Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #13: Increasing public support for aid through Australian international volunteering

Paul Bird

31 Oct, 2016 | Volunteering

This post forms part of ACFID’s blog series on Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. Views contained in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFID or its members.

To learn more about this series, read the introductory blog post. To view other submissions and find out how you can contribute your ideas on the future of development, visit our page on the ACFID website.


“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” said Adam Valvasori, the Campaign Manager for the Campaign for Australian Aid.

“The good news is that due to the Campaign more people approve of Australian aid to reduce poverty in our region.

The bad news is that it is still not more than half.”

“So, the majority of Australians do not support Australian Aid?”  I was shocked.

Surely the majority of Australians do not want to see their neighbours in grinding poverty, suffering preventable diseases, malnourished and lacking education and opportunity.  If not and only in self-interest, I’m sure they do not want to see millions fleeing to Australia in search of the water, food, medicine, shelter and education that we take for granted.

As a sector with the financial support of at least one in five Australians, how have we failed to influence the majority?

Do Australians believe that aid is not the answer? Are we taking money away from much needed domestic spending on infrastructure and services?  Are we pouring good money after bad as the world’s problems seem to escalate?  Are we making a dent in what seems an overwhelming need? Is the term ‘aid’ misunderstood and smacks of welfare?

Most of the sector’s communications have in the past been based on emotion, especially since the shock and power of the Ethiopian famine images of 1984 and subsequent emergencies and epidemics.   Recently, the promotion of development solutions and upholding human rights has shown supporters how they are enabling positive change.

If we are to influence the majority, as well as appealing to the heart and mind, we urgently need to find other ways to meaningfully engage the Australian public.

With Australians relating to other Australians, AVI supports the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s public diplomacy narrative for the Australian Volunteers for International Development program.  The passion of a life changing experience combined with stories from their lived experience of communities and development is an ideal platform for these development champions to engage their peer groups, fellow professional members, company colleagues, local networks and events, families and friends.  Using Dunbar’s number of 150 social relationships per person, the 20,000 Australian volunteers deployed over the last 65 years can influence 3 million fellow Australians.

Australian international volunteering is uniquely placed in engaging Australians to relate to the experiences of their fellow Australians as a window into the activities, outcomes and effectiveness of Australian aid to demonstrate sustainable economic and human development.   This can be achieved through their professional associations, networks and their own companies and organisations.  For instance, the ANZ emerging leaders deployed to build social enterprise in the Pacific have been champions across the business.

Indeed, the Executive Director of UN Volunteers, Richard Dictus, has said that international volunteers are the ‘elite’ and ‘gold standard’ of volunteerism, as the amino acid of development.

While international volunteer programs are not a new concept, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a framework for a renewed focus on this approach. With the SDGs as our one and only globally endorsed roadmap to end extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030, Australian international volunteering is founded in SDG17, Partnerships and in particular 17.9 ‘enhance international support for implementing effective and targeted capacity building in developing countries to support national plans to implement all sustainable development goals, including through North-South, South-South, and triangular cooperation’. 

In particular, Australian international volunteering has the ability to enable businesses, governments and communities to work together.  The Myanmar Tourism Business Hub, for example, is a partnership between AVI, Australian volunteers, DFAT and The Intrepid Group as part of the Business Partnership Platform. This tri-sector initiative will enable community enterprises to establish, grow and participate in Myanmar’s growing tourism industry, and a demonstration of the growing shared value movement.

By responding to the needs of partner organisations and sharing skills, expectations and values over on average 15 months, Australian volunteers build trust and mutual respect to minimise the North-South power differential and build sustainable capacity, with 91% of partner organisations seeing benefits continue after volunteer assignments concluded.

The SDGs also give us a fantastic opportunity to position Australian aid as Australian investment, helping achieve target outcomes, aligned and compared to our own SDG targets, now that these Goals relate to all countries.   We could introduce an international close the gap comparing our SDG outcomes to a standard that assures an acceptable standard of living and wellbeing to the actual outcomes by developing country, together with the coordinated actions and solutions that need to be taken to reduce the gap.

We can still claim credit for the outcomes of our work, whilst Australians will see a wider picture and progress towards sustained economic and social development through the SDGs and Australian aid as an investment.

I look forward to harnessing the power of Australian international volunteers to demonstrate the power of Australian Aid and influence the hearts and minds of our caring nation.

  • Paul Bird
    Paul Bird

    Paul Bird joined AVI as CEO in 2015. Paul’s passion for international development was sparked when he managed KPMG’s West African practice and had the privilege to be involved in aid projects across the region, working with INGOs and government agencies.

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