2009 was a bad year for natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific.

Cyclones in Burma and the Phillipines, floods in Vietnam and volcanic eruptions in Indonesia stretched the capacity and willingness of neighbouring nations to come to the aid of millions affected. Such regional goodwill was further tested by outbreaks of conflict in Papua New-Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.

A deployable civilian service?

Against this torrid backdrop, the notion of a deployable civilian ‘public-service’ was proposed by a newly elected, liberal Australian government eager to prove itself on the global stage. Its interventions in the region, often as last-minute provider of humanitarian aid and mediator of local conflicts, served to rouse popular support for a rethink of Australia’s response to such crises.

Further impetus for expanding Australia’s aid and diplomatic reach lay in a domestic economic and political climate ripened by a decade long natural-resources boom and a warming of relations across the region

Launched the same year as the militaristic sounding ‘Australian Civilian Corps’, the ACC is now a standing capacity of some 120-odd specialists in public administration and finance, law and justice, engineering, health, stabilisation and humanitarian assistance.

I was recently invited to join an elaborate Foundation Training required of all members, and learned that the Corps aims for a 500 strong cadre by 2014 to enable ‘the rapid deployment of civilian specialists to countries affected by natural disaster or conflict.’

This ambition reflects a wider interest amongst Western nations to bind foreign aid budgets to national security interests. Such trends are grounded in an increasingly popular ideology which views violence and instability as magnified by extreme poverty (Cramer, 2006) – prompting a dramatic growth in funding for so-called ‘fragile states’ such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and the like. Founded on this newly coined ‘stabilisation doctrine‘, the ACC draws heavily from the experiences of similar efforts by the UK, US, Canada and EU.

Integrating development, diplomacy and defence

This assimilation of development, diplomacy and defence policy is also reflective of a growing shift amongst Western governments toward more integrated, ‘Whole of Government’ approaches. Such trends however, risk obscuring of the distinction between international military, political and poverty reduction objectives.

Regardless, the ACC’s humble achievements to date belie its ambitions beyond simply serving as firefighter and policeman for the Asia-Pacific. Recent forays into Afghanistan, Libya and Haiti give some indication as to the depth of Australia’s determination to flex its international muscle in regions far removed from its own.

On the way, it hopes to ‘advance its reputation and influence in the international community’. Some might look to Australia’s ambitions to secure a seat on the UN Security Council next year as one spur for such ventures (lending further weight to Australia’s self-perception of itself as a ‘Middle Power’ in the region).

Seat or no seat, the birth of the ACC reflects a more prosperous, globally confident, and politically ambitious nation. That said, the test of the Australian Civilian Corps itself will lie in the impact it actually achieves in generating action to overcome crisis and conflict – beyond its own audacious rhetoric.