There are many noteworthy and progressive foreign policy initiatives announced by Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in yesterday’s Ministerial Statement on Burma (New Mandala discussions are available here). While it may not have arrived with the same trumpet blast and fanfare that came with US foreign policy ‘rethink’, Australia has announced far more concrete changes in policy than the US has as of yet.

After a necessary discussion of the upcoming (as yet undated) 2010 elections, the Ministerial Statement focuses on Australia’s commitment to an increase in humanitarian aid. In 2009-2010, Australia allocated nearly AUD$30 million in humanitarian assistance. The increase will see Australia maintaining levels of around $50 million, for the next three programme years. This is exciting for many reasons. The silver lining in the tragic cloud of Cyclone Nargis has been that humanitarian agencies in Myanmar have been able to show donors such as AusAID that they can effectively deliver and administer humanitarian and development aid in-country, without benefiting the military government.

The most significant changes announced in the Ministerial Statement are subtle, but worthy of attention. There has been a revision of how Australia’s development aid can be administered. Up until this stage, most Western donors have been wary of funding programs that engage government officials – at any level. This can sometimes put a serious strain on the effectiveness of projects administered by UN agencies and NGOs. Myanmar is a notoriously difficult operating environment, and NGOs have to maintain a nuanced form of diplomacy in their dealings with the government. It is not easy to convince the Minister of Health to sign an MOU with your NGO while at the same time informing him that you are effectively barred by donors from engaging with his staff. Asian donors such as JICA and KOICA have not maintained the same limitations on government engagement in their humanitarian assistance.

Minister Smith’s announcement affirms that AusAID is now willing to fund projects that engage with village- and township-level government officials. For example, this could be through the critical training of midwives and primary health care workers at the village-level, or through programs designed to build the capacity of primary school teachers and township education officials. In addition, AusAID’s scholarship program will be extended to Myanmar, with an initial 10 postgraduate scholarships targeting the education, health, and agriculture sectors.

The changes might be small, but they are certainly progressive. Opportunities have already been lost in keeping the momentum of humanitarian action going since Cyclone Nargis. The ASEAN-led humanitarian task force is losing its backbone, and agencies are worried about donor fatigue. The changes in ways that Australia is willing to engage in humanitarian assistance in Myanmar are a step in the right direction, one that other donors such as USAID have not yet been willing to take.

If there is such a thing as constructive engagement, this is what its foundations look like. Australia has just discreetly announced some nuanced changes to their Myanmar policy and they appear to be much stronger and concrete changes than what have come out so far from the U.S. policy review.