skip to navigation skip to content skip to footer

Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

AJDSS Volume 2 Number 1


Doing well by doing good: Mutual capacity building through strategic medical engagement

Adam Mahoney, Scott Squires and Andrew Pearson

To cite this article: Adam Mahoney, Scott Squires and Andrew Pearson, 'Doing well by doing good: Mutual capacity building through strategic medical engagement', Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 2, 1 (2020): 99-112,

Published online: 21 August, 2020


Historically, one of the ways that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has furthered Australia's interests has been through its humanitarian assistance to neighbouring nations. As Australia faces a complex and challenging geostrategic environment, its security and prosperity depends increasingly upon the stability and resilience of our regional partners. 1

Their stability is threatened by a range of factors from competition for finite natural resources to the potential consequences of climate change, including increased incidence of natural disasters. However, for several reasons, Australia's civilian-led Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AUSMAT) have become Australia's primary instrument of medical-assistance diplomacy. This paper argues that ADF medical teams could make a significant contribution in support of civilian humanitarian efforts and further Australia's national interests, while at the same time benefiting both ADF and host nation preparedness.

Australia has an ethical obligation to render humanitarian assistance in our region and beyond; however, as acknowledged by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2015:

[Australia's] aid program is not a charity; it represents an investment in the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Well-targeted Australian aid complements our diplomatic and security efforts to promote regional stability.

The Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) represents a major contribution by the ADF to the whole-of-government international aid program. The objective of the DCP is: maximise Australia's security through developing close and enduring links with partners that support their capacity to protect their sovereignty, work effectively with the Australian Defence Force and contribute to regional security. 2

DCP-funded activities include bilateral and multilateral training exercises, the building and/or refurbishment of infrastructure, donations of materiel and joint maritime security operations. The DCP also enables military personnel from partner nations to access learning opportunities at Australian military and civilian educational institutions. At present, around 2,000 DCP students come to Australia for training each year. Additionally, DCP relationships are strengthened by a network of internationally seconded officers posted throughout Australia and Defence cooperation education officers posted to partner nations.

Notwithstanding longstanding support and considerable funding for the DCP by all sides of politics, at present the DCP is not purposively funding any regional engagement by ADF medical personnel; rather, medical teams are deployed in support of training, construction or security tasks. On occasion ADF medical teams are given orders that specifically preclude practical engagement with host nation health services. Moreover, with reference to DCP-assisted opportunities for study in Australia, there are few training targets that specifically relate to medical education. Consequently, medical engagement is limited both at home and abroad in the sense that clinicians lack a formal framework for mutual capacity building and the strengthening of professional bonds. It would not be going too far to state that opportunities for medical strategic engagement are largely overlooked.

This paper proposes that by failing to promote strategic medical engagement in our region the ADF is missing two key opportunities:

  • the first of these is to achieve Australia's stated aim of enhancing the capacity and resilience of our neighbours
  • the second being to promote the ADF's aim of creating a 'capable, agile and potent force structure'.

The paper begins with a precis of ADF medical operations in our region and then seeks to establish the imperative for strategic medical engagement while considering its potential deleterious unintended consequences. The paper then provides examples of how strategic medical engagement may be applied in practice.

Read more

1 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper: Opportunity, Security, Strength (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, November 2017),; Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2016),

2 Department of Defence, Defence Cooperation Program (web page), Annual Report 2015-16, Australian Government, Canberra [cited 22 March 2019]; available from: