provides a useful juncture to consider the extent to which the cautious consensus still holds.

Aid and the Region: More Demand, Less Supply  

Early estimates of the global economic impact of COVID-19 indicated that the pandemic would lead to what The Economist dubbed “the great reversal” — for the first time since 1998, the number of people living in absolute poverty across the world increased. The World Bank’s latest figures now suggest that the pandemic saw 97 million people plunged back into absolute poverty in 2020 alone.

In the Pacific, the true scale of the suffering wrought by COVID-19 is slowly emerging. Even in the early days of the pandemic, the projected economic impact of global lockdowns prompted the Lowy Institute to warn that the Pacific was facing a “lost decade.” We also know that vaccinating the Pacific is proving more challenging than expected. At the end of 2021, the weighted average vaccination rate for the top ten recipients of Australian aid was just 20 percent.

The demand for aid has increased substantially since the onset of COVID-19, especially in the Pacific, but Australia has not risen to meet this demand. Rather, the government has remained “incremental, circumspect and pragmatic,” eagerly avoiding any permanent expansion of the aid program. Instead, it has provided temporary “COVID-19 response packages,” initially guided by a two-year “Partnerships for Recovery” strategy.  The government continued its penchant for  “temporary and targeted” aid spending in the 2022 budget, announcing a $318 million, two-year assistance package for the Pacific.

Challenging Australia’s Strategic Imagination

Perhaps naively, I had hoped there was potential for the pandemic to fast track a reconceptualisation of international development. I was not alone in this belief. Yet rather than attempting to integrate international development more effectively into its foreign policy, the evidence suggests that development policy is increasingly marginalised in the highest echelons of Australian foreign policy decision making. As the pandemic lingers and its consequences crystalise, Australia’s aid policy has become characterised by a troubling stasis, verging on paralysis.

Start by following the money. In real terms, Australia’s aid spending peaked in 2013-14. The same year, Australia’s aid budget was the equivalent of nearly $250 per citizen. In 2022-23, that figure is estimated to be $150. A decade ago, Australia spent a dollar on aid for every five spent on defence. That gap has grown — defence currently gets $10 for every dollar allocated to aid and will get $12 by 2025-26. Not only is this ratio unprecedented, but given Australia’s planned defence acquisitions, it will only continue to increase.

To a degree, this growing divergence is warranted. The Indo-Pacific is less secure than a decade ago, and Australia’s spending priorities will reflect this.

What we really need to follow is where political attention is allocated. As problematic as the ongoing decline in Australia’s aid spending is, more concerning is how rapidly aid has slid from the collective consciousness of senior political decisionmakers. Bridie Rice, for example, recently lamented how development policy is “something that sits in the footnotes or the margins of Australia’s engagement.” This reality was underscored by development policy being mentioned only once across two pre-election foreign policy speeches delivered at the Lowy Institute recently by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

Contrast this with what Paul Kelly, in his recently published book evaluating Morrison’s foreign policy, terms the “rising national security consciousness” in the Australian polity. Kelly documents how a “security focus” is entrenched in Morrison’s approach to foreign policy and, in turn, his government’s. Kelly finds, somewhat ominously, that “dissenters were few on the ground.”

Why, you might be asking, is this necessarily a problem? After all, isn’t Australia confronting an increasingly dangerous world?

In a powerful essay published last year, the late Brendan Sergeant wrote that Australia’s strategic policy “expresses our collective imagination of who we are and who we are not.” He was keenly aware that, “In those rare moments in a country’s history where a genuine choice must be made and action taken, a country’s strategic imagination becomes most visible.” Sergeant, who was careful to point out that strategic policy extended beyond the domain of defence, was concerned about the narrow framing of the conversation around strategic policy in Australia.

The ratcheting up of strategic competition is the biggest challenge to Australian foreign policy since WWII. While the gravity of the choices Australia faces may provoke fresh thinking, they also have the potential to constrict the scope of strategic imagination. My concern is that we are witnessing the latter — the crowding out of non-security matters from the Australian political consciousness is actually a manifestation of the sterility of its collective strategic imagination.

The rules-based order that Australia repeatedly says it wishes to uphold offered more to its stakeholders than simply security. So too must the emerging order that Australia seeks to play a role in creating. This is not to discount the centrality of national security to international order. Indeed, the liberal international order that served Australia so well for so long was undergirded by US military might. But the longevity of the US-led order owed much to the role development played within it and the way it offered a vision of a better future for the less fortunate.

“How are we to live in the Indo-Pacific in the 21st-century?” asked Sergeant. “This is not first a question of policy or strategy” he advises, but rather “a challenge to strategic imagination, to the ability to conceive of a different order and a different Australia within that order.”

Australia ignores the potential role international development can play in shaping our region, and the broader emerging international order, at its peril. It follows that the longer the “cautious consensus” on aid endures, the more pertinent an already pressing question will become — where is development in Australia’s strategic imagination?

Dr Benjamin Day is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Prior to academia, Ben worked in the international development sector for a decade as an aid worker, a consultant, and a program manger.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.