Making connections for tomorrow by Michelle Dunn

Dr Michelle Dunn, Manager of the International Development unit has been featured in UQ's Contact Magazine. Dr 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.

Excerpt from Contact Magazine

“Making connections for tomorrow
Influencing Australian aid programming in the Indo-Pacific

Opinion: by Dr Michelle Dunn

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.

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”.

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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.

 Visit UQ's International Development website for more information on UQ's work and research into the Indo-Pacific region.

Last updated:
23 August 2019