Dr Michelle Dunn explains the important role universities can play in developing and implementing effective aid programs in the Indo-Pacific region, while empowering communities and governments at all levels.
Every time I travel to the Indo-Pacific region, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I am proud to be managing aid programs funded by agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which aim to improve the social and economic prosperity of our regional neighbours. On the other hand, I am torn by the ongoing, deeply entrenched challenges that many communities face, despite the assistance that governments receive in the form of aid funding.
I found that the issues my research engages with – such as increasing insecurity and violence against women, women’s under-representation in decision-making and leadership roles, governance structures struggling to emulate Western ideals, and the widening gap between urban and rural opportunities and access to basic needs in terms of justice and services – were closely mirrored in the Indo-Pacific context. While the level of aid funding may differ between a country classified as ‘post-conflict’ and one classified as ‘developing or emerging’ (all of which exist in the Indo-Pacific region), my experience has taught me that many of the same challenges are faced and similar opportunities exist.
The processes of determining the level and type of aid funding that countries like Australia give to different regions, as well as the initiatives and programs developed and implemented, varies depending on a number of factors. These range from strategic and traditional relationships, changing national and international political landscapes, and, most recently, the changing face of major players in the donor sphere. Based on these factors, it’s important to determine what role Australia should play within a diverse and dynamic region like the Indo-Pacific.
We must look beyond the intent of particular programs and understand the actual impacts those programs have, not only on the direct recipients but on their social relations at work, at home and in their community.
My view is grounded in the feminist framework I employed throughout my research; the same view I utilise in my day-to-day management of a portfolio of UQ international development programs in the Pacific. Viewing aid programming through a gendered lens – with a particular emphasis on balancing the competing needs of socio-cultural, political and economic factors – requires focusing not only on the Australian aid programming policy documents and implementation plans, but also on the impact to Indo-Pacific communities at both local and national levels. Taking such an approach means looking beyond the intent of particular programs and understanding the actual impacts those programs have, not only on the direct recipients but on their social relations at work, at home and in their community.
Take, for example, the suite of programs that are delivered through the Pacific Leadership and Governance Precinct (the Precinct), in particular the UQ-managed Precinct Leadership Program (PLP). A core document examined through the PLP is the Gender Equity and Social Inclusion (GESI) policy of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) public service. The impact on participants who have been exposed to the GESI policy, across all aspects of their lives, has been encouraging. The ‘transfer of benefits’ that has occurred demonstrates how effective aid funding can be when it addresses core social values and norms. These results are further reinforced through other programs that recognise the need to address GESI issues, providing safe spaces for participants to process the implications of changing the way they think about certain social norms, while simultaneously supporting the broader economic benefits of accessing education opportunities through initiatives such as the Australia Awards.
Image: iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus / Ruben Ramos
The identification of mechanisms that deliver social impact and reduce reliance on traditional donors is another increasingly important area, and encapsulates the ‘transfer of benefits’ concept. My colleague in UQ’s International Development team, Senior Development Coordinator Joel Bird, explains that social enterprises and social-impact organisations are vehicles that can address social issues through supporting the economy of the local community, and can exhibit scalability and sustainability. Linking a business’s profit to its social impact provides clear benefits that reduce reliance on grants and donor funding.
"By providing connections to Australian or international expertise, Pacific entrepreneurs can access leading knowledge and expertise, propelling their enterprises into global markets."
Championing a social-impact perspective in the Indo-Pacific can foster innovation and entrepreneurship by building partnerships where DFAT and other donors act as a ‘partnership broker’ between communities, private sector and aid organisations/funders. This can provide greater benefit to local communities. For example, an entrepreneur in Samoa can leverage DFAT’s connections in Australia to access private-sector funds to grow their enterprise. If this business was a social enterprise providing employment to women in rural communities, its growth would assist not only the local economy, but also local employment and women’s empowerment. The key role that DFAT can play in such a scenario as a ‘partnership broker’ is to connect Pacific-based entrepreneurs with Australian funders, freeing up ‘development funding’ that can be aligned to other programs. According to Mr Bird, “by providing connections to Australian or international expertise, Pacific entrepreneurs can access leading knowledge and expertise, propelling their enterprises into global markets”.
So, what role can universities play in implementing aid programming and influencing policy? As I’ve mentioned, there are many approaches to – and perspectives on – aid funding. Institutions like UQ can best shape and influence key aid outcomes through an interdisciplinary and multi-perspective approach that is underpinned by world-class education, innovation and research.
An example of the influence that UQ is able to provide is reflected in the June 2018 UQ submission to a Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) Inquiry into The strategic effectiveness and outcomes of Australia's aid program in the Indo-Pacific and its role in supporting our regional interests. UQ’s International Development Manager, Indonesia and South-East Asia, Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller, recently recounted how UQ’s broad expertise was utilised to make specific recommendations in the JSCFADT submission on the need for greater research into the effectiveness of the private sector in building successful development opportunities, while ensuring that the innovation inherent within the private sector was maximised for the benefit of Australia's regional aid programs. It was also recommended that greater funding should be directed to postgraduate education programs, in particular those that support greater mobility between the region and Australian institutions.
UQ proposed that Australia's aid program should enhance and diversify its funding model to support more grassroots initiatives, such as micro-businesses that empower women and increase public–private partnerships that engage with local stakeholders and enable community business opportunities.
UQ has a diverse range of approaches and perspectives that can influence future policy and aid programming that are unique, innovative and effective. Through delivering programs that are part of the current aid programming in the Indo-Pacific, UQ is already influencing the content of training programs through sharing knowledge, education and training opportunities. This can be further leveraged through championing a research agenda that specifically addresses the key issues and challenges of aid programming in the Indo-Pacific region, drawn from the training programs and more broadly through cutting-edge research and partnerships.
Visit UQ's International Development website for more information on UQ's work and research into the Indo-Pacific region.
About the author
Dr Michelle Dunn joined UQ's International Development team as Manager, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific in 2017.
Dr Dunn has an extensive background in federal and state public sector organisations and experience in the private sector as a consultant with one of the leading global consulting organisations. Her experience spans areas of accounting, management, leadership, risk, humanities, political science and gender policy and practice. Across her career, Dr Dunn has demonstrated high-level project management skills and has worked across multi-stakeholder groups to achieve successful outcomes through evaluating organisational policies, processes and operations to provide high-level advice and recommendations to senior and executive management.
Her research focus has been on translating international gender policy into local practice within a post-conflict environment. She has also coordinated and taught School of Political Science and International Studies courses at UQ.
Image: Anjanette Webb