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Where First Nations Diplomacy and Gender Equality Intersect in the Pacific

24 Jun 2024
By Sarah Leary
Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, attended a Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme event. Alexandra Peek / DFAT /

Making stronger connections between how Australia does development at home and how it supports the development of Pacific partners is not just the right thing to do. Australia’s geopolitical circumstances demand a more collaborative path, one where shared decision-making sits at the heart of everything Australia says, designs, and does.

Powerful words have been written about the value of embedding First Nations perspectives in Australia’s foreign policy settings following the establishment of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) Office for First Nations International Engagement in 2023. The case for gender equity is just as clear and advanced by a global community of foreign policy analysts, business strategists, and development practitioners.

Framing why these two themes are distinctive features of Australian foreign policy is a useful place to start. But as a former diplomat with lived experience driving gender equality and Indigenous diplomacy initiatives in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, I spend more time thinking about the practice of it all. That is, the practice of moving beyond the “why” to grapple the more difficult “how.” Exploring the how helps create new knowledge. It helps nudge the needle of progress forward. Writing for Australian Outlook on the International Day of Women in Diplomacy is an excellent platform to do just that.

Progressing gender equality and Indigenous advancement share common themes around agency, leadership, and shared decision-making—but better connections can be made between these two priority areas of Australia’s international engagement. I’ll start by sharing some examples of where Australia’s gender equality and First Nations agendas are working well and then correlate these with some thoughts on where improvements might be found. A guiding principle is that effective and inclusive foreign, trade, and development outreach is the business of all Australians. At AU$4.9 billion annually, Australia’s aid budget can make a genuine impact on the lives of Indigenous peoples, and women and girls, if spent thoughtfully and well.

I’ve chosen to ground my reflections on the Pacific—home to the world’s most diverse range of indigenous cultures, a region of geopolitical significance, and a place where I have spent a great deal of time serving, living, and working. Let’s start with gender. What is working well? Where do the improvements lie?

The Pacific is a family of strong women and committed gender equality advocates, and Australia has a proud history of backing them. On posting in Solomon Islands from 2014-2017 I saw this work up close through the delivery of Australia’s flagship gender equality initiative at the time, Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development (PWSPD). This was a ten-year program operating in 14 Pacific countries to improve the political, economic, and social advancement of women in the Pacific.

One of the widely cited issues with PWSPD was that it lacked regional ownership. This was because it had been designed by Australia, in consultation with the region, rather than designed by Australia in collaboration with the region. One of the implications of this vertical design and delivery model was that staff in Canberra, DFAT Pacific posts, and international aid organisations ended up managing over 50 percent of program expenditure. While grassroots women’s organisations did receive support through PWSPD, they had limited decision-making power in setting the overall scope and strategic direction of the program.

In 2020, DFAT did well to respond to the collective advocacy from the Pacific Community (PC), recommending Australia adjust its factory settings towards a more collaborative path to gender equality in the Pacific. This led to the development of Pacific Women Lead, (AU$170 million over 5 years, 2021-2026) which was designed in much closer partnership with regional partners and with a stronger emphasis on Pacific-led approaches to gender equality (including prioritising Pacific voices and ownership through a strategic Governance Board and more partnerships with grassroots Pacific women’s organisations as key delivery partners).

This episode is a good example of Australia shifting its thinking and approach in “how things are done” to achieve better ownership of gender equality outcomes in the Pacific. I am hopeful the next iteration of Pacific Women Lead (beyond 2026) will take this shared decision-making story even further.

At the activity level, there is still a heavy emphasis on research, training, and workshops in Australia’s gender equality settings in the Pacific (I shudder to think how much aid goes toward such budget lines) and I’ve been a steady advocate for funding women’s jobs and salaries in the Pacific over reports and workshops.

Attending training and workshops do play a role in building the confidence of individual women, but it gives less attention to changing gender norms at the family and community level. This is where Australia’s (non-Official Development Assistance) efforts to promote the growth of professional women’s sport in the Pacific has been so interesting to watch in recent years because it has created a new generation of role models and nationally celebrated female sports heroes that others can admire and follow.

Some say that using Australian aid to support women’s salaries in the Pacific—in any sector—lacks sustainability. But the long-term ripples created by this type of expenditure are far more sustainable than the immediate splash of a World Bank or Asian Development Bank-funded report which are frequently written by western consultants, published in English, and rarely distributed beyond Pacific capitals.

What of Australia’s Indigenous diplomacy efforts in the Pacific? What is working well? Where do the improvements lie?

This is an old story, and one that goes back centuries. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been interacting with the neighbouring lands and peoples of the Pacific for a very long time, in areas of trade, commerce, culture and kinship, lore, and more. These threads of connection were loosened during colonialisation but never lost.

What I appreciate most about the contemporary emphasis Australia is placing on First Nations foreign policy is that we are now witnessing the rebuilding of these historic connections across a growing community of Indigenous scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, and thought leaders in Australia and the Pacific.

I’m excited by the platform this is giving to Indigenous people to connect and rebuild together. This includes the work of the Aboriginal Carbon Credit Foundation, the historic focus on local communities at a UN climate meeting staged on Kuku Yalanji Country last year, which brought together Indigenous peoples from Australia and the Pacific, and through the creation of new cross-border investment projects in Indigenous cloud computing. Long may the ripples and waves of Australia’s First Nations foreign policy agenda continue.

Where I am seeing this agenda struggling to gain traction is, surprisingly, in the development space. The lessons of localisation taught to us by Pacific Women Lead are not progressing systemically across Australia’s development program. As I’ve written previously, despite the recent growth in Indigenous-led design terminology, it is still common to see designs tendered, consulted, written, and approved by DFAT without equal or majority involvement from Pacific leaders, communities, and thought-leaders.

We know that locally-led development works. Indeed the 2022-23 Federal Budget announced Australia will work to establish a national centre to support more inclusive place-based partnerships between communities, governments, the non-government sector, business, and investors. It not too late for DFAT to tap into this work to ensure it is using the lessons of Indigenous-led development to inform its transition towards locally-led development practice in the Pacific.

This is a reminder that the richest tool of statecraft Australia is yet to fully release in the Pacific is that of its Australian Public Service-wide capabilities. There are so many instances of comparable practice DFAT can be drawing upon to strengthen development practice in the Pacific, from the work of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to rural and remote community development initiatives managed by the National Indigenous Australians Agency, among many more.

Making stronger connections between how Australia does development at home and how we support the development of our Pacific partners is not just the right thing to do from an ethical, development, gender or Indigenous perspective. Our geopolitical circumstances demand a more collaborative path, and one where the practice of shared decision-making sits at the heart of everything we say, design, and do.

Sarah Leary is a former diplomat and First Nations Foreign Policy Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre. As a diplomat she served on postings to Solomon Islands, Vietnam, Cambodia and the US and also as an advisor to Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls. She writes about trade, development, trade and gender issues in the Indo-Pacific and is studying Pacific integration at the London School of Economics. She is a proud Palawa/Tommeginne woman from Lutruwita country, Tasmania.

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