September 30, 2021



Thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference.

Congratulations to ACFID for finding a virtual platform to allow the conference to go ahead in these uncertain and testing times.

This is an important annual event for the aid and development community in Australia and in our region.

And the times make it more important than ever to bring the sector together; to share views, ideas and experiences; and to discuss the issues we face.

I want to acknowledge the role played by ACFID – and to thank your president Susan Pascoe, CEO Marc Purcell, board members, office holders and staff.

The federal Opposition has greatly benefited from our engagement with ACFID and its member organisations as we develop our policies on international development.

The fact that we are meeting virtually today means we are meeting from many locations.

So I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the many lands on which we meet – including the First Nations peoples of the countries of the Pacific – and to pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

The theme of your conference is “The Defining Decade.”

It’s a good description of the coming period.

The decade of the 2020s has opened with the biggest international development crisis in a generation.

And the decade will close with the final report card on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the transformative action plan embraced by world leaders in 2015 to eradicate poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change.

From today’s vantage point, the outlook for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by the end of this defining decade is not a good one.

Even before the pandemic, the pace of poverty alleviation had been slowing, geopolitical tensions had been rising and international cooperation was coming under strain.

And we now face a global pandemic which has hit the world’s most vulnerable people hardest – and which risks creating economic scarring that will hinder development for years to come.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a multi-dimensional health, economic, social and humanitarian crisis.

It is throwing up new difficulties for the world’s development actors – for political leaders; governments; multilateral and regional institutions; aid NGOs; development agencies, practitioners and contractors.

I want to thank so many of the people and organisations in this room who have risen to these challenges over the last two years.
Australian aid NGOs and contractors have been highly innovative, devising new ways to implement their programs in a pandemic-stricken world.

To acknowledge just a few:

• When COVID closed schools in Nepal, Adara Development partnered with local schools and radio stations to broadcast four hours of interactive classes, six days a week, to keep children engaged in education.
• In Cambodia, World Vision re-engineered its program for connecting small farmers to markets to focus on COVID’s health and economic impacts on poor farmers – then pivoted its activities again when the country was hit by severe flooding in October last year.
• In Papua New Guinea, Caritas Australia mobilised an extensive network of churches to distribute PPE to thousands of health workers in remote villages, and marshalled trusted local church leaders and teachers to educate people on COVID.
• And in Vanuatu, Action Aid Australia worked with a network of women formed after Cyclone Pam to distribute information on COVID prevention measures to thousands of people in communities around the country.

Australians can be proud of the role of our development NGOs in helping our neighbours respond to this crisis.

A key element in those responses has been your ability to work with trusted local civil society networks.

As your conference theme attests, this will be the defining decade.

The fallout from the health crisis will continue to be felt over a period measured in years, not months.

Over the coming years the pandemic’s impacts will be compounded by new threats to development, and by new forces which have the potential to drag millions more into extreme poverty.

This means that the effort, the commitment and the resources we devote to international development need not just to be maintained, but to be boosted over the coming decade.

The World Bank has identified three major drivers of poverty that the world will need to confront during the 2020s: COVID, conflict and climate change.

I want to share some views on each of these three drivers of vulnerability and disadvantage.


First, COVID.

According to the World Bank’s most recent estimates, COVID has seen the number of people living in extreme poverty rise to 732 million in 2020 – the number of people struggling to survive on less than $US1.90 a day is now 30 times the population of Australia.

That’s an increase of 77 million compared to 2019.

And it’s 97 million higher than projections for 2020 without the COVID downturn.

2020 was the first year in the last two decades to see an increase in the level of extreme poverty.

COVID’s impact has been larger than the impact of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998.

The Sustainable Development Goals seek to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 – in one year COVID has reversed the previous four years of progress towards that goal.

The impact of COVID on hunger has been stark.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the number of people facing hunger during rose to 768 million in 2020 – an increase of 118 million compared to 2019 and the highest level of global hunger since 2005.

The FAO reported that the major drivers of hunger and food insecurity include economic downturns which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign famously adopted the mantra “It’s the economy, stupid.”

COVID has brought home the centrality of economic growth for human and social development goals.

This is a health crisis but its development impacts flow primarily through economic channels.

Closures of international borders have shut down industries like tourism in the Pacific and Southeast Asia and curtailed migration, which has reduced flows of remittances to developing countries.

Public health measures imposed to contain the pandemic have pushed firms out of business and destroyed jobs in developed and developing countries alike.

But developing economies have less resilience, are often less diversified and have thinner social safety nets, making their people far more vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic shock.

The economic impacts have fallen hardest on low-income countries and, within low and middle income countries, on the poorest members of these communities.

Economic depressions in a number of nations have led to political and civil instability and rising crime levels.

The road to recovery for developing countries requires concerted support from developed countries focussing on both healthcare and economic recovery.

Donor countries and multilateral and regional development institutions need to support the roll-out of vaccines and provide more resources for hospitals and healthcare.

They also need to support economic recovery through financial flows from Official Development Assistance and by providing liquidity and fiscal support through the international financial institutions.

Over time, countries like Australia can also contribute to economic recovery by introducing COVID-safe travel bubbles in the Pacific.

These can support the rebuilding of tourism and the return and expansion in the number of Pacific migrant workers whose earnings are a significant source of remittance flows for their families and communities.

Unfortunately the Morrison Government’s failure to effectively roll out vaccines and implement a national quarantine system have not only hurt Australians.

These failures are also making it harder for Australia to play a role in solutions for the economic impacts in developing countries in our region.

Compounding these systematic failures is the announcement of a poorly conceived and incoherently explained Agriculture Visa.

Minister Littleproud has already stated that the new visa will have fewer protections than the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Schemes; thereby undermining them.

This will inevitably destroy these visas and the valuable remittances they provide to the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

In coming years, development assistance will also need to focus on the risk of long-term damage to the health, education and economic prospects of the people hardest hit by the downturn.

Children withdrawn early from schooling.

Urban workers pushed into the informal sector.

People left with lasting health impacts from malnourishment and disease.

The impacts of COVID in developing countries risk not only locking vulnerable individuals out of recovery, but could also reduce the long-term economic growth potential of low income countries.

Development programs need to go beyond vaccines and humanitarian assistance, and beyond fiscal support for recovery, to include the human investments needed to ensure COVID does not inflict permanent economic scarring on our development partners.

The world made unprecedented development gains in the 1990s and 2000s largely on the back of transformative economic growth in East Asia and South Asia.

But we cannot take it for granted that the trends of the last two decades will bounce back once the pandemic passes.

Even before COVID the pace of poverty reduction had slowed.

Between 1990 and 2015, the global extreme poverty rate fell by around 1 percentage point a year.

However, between 2015 and 2019, the poverty rate fell by less than half a percentage point a year.

Getting poverty reduction back on track will require development partnerships that boost sustainable and equitable economic growth.

It will require increased support from the international donor community.

And it will require increased emphasis on the economic and governance reforms, and the investments in physical infrastructure and human capital, that will lift the growth potential of low-income countries.

Conflict and fragility

Perhaps the most intractable barriers to development are violent conflict and state fragility.

In countries afflicted by war, civil conflict and lawlessness, progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals is virtually impossible.

Domestic and international actors struggle to respond to the immediate humanitarian crises and human tragedies, let alone put these societies on a meaningful development path.

In addition to conflict, many countries’ development prospects are weighed down by institutional fragility – from corruption, poor governance and social divisions to governments lacking the capacity, resources and legitimacy they need to deliver services and opportunities for their people.

As the World Bank has pointed out, one of the increasingly salient features of global poverty is its growing association with fragility and conflict.

From 2000 to 2019, poverty rates fell sharply in developing countries that did not experience conflict or fragility.

By contrast, in countries affected by violence or fragile institutions, poverty rates fell only marginally or even increased over this period.

The World Bank currently lists 39 countries subject to conflict or high institutional or social fragility.

These 39 countries account for around 10 per cent of the world’s population but more than 40 per cent of the global poor.

As we look to the coming decade, a major concern must be that too many of these countries will remain trapped in cycles of chronic conflict or fragility that condemn their populations to lives of deprivation and despair.

Many of you who have worked in the Middle East and Africa will have experienced first-hand the debilitating impacts of conflict and would appreciate the profound difficulties for aid and development policy in these settings.

Our own region is not immune from conflict as the military coup in Myanmar has demonstrated.

Fragile institutions, poor governance, a lack of transparency and accountability, shortfalls in public sector capacity and under-developed business sectors are also significant issues for many of Australia’s development partners.

The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be fully realised without countries breaking out of the conflict and fragility cycle.

This requires building the institutions and forging the social trust needed to grow economies, attract investment, boost government revenues and deliver effective public services and policies for social inclusion and equity.

These are difficult tasks.

And while there are clearly no easy solutions the lack of progress over many years suggests there must be room for new thinking and new approaches.

The UK Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development has argued that international actors should not impose policy solutions from outside, but need to pragmatically assist and empower domestic actors in the long-haul task of improving institutions and governance.

As the Commission’s recent report puts it: “Homegrown solutions and locally-negotiated coalitions of governments, businesses and civil society are the things that will make well-designed international support more likely to be effective.”

Civil society has a central role to play here by:

• Giving a voice to the disadvantaged
• Fostering debates about national policies and priorities
• Providing checks and balances to improve governance
• And helping to build social and political values and norms.

This is an area where development policy and governments cannot do it all.

We need greater coordination between development, diplomacy and defence policy – and we need greater involvement by non-government organisations and civil society.

So I congratulate ACFID and the International Development Contractors Community for their support for the new Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue.

I hope this initiative can help generate new ideas on how Australia can tackle issues of conflict, security, governance and state fragility in our region.

Climate change

If conflict and fragility are long-standing problems that need a new focus, climate change is a new development challenge that will move decisively from the realm of forecasts to reality over the next decade.

Climate change is bringing higher temperatures, changed rainfall patterns, more frequent and intense extreme weather events, ocean warming and acidification, sea level rise and saltwater incursion.

These climate impacts will translate into development impacts because they will fall more heavily on the poor and the disadvantaged.

At an individual level, the impacts will be on people’s health, their access to fresh water, damage to housing because of more frequent severe storms and flooding, and the potential for rising food prices and food shortages due to the impacts of climate change on agriculture.

Millions of people are already going hungry due to the impact of more frequent and intense droughts, floods, heat spells and storms on food production.

The number of low and middle-income countries exposed to climate extremes has risen over the past twenty years, from 76 per cent of countries in 2000 to 2004 to 98 per cent in 2015 to 2020.

At an economy-wide level, the impacts of climate change include damage to physical infrastructure, increased macroeconomic volatility in countries highly exposed to natural disasters, and disruption to industry structures in sectors like agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

World Bank modelling estimates that climate change will push an additional 38 to 100 million people globally into extreme poverty in 2030 – that is comparable to the impact of COVID-19.

In development terms, climate change is a slower moving version of the pandemic.

Helping developing countries prepare for and adapt to climate change must be a high priority for Australia’s aid program given that South Asia and the Pacific are amongst the regions most exposed.

Climate change is estimated to push an additional 35.7 million people in South Asia into extreme poverty and an additional 7.5 million in East Asia and the Pacific.

The modelling shows that it is climate change’s health effects which have the biggest impact on poverty in East Asia and the Pacific.

This means investments in healthcare are one of the ways in which development assistance can reduce the vulnerability of poor households to climate change.

In the low-lying island countries of the Pacific, investments in protecting infrastructure and in natural disaster resilience will also need to be a priority.

More broadly, faster and more inclusive growth will improve resilience to climate impacts – by promoting economic development we can reduce the vulnerability of the poorest households to climate change.

So good development policy is good climate adaptation policy.

And good climate mitigation policy is good development policy.

Unfortunately the Morrison Government is failing on both counts.

Its inadequate domestic emissions reductions policies mean Australia is not contributing its fair share to climate change mitigation efforts.

And the Morrison Government has cut Australian aid for climate change impacts.

OECD data shows that Australian bilateral Official Development Assistance targeting climate mitigation has been cut by 36 per cent from 2013 to 2018 and Australian ODA supporting climate adaptation has been cut by 31 per cent over that period.

These cuts have hit programs in some of our most important regional development partners.

In Indonesia the former Labor Government provided $75.3 million over seven years for the Indonesia-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership to support activities by local communities and the Indonesian Government to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

When it came to office, this Government ended the Forest Carbon Partnership and provided no aid funding at all for climate change projects in Indonesia during its first three years in office.

It took devastating forest fires in Indonesia for the Liberal Government to restore an Australian development project focussing on forestry management in Indonesia, in the form of the Indonesia-Australia Partnership for Environmental Governance.

But the Morrison Government has provided significantly lower funding of $10.2 million over four years for this project.

The Morrison Government has also pulled Australia out of multilateral climate finance initiatives.

These are retrogressive cuts that will only serve to deepen the threat that climate change presents to Australia’s development partners.

Labor will take a different approach, both on domestic policies to ensure Australia can realise the opportunities of a low carbon future, and on the international development policies needed to promote prosperity in a world impacted by climate change.


COVID’s profound impacts on international development have demonstrated that the Coalition’s $11.8 billion in cuts to Australian Official Development Assistance during its time in office were incredibly short-sighted.

And now we face a new decade which will see the impacts of COVID magnified by new development challenges.

This is a time for rebuilding Australia’s international development program, not a time for applying temporary band-aids then resuming the cuts – which is how the Morrison Government has responded to the biggest development crisis in a generation.

Labor believes a strong international development program is a key part of Australia’s foreign policy.

It’s the way we support economic, social and human development in our region.

It’s the way we express our values as nation – support for democracy, the rule of law, human rights and people’s aspirations to live in peace and prosperity.

It’s also in Australia’s national interests – because a strong and effective development program will enhance security and stability in our region.

Labor will have more to say about our policies on international development in the coming period.

But I have set out for you today some of the main challenges we see over the coming decade:

• Supporting recovery from the economic and health impacts of COVID
• Tackling the profound problems of conflict and institutional and social fragility
• And playing our part as a responsible international citizen on climate change.

These challenges mean Australia not only needs a well-resourced international development program.

They also mean that Government will need to work creatively and flexibly with NGOs and civil society.

I hope you have a productive conference.

ACFID’s members do critical work for the people of the developing world – you bring to the table valuable experience, insights and perspectives that those of us in politics need to hear.

So, thank you for all the work you do.

On behalf of Labor I look forward to continuing to work closely with the development sector as we head to the next election and beyond.