As the last of the cleaners leave the Busan auditorium, which last week accommodated a record-breaking crowd of 3000 attending the fourth international high level forum on aid effectiveness, the big question being kicked around by development wonks now is, 'Was it worth it?'

As I explained in my Cheat's Guide to Busan, the point of this meeting was to get international agreement on how to achieve better value for the aid dollars invested in the developing world. But although this meeting, with its 100 ministers from developed, developing and emerging economies as well as representatives from aid agencies, civil society and the private sector, made no front-page headlines, it did achieve something remarkable, particularly for Australia and our region.

To find this achievement, you need to peel back the almost impenetrable aid jargon which flows through the outcomes document, itself aptly named the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. But you'll find it in the last sentence of paragraph 2: 'The principles, commitments and actions agreed in the outcome document in Busan shall be the reference for South-South* partners on a voluntary basis'.

The significance of this sentence is that one of the South-South partners who signed onto this document is the world's second largest economy, China. That means China has now signed on to a document that identifies it as a donor.

And while China only agreed to abide by the Busan document's 'principles, commitments and actions' on a voluntary basis — in contrast to the firm undertaking made by traditional donors such as Australia — the point is, it's there.

China isn't the only country included in this South-South roundup. The others include India, Brazil and South Africa. Reports vary as to who should be given the credit for the dogged diplomatic determination which eventually brought China into the donors' tent — Brazil, US, UK and Australia are all mentioned in dispatches.

For Australia, this is timely and significant. In response to the recommendations coming out of the review of Australia's aid program released earlier this year, the Government acknowledged that, in view of China's 'rapidly evolving stage of development and its large overseas aid program,' Australia's aid to China would be phased out. In tandem with this decision, it seems that Australia is scaling up its diplomatic efforts to shift its aid relationship with China from donor/recipient to donor/donor.

In part, this is all to do with the same good aid principles of transparency, cooperation and coordination which underpin the Busan document and its predecessors, the Paris Declaration (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008).

But it also has much to do with Australia's own geo-political interests in the Pacific and other parts of Asia where China is increasing its aid footprint. The lack of transparency which surrounds China's aid programs in the Pacific has long been a significant source of concern and analysis, including by the Lowy Institute. Even the dollar amounts being provided by China remain unofficial estimations, as noted in the Lowy Institute's most recent report on China's aid activities in the Pacific.

But with China's agreement to sign onto the Busan document comes an important opportunity for both countries to turn the aid effectiveness principles into reality. It might be a small step with no promises made — but it is a shared starting point.

* South-South is aid shorthand for aid and development co-operation between developing and emerging economies as opposed to North (developed)-South(developing) cooperation.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.