Brayden Howie delves into the profound shift in motive underpinning Australia’s new International Development Policy, offering a blueprint for more effective, values-driven global engagement on this International Day of Charity.

As the sector has digested the new International Development Policy over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noted several themes in the opinions of people in the sector. Many commentators have noted the return of a more complete set of ‘statecraft’ tools with the return of international development back into the tool kit. Others have noted that there is no new funding commitment, so without change Australia will remain decidedly ungenerous when compared with other wealthy nations. Others have noted the emphasis on climate change, the aim to build more effective and accountable states within our region, and the emphasis on blended financing models as a catalyser for economic growth, reducing poverty, and improving quality of life.

All are important points, but I’ve read nothing on what I saw as the most fundamental shift in the new International Development Policy. What is this fundamental shift?

The motive.

I’ve been at this international development caper for most of my adult life, and if I could distil what I’ve learned from it into one simple idea it would be this: values drive behaviour.

To extrapolate a little, international development is essentially an exercise in change – changes to systems and structure, and changes in behaviour. Obviously, these changes occur at all levels, from international economic systems and governance, to individual choices and actions. But key to driving change in all these areas – be they through changes in knowledge, changes in opinions, or changes in behaviours – are the values made most prominent in the decision making.

There is a prominent theory in the study of values that places two of four broad categorisations of values as counterpoints to each other – one of these emphasises one’s own needs and preferences, and the other emphasises the needs and preferences of the collective and others. Where our core values are positioned will say a lot about the behaviour that flows.

At this level, the new International Development Policy is a grand departure from the previous one. The previous policy had a first chapter that consisted of four lines, two of which spoke to the motivation of our International Development assistance: to promote Australia’s national interests by contributing to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.

We did International Development to promote our own interests.

Should we therefore have been surprised when some of our own neighbours acted similarly, and chose to explore alliances with other foreign powers seeking influence in the region?

The new International Development Policy states our values very differently. The entire first chapter is devoted to attempting to articulate the Australian values that the policy is based upon: our global connections and the diversity of our people; universal rights and freedoms and the rule of law; a commitment to global progress and prosperity; democracy and freedom of expression; the shared natural environment and biodiversity that connects our region; an open economic system; the sharing of expertise and knowledge; and, a commitment to equality and equity. Without the slightest hint of irony, Chapter 4 is aptly titled: A Development Program that Advances our Shared Interests (emphasis mine).

Understanding motivations helps a great deal in understanding what change is possible, and where to start from in a changemaking process. Seeing an International Development policy that reflects at least an elementary understanding that values are the starting point is a positive step forward, and to me is the basis for optimism that we may see improved results over that which came before.

Another important emphasis in the role of locally led change. The countries and communities we partner with have come so far over the decades that development assistance has been flowing. Of course, we hear of the very few exceptions that have lost ground due to conflict, or poor leadership, but the vast majority of countries and communities have done exceedingly well in growing and sustaining the capability for locally led initiatives.

We must move past the days of externally designed and led development initiatives, and build on the capability that has been developed nationally. It’s really encouraging to see that Australia is now committed to providing a fund to support local civil society organisations. It is also encouraging to see a growing trend of Australian philanthropists investing directly in local organisations.

At AOP we have been doing this for decades, and this year with the support of an Australian philanthropist we are launching our Social Entrepreneur Fellowship Program to directly support social innovators in developing countries with local development innovations that have potential to scale.

In the Federated States of Micronesia we are supporting a fantastic locally designed approach to engage communities in new ocean aquaculture ventures. New sustainable methods of farming fish and ornamental products within the ocean environment are being introduced, and reversing the damage from unsustainable fishing, environmental degradation, and even leading to improvements in nutrition. All through initiatives that could only have been designed locally within the context they are required, but building on the impressive skills, experience, and research capability now available within the country.

This shift in recognising, valuing, and trusting the local capability of our partner communities is a reflection of our own values, and it is pleasing to see.

So why do I raise all this today? After all it is the International Day of Charity, not the International Day of Foreign Policy.

Because values drive our own behaviour – our personal values are even more important than our national values. And personal giving is just as important, if not more so, than official development funding. It is a vital complement because private giving improves innovation and agility, can be better targeted, can accept more risk, often comes with cross-sector expertise, can commit to longer term initiatives, is able to catalyse additional investment, and can explore innovative financing mechanisms.

Private development investment (the more mature form of charitable giving!) alongside public funding is critical for achieving the more equitable world that all reasonable people desire. When it comes to global problems, investments led first by our shared values will achieve better results than those led by our own self interests. The question is, are we courageous enough to allow our true values to drive our actions? I for one certainly hope so.

Brayden Howie is CEO of Action on Poverty