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The long lineage of Pacific economic research

04 February 2022

While the Australian National University (ANU) Development Policy Centre (Devpol) was established just over a decade ago, its aim to improve the effectiveness of Australian development aid – with a particular focus on Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Pacific island region and labour mobility – dates back to when ANU was first founded by an Act of Federal Parliament in 1946.

Pacific studies was one of the five institutes laid out in the proposal for a national university that Cabinet approved at the end of 1945.

Development economics was “young in the world and in Australia” recalls former Head of the Economics Department at the ANU Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (now known as the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific) Emeritus Professor Ross Garnaut.

“Many of the thoughts that mattered found their way through the Coombs Building,” he wrote in his book chapter, Real Australians in Economics, published as part of the volume, The Coombs: A House of Memories, edited by Brij V. Lal and Allison Ley.

The iconic ANU building was, according to Garnaut, a “welcoming place” where undergraduates could slip into seminars by Heinz Arndt on the Indonesian economy, or Scarlett Epstein on the village economy in New Britain, or Fred Fisk on ‘subsistence affluence’ in the Pacific.

PNG was an early focus of research at ANU. During the 1960s and early 1970s, much of the University’s research effort, and funding for fieldwork, was conducted under the umbrella of the New Guinea Research Unit, which over time morphed into PNG’s National Research Institute.

Widely regarded as the first development economist at ANU, Fred Fisk began his academic career as a senior fellow in the new Department of Economics at that Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, under the leadership of Sir John Crawford.

Professor Fisk was a foundation leader of the Centre for Development Studies at the School which, with the energy of Emerita Professor Helen Hughes in the 1980s, became a national centre with funding from the Australian aid program. Emeritus Professor Ron Duncan was executive director of the centre during the 1990s.

Fisk, Hughes and Duncan exemplified the interconnectedness of scholarship, policymaking and implementation that continues to make the research that the Development Policy Centre undertakes so effective. Fisk was head of the economic and planning division of Malaysia’s Rural and Industrial Development Authority before joining ANU. Hughes came to ANU after a serious career in the World Bank as head of research: the annual World Development Report is her legacy. Duncan’s career also included 14 years with the World Bank as well as the Australian Government’s Industries Assistance Commission.

Professor Stephen Howes followed a similar trajectory before joining the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy in 2009 and establishing Devpol in 2010. He previously worked at the World Bank, at the Australian Agency for International Development, and on the Garnaut Review on Climate Change in 2008.

Under Howes, Devpol facilitates collaborative research, activities and funding that draws together the threads of Pacific studies, development economics and aid, as well as supports the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) and relationships with the broader development community. The Centre’s work includes Australian aid (supported by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), the Pacific Research Program and PNG Project (both with funding support from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).

Devpol honours the history of Pacific economic and development policy research at ANU through its digitisation and hosting of the archives of the Pacific Economic Bulletin – founded by Hughes – and published between 1988 and 2010. It also nurtures the future through publication of the peer-reviewed journal that succeeded the Bulletin, the journal of Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies.

Blogs are a relatively recent innovation in the ANU story. The Devpolicy Blog publishes – every week day – development analysis, research and policy commentary with a focus on Australia, the Pacific and Papua New Guinea.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt AC believes that the important work undertaken by Devpol over the past decade has seen it become “the preeminent research centre for aid and for development in the Asia-Pacific region”.

According to the former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, the Development Policy Centre does “an outstanding job bringing together researchers – and a wide range of stakeholders – from across Australia, the Pacific, Asia and beyond”.

In the years to come, through its Pacific Research Program and work on the ANU-UPNG Partnership, Devpol will continue to strengthen the long lineage of Pacific economic research which began at ANU seven and a half decades ago.

Visit the Development Policy Centre website for more information.

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Updated:  4 March 2024/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team