Advancing Integration Series


How to advance integration in a new political environment

Professor Andrew Campbell, Charles Darwin University
Integration is one of those words that we tend to use often, implicitly assuming that it is a ‘good thing’, and rarely unpacking what it means in a given context.

My understanding of the verb to integrate is that it means to make whole, in a sense that is more than mere aggregation of separate elements into something bigger. Rather, integration implies a degree of synergy, in which the whole is greater — more functional, more effective, more efficient, better fit for purpose — than the sum of the parts.

Over almost thirty years in natural resource management policy, research, extension and consultancy, I’ve experienced and led many attempts to improve integration across and within programs, large and small. I’ve created dedicated roles, appointed integration managers, designed matrix management models with cross-cutting integrating themes, funded integration symposia and attempted to hard-wire integration objectives into program design and project contracts and milestones — with mixed success.

Integration is difficult, but the alternative is worse. Duplication, inefficiency, waste, major investments doomed to failure because they lack key elements, and programs working at cross-purposes are common symptoms of a failure to take an integrated approach.

The risks of failing to invest seriously in integration seem particularly obvious in the disasters, environment and climate ’DEC context’. Disasters, environmental degradation, and climate change — especially as they affect people at the grassroots level — are inextricably intertwined. Climate change amplifies environmental degradation and the risk of extreme climatic events. Environmental degradation increases vulnerability to climate change and extreme events and impedes recovery from them.

These three meta-phenomena are in turn tightly coupled with development objectives such as food security, water security and energy security, with extensive links into other parts of the development aid agenda such as transport, infrastructure, health, education, gender and poverty.

But integration is not just about responding more effectively to external forces and events, it is about shaping the future, about taking purposeful action in disaster preparedness and risk reduction, and in halting and reversing environmental degradation. For the foreseeable future, it must also be about undertaking what economist Nicholas Stern calls the greatest structural change in the human economy ever attempted — to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.

This profound economic structural reform will take decades, and it will affect every dimension of the development aid agenda. It is unsurprising that we have not yet successfully integrated the DEC agenda, or sufficiently mainstreamed DEC thinking into the wider development aid industry. But eventually, we have no alternative.

One of the most interesting developments over the last decade has been the emergence of resilience thinking. The sustainability literature underlined the dependence of the human economy on the natural world, the need to live within ecological limits, avoiding actions that compromise ecosystem function (like pollution), and it introduced the notion of intergenerational equity. But it said much less about the social and cultural dimensions of environmental management or how to manage contexts with high levels of inherent variability.

Resilience thinking focuses attention on the capacity of a system to absorb shocks, reorganise and still function. It adds value in explicitly embracing change and variability, and introducing the useful concept of thresholds or tipping points. There are echoes here of the conceptual framework developed by the ODI team in proposing their the DEC advancing Integration agenda. More resilient communities, regions and industries are desirable from a wide range of development perspectives, including DEC integration.

Which is not to say it is easy — all countries struggle with this. In Australia, despite compelling evidence, documented exhaustively in successive Royal Commissions, we still have an imbalance between extraordinary levels of expenditure on bushfire and flood recovery and reparations, compared with relatively modest investment in fire/flood planning, preparedness and risk reduction. Moreover, some of our fire suppression and prevention activities are environmentally damaging, and our current approach probably increases net greenhouse emissions.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI) collaboration on DEC integration is a good initiative. There is nothing uniquely Australian about this challenge and different countries have much to learn from each other.

From my perspective, the ASK conceptual framework developed by Aditya Bahadur, Katie Peters, Emily Wilkinson and colleagues around actors, spaces and knowledge, is intuitively sound. Individual and institutional champions are crucial to drive something as multifaceted as the DEC integration agenda, but there will be ‘hot moments’ and ‘hot places’ when political planets are aligned and spaces for new initiatives open up. There is much to be gained from anticipating such opportunities and being ready to exploit them. However in the absence of a solid knowledge base, with compelling benefit-cost data and project-level stories that support an over-arching narrative, any gains achieved through opportunism are likely to be ephemeral.

A new political environment — especially given such a radical reduction in funding — can present just such an opportunity. The challenge is to show the new Australian government how its objectives are much more likely to be realised through a more integrated approach to disaster risk reduction, environment and climate change than it is through fragmented, piecemeal, duplicative systems and processes.

The suggested initiatives and actions in Reflections and Lessons make sense to me. If implemented by DFAT, they would position Australia in a leadership role in disaster risk reduction, environmental restoration and climate change adaptation in the Asia-Pacific.

From my experience, there are a couple of areas that I think need more emphasis. The first is the systemic issue of what in the Australian Public Service is known as ‘churn’ — staff turnover as people move to other jobs, locations, departments or careers. DEC phenomena are long-term, multi-decadal in nature, demanding long-term, persistent yet adaptive responses, informed by long institutional memory. High levels of staff turnover, corporate amnesia and frequently changing priorities mean that such enduring responses can be very difficult to conceive, let alone sustain and resource.

The second, related to the first, is training. Training of DFAT staff and development partners is mentioned in several of the case studies, but in my view it deserves more prominence in the recommended strategy. Well-designed and facilitated training activities, particularly where they work across organisational and sectoral boundaries, are one of the most effective and cost-effective ways of developing and sustaining a community of practice, and of creating rewarding and hence enduring networks among people. I would embed DEC Integration training as broadly and deeply within and across DFAT and its partners, in Canberra and all posts, as soon as possible.

The Reflections and Lessons is undoubtedly strengthened through being informed by a fine-grained understanding of this issue from the perspective of people at post level. However I agree that some top down impetus is equally important, that DEC integration champions are needed at all levels including at the most senior levels of DFAT and the Australian Government.
From my experience, the most effective integration occurs when demanded by clients or customers, whether they be farmers, company executives or senior government officials, because they want a whole solution, not just disparate, partial elements. But making that happen often requires top down mandate, impetus and resourcing.
The ultimate measure of this project will be the extent to which it enables people working at posts and in Canberra to make DEC integration real and effective.