The new Government of Australia will soon join the ranks of a number of Western governments that have in various ways brought humanitarian as well as development assistance more closely aligned with the political dimensions of foreign policy. Canada is another recent case in point, and the US Government’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) has clearly linked US aid to what it describes as a blueprint for elevating American ‘civilian power’ to better advance our national interests and to be a better partner to the U.S. military. Other governments including Denmark, Norway and Sweden have at least ‘sheltered’ their aid sections within foreign policy establishments.

And, this trend may continue. As a growing number of traditional donor governments feel compelled to justify aid expenditures to an increasingly sceptical electorate, there is an increasing tendency to explain the provision of foreign assistance in terms of self-serving national interests. This, suggested Randolph Kent, to an AusAid seminar in Canberra on 10 October, can result in what he described as ‘principled aid’ if such foreign policy ‘takeovers were put in the context of the changing nature of humanitarian crises and the institutional challenges that they posed for governments of affected populations as well as for donor governments.’

Kent’s argument rested on the proposition that more and more humanitarian crises will challenge the very survival of governments of the affected, and that for donors the interplay between governments’ concerns about the impact of humanitarian crises upon their survival and humanitarian assistance offers two opportunities. The first is that such governments will increasingly resist the ‘boots on the ground’ emergency responses of the traditional humanitarian sector, and instead seek technologies and advice for dealing with means to enhance resilience, including in this instance crisis prevention and preparedness. Hence, for institutions such as AusAid, the growing importance of resilience-related requirements brings humanitarian assistance very much to the fore.

However, according to Kent, this does not necessarily mean that foreign policy establishments will take the lead on to whom and how humanitarian assistance will be used, but rather offers the opportunity for aid organisations to take the lead in identifying and defining the types of needs that are needed to be provided in many instances to guide foreign policy.

The proposition for AusAid and other organisations that find themselves in similar situations will depend upon their willingness to be more proactive than is normally the case in such institutional takeovers. It, too, will depend upon their recognition that new types of partnerships will enhance a more proactive approach. Many private sector organisations, for example, accept the importance of resilience-related initiatives as essential to their overseas business interests. That additional voice is the type that could well add to the guidance and catalytic role that aid organisations need to play as part of foreign policy establishments.

‘While few humanitarian actors would welcome the seeming integration of aid organisations into the foreign policy machinery of government,’ concluded the speaker, ‘there are ways to turn the tables in many instances of who is guiding whom. In this sense, there is a way to promote a politicisation process that is principled.’