In our latest opinion piece, Nicholas Ferns, author of the recently published Australia in the Age of International Development, 1945–1975: Colonial and Foreign Aid Policy in Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia (Palgrave), describes the decline of Australian aid to our region. Reviewing decades of developmental policy to the Pacific and south-east Asia, he argues that the challenges presented by COVID and increased Chinese activity suggest Australia should redouble its humanitarian efforts.


Recent announcements by the Morrison Government regarding defence spending have raised important questions about Australia’s engagement with our immediate region. Rising defence spending is expected for the next decade, informed by an assumption that Australia will face strategic challenges unmatched “since the 1930s and early 1940s”.

PR Handout Image, LSIS Helen Frank. Via AAP Photos.

This growth in defence spending has not been matched by a corresponding increase in Australian foreign aid. While the government has issued a COVID-19 response strategy for the developing countries in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, it has put on hold a reassessment of development policy. Foreign aid spending is also at its lowest rate as a percentage of gross national income (GNI) since the early 1960s.

The current pandemic crisis has also occurred amid rising Chinese interest in providing aid to Pacific Island countries. This has sparked concern amongst many policymakers at the increase of Chinese influence in the region. In an area recognised as Australia’s ‘backyard’, the proximity of an apparent strategic rival is perceived as a source for concern.

Historical factors shape this concern. The concept of the Pacific as Australia’s backyard offers a friendly euphemism for the colonial relationships between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru, in addition to its hegemonic position in the region more broadly. China’s rising interest challenges Australia’s primacy in the South Pacific, forcing a strategic reconsideration.

Foreign aid has always had a strategic dimension, as poverty has often been considered a source of geopolitical insecurity. Nevertheless, it has always been fundamentally about ‘development’, a term that has always been elusive to define, but can generally be seen as a process that seeks to transform societies through increased production of, and access to, various goods and services.

Recent Australian policies suggest a growing divergence between strategic and developmental objectives in Australian foreign policy. Data from the ANU Development Policy Centre supports this, showing that the ratio of defence-to-aid-spending has grown to unprecedented levels and is only expected to grow even further. This suggests a defence-oriented response to increased Chinese aid in the Pacific.

Tension between strategic and developmental goals has always been present in Australian policies towards the developing areas to its north. As my recently published book shows, this issue has occupied Australian policymakers since the end of the Second World War. During the ‘Age of International Development’ – 1945 to 1975 – Australia was an active participant in the establishment of the developmental system that emerged out of the collapse of European colonial rule and the strategic imperatives of the Cold War.

In Australia’s colonial possession of PNG, one of the first objectives of the Chifley Labor Government was to establish a ‘New Deal’ for PNG. In keeping with the developmental and humanitarian requirements of the United Nations Trusteeship Council, which oversaw Australia’s colonial administration, Australian spending in PNG grew from £42,500 in 1938/9 to £3.2 million a decade later.

Former Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Universal Images Group via AAP Photos.

This process continued under the Menzies Coalition Government in the 1950s and 1960s, as long-time Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck oversaw the (deliberately) slow process of development in PNG. While Hasluck saw PNG’s independence – the apparent end goal of colonial development policy – as still generations away, Australian policy was marked by consistent increases in development funding.

The other major site of Australian aid in the decades following the Second World War was the Colombo Plan. Established in 1950, the Plan was a Commonwealth aid program aimed at promoting the development of countries in South and Southeast Asia. Millions of pounds were spent on programs of economic and technical assistance, which famously included thousands of students from Asia studying at Australian universities.

While clearly associated with the Cold War fear of the spread of communism in areas suffering from poverty, the Colombo Plan was also driven by developmental and humanitarian concerns. In the opening lines of his speech to parliament on the merits of the Plan, External Affairs Minister Percy Spender explained that “on humanitarian grounds we cannot ignore the basic needs of such a large and important section of the world’s population.” Development was always a fundamental feature of Australia’s relations with the post-war world.

This fact is borne out by spending figures. The Development Policy Centre’s aid tracker presents the period from the early 1960s through to the mid-1980s as a high point in Australian aid. While this story is complicated by the fact that until 1975 much of this figure was colonial spending (a central point in my book), this still demonstrates a firm engagement with development. Recent changes suggest this may no longer be the case.

A look around the world suggests that it doesn’t have to be this way. Whereas Australia’s aid spending is set to fall to below 0.2% of GNI in the next year or so, the United Kingdom has maintained a target of 0.7%. The decline in Australian aid spending indicates a clear disengagement with the developmental imperatives that had informed foreign policy for the past 75 years.

This is of particular interest given the current global situation. While the pandemic is causing dramatic economic damage throughout the world, it could be argued that this is a time when more aid will be required, rather than less. This is even more pressing given the Australian concerns over Chinese aid to the South Pacific.

The projected increases in defence spending demonstrate that the funding exists for Australian engagement with the rest of the world. History suggests that the extreme focus on defence over development is a departure from over fifty years of Australian engagement with its region.

Nicholas Ferns
Nicholas Ferns

Nicholas Ferns is a Teaching and Research Associate at Monash University. His research examines the history of Australian foreign aid and colonial policy after the Second World War. He is the author of Australia in the Age of International Development, 1945-1975: Colonial and Foreign Aid Policy in Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). His research has also been published in Australian and international journals, including The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Australian Historical Studies, and Diplomacy and Statecraft