Dr Jeni Whalan lectures in Development Studies at the University of New South Wales.

Danielle Cave this week called out the poor quality of Australia's public debate on aid. And she's right, of course.

When the Government announced at budget time that it would take an extra year to reach the aid target of 0.5% GNI (still 0.2% short of the target set globally back in the 1970s), we heard more public debate on aid in a single day than we have for the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, it was the usual horse-trading commentary for which the Australian debate has become renowned, a battle between aid advocates (usually representing organisations whose work benefits from a larger Australian aid budget), aid sceptics (who usually have little other engagement with development policy), and the Government's fiscal managers.

The more robust aid debate Danielle calls for needs to create a fourth pole in this otherwise familiar, politicised landscape.

To do so, it needs to establish a few initial parameters. For starters, aid is not benevolent charity, but neither is it an extravagance that Australia can't afford. More aid does not necessarily produce better development, but aid is neither dead (the case from the political right) nor a neo-colonial instrument of oppression (the case from the left). Development is rarely linear or equitable; instead, development is a highly political process that inevitably creates winners and losers. The purposes, design and evaluation of aid are also highly political.

Oh, and we know very little about what really works in development assistance.

To me, this is fertile ground for rigorous, sustained policy debate on aid.

So why isn't it happening? As Danielle notes, Australia lacks the well-developed research institutes devoted to development, though the ANU's newly endowed Development Policy Centre and of course the Lowy Institute can surely be expected to turn the tide.

But I think there are a few other things going on. The first is the insularity of Australian Government. Sure, Australia lacks the tradition of experts moving between government, think tanks and universities for which DC and (increasingly) London are known, and that probably won't change soon. But what could change quickly is a decision by AusAID to let its officials off the leash more often to engage in frank, open exchanges of ideas (a point I've made elsewhere about DFAT).

Second, there's a surprisingly small community of social scientists in Australia doing serious research on what works in aid and why. Australian development research is strong on anthropology and critical theory, but weak on the social scientific approaches that can best inform policy debate: large-n comparative work, for example, or explanatory political science, development economics and the kinds of randomised evaluations on which MIT's Poverty Action Lab is leading the way.

Finally, practice is simply ahead of analysis. The emergence of AusAID as a sizeable international donor is still fairly recent, the result not only of Labor's aid target but also of a highly valued Australian dollar and the effects of fiscal austerity in Europe. As Australia's aid budget continues to grow, albeit slightly less quickly than planned, a UN report released in September found that global aid flows declined in 2011 for the first time in years.

So what's to be done? Once we agree that we should be debating aid more seriously, where should we focus attention?:

  1. Development data: why is data on basic development indicators still so poor in the top recipients of Australian aid? Others have highlighted the problems of bad data in Africa, but in the Pacific it's often missing entirely, despite AusAID's commitment to monitoring and evaluation of its aid program.
  2. What role do aid contractors play in the delivery of Australian aid? How does this compare with other bilateral aid donors? What are the implications for accountability?
  3. Development policy beyond aid: as the Center for Global Development's Owen Barder argued this week, development is not synonymous with aid. Twenty-first century development policy will fail if it focuses simply on the transfer of resources from rich to poor; it must also address the full suite of global public goods, including trade policy and global financial regulation. I hope this is on the agenda of the Lowy Institute's new G20 Studies Centre.
  4. 'Fragility' in development: AusAID has embraced fragility as a priority for its aid program, in lock step with the World Bank and OECD-DAC. Australia is also a strong supporter of the g7+ group of (self-nominated) fragile and conflict-affected states and the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States agreed in Busan last year. But what will it really take for Australia to truly 'align' its development policies with recipient country priorities?

I for one would also love to hear what AusAID thinks is worth debating.

Photo by Flickr user Australian Civil-Military Centre.