Aid and soft power: handle with care
DFAT is currently carrying out a review into soft power in Australia’s foreign policy.
Aid and development policy, used to general neglect in wider foreign policy circles, tends to be a soft power darling. It will no doubt be substantially discussed as part of this review, as it should.
The significant contributions of aid and development to soft power are outlined in our submission to the review. Aid signals that Australia cares about its neighbours, and has shared interests; it positions Australia as a partner of choice; it can contribute to creating a better enabling environment for other partnerships (for example, through improving the business context in the recipient country); it disseminates Australian values, and shows that Australia doesn’t just talk the talk, but invests in change.
The opportunity for people-to-people links are tremendous, not just through more obvious programs like Australian Volunteers and scholarships, but also through the wide array of organisations and individuals involved in development work globally.
While there is a lot of soft power goodness generated by aid and development policy, there often seems to be a misunderstanding from other international affairs disciplines, which see the aid program as something akin to the time Oprah gave everyone in her audience a free car. After all, everyone loves Oprah and listens to her advice… especially after she has given them a free car.
But Oprah is Oprah, and aid is hard and messy and political and doesn’t necessarily make people like you. It isn’t quite the magical soft power fairy that some might position it as. And there are potential risks to aid effectiveness from focusing too heavily on milking the soft power or diplomatic benefits of aid rather than focusing on development gains.
Accountability is one of the areas where soft power good vibes are not …read more