Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #6: An Australia incensed by injustice, not satiated by charity

Geordie Fung

14 Oct, 2016 | Youth Engagement

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.

“Effective altruists to the left of us, charity-starts-at-home advocates to the right. Here we are, stuck in the middle with waning public and political support for poverty alleviation.” These would be the words of Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, had they compromised any shred of musical integrity to write songs that only aid and development wonks could relate to. We really are stuck in the middle, and I don’t think it’s too alarmist to suggest that the aid and development sector in Australia will fade into insignificance if we don’t reignite broad support for what we do. It’s time to take some of that sustainability thinking we love to use in our programs and apply it to how we think about our sector’s ongoing health and impact. This highlights two imperatives: first, that we must fundamentally shift how we appeal to the Australian public to win back sustained support for what we are trying to achieve, and second, that we must genuinely engage with young people to ensure that future generations are nothing short of outraged by the persistence of global inequality and Australia’s complicity in its perpetuation.

The distance between the aid and development sector and the Australian population when it comes to understanding poverty is profound, and it would serve us well to remain aware of the distance between our understanding and that of those who have not journeyed with us. This distance isn’t about knowing what RCT stands for or having an appreciation of how complexity thinking applies to adaptive management, but is illustrated by a fundamental disparity in values. While the aid and development sector have long championed the rights of those outside Australia’s borders, and our obligations towards them, it seems that the Australian public is becoming increasingly inwardly focussed. We must acknowledge that as a sector, we have not adequately tapped into the values or fostered the understanding necessary for the Australian people to collectively acknowledge our responsibilities in addressing poverty.

Part of that is a branding problem. By marketing our work as charity, and using images that elicit pity and guilt to attract financial support, we have actively crafted simplistic understandings of poverty and the belief that people living in the “Third World” are fundamentally different and distant from us. The impact of this failure must not be underestimated. How have we allowed ourselves to believe that the short-term benefits of systematically shoving simplistic portrayals of poverty at the public outweigh the damage done to public and political support for action on poverty that these portrayals lead to? And, critically, how do we reengage the public, contest apathy and cynicism towards aid and development, and replace ennui with a deep-seated sense of global solidarity?

The answer is at our fingertips – like Pokémon GO is at theirs. Young people present a huge opportunity to revitalise discussions about Australia’s role in addressing inequality and eradicating poverty. We need to act now to seize this opportunity, but also understand that we are seeking long-term, sustainable changes in the way that people think. But if we do it right, these attitudinal changes could occur within a single generation.

Globally, young people represent 1.2 billion of the world’s population and are invariably affected, either directly or indirectly, by international development programs. This enlivens their right to participating in decision-making that affects them, increases the effectiveness and sustainability of programming, and represents an investment in the current and future capabilities of social change agents. This is not just another box to tick in your program design, but is an essential priority area if we are serious about #innovation, about getting ahead of and leveraging mega trends and disruptors, and becoming relevant again as a sector. Young people have incredible potential to improve the way that we approach strategy development, in how we design programs, implement projects, monitor, evaluate and learn from our impact and ensure that change is locally informed, politically nuanced and inclusive.

In Australia young people, as necessarily the leaders of tomorrow (in politics and business as well as civil society), have the potential to break the cycle of apathy and ambivalence towards aid, development and Australia’s global responsibilities. Here, as a sector, we can ensure the next generation is empowered and enlivened about change, that they embrace and are humbled by the complexities of poverty, are fiercely committed to ongoing learning, and that they are incensed by injustice and inequality, not satiated by charity.

By 2025 most of my generation will be in our mid-thirties, and I can imagine two timelines diverging. In the first: my peers, after countless disempowering internship experiences and years of fruitless attempts at employment in international development where all ‘entry’ positions require at least three years’ experience, have moved overseas, or work in sectors they are not passionate about, disenchanted and embittered. These are the people who could have been the revolutionaries, champions and advocates of aid and development in Australia – but in this timeline, young people perceive aid and development as a niche area that has largely been debunked and now attracts just poorly-informed do-gooders; few NGOs exist, and there’s little to hold the aid program to account – but there’s little to account for anyway, given that ODA has been in consistent decline since 2014.

The second timeline: young people have been given opportunities all over the place – sitting on the boards of NGOs, consulting with the Australian aid program (which, incidentally, is seen as a global leader in education, governance, inclusive programming and more, partly because of its youth participation strategy) and are leading programs of their own. Savvy practitioners see young people’s familiarity with technology, their novel perspectives and their eagerness to learn, and couple it with their own significant knowledge, and the sector is bristling with #innovative ideas, approaches and solutions – exemplified by the theme of ACFID’s 2025 National Conference - Innovation: Are We Done Yet? The revitalisation of the sector – led by the engagement of young people – has seen public and political support for aid and development skyrocket, and the sector is widely credited for championing a vision of Australia’s global responsibilities that has wildly increased impact in poverty alleviation, and revolutionised policy across a swath of other issues.

We’re at a divergence now. We have the potential to set an ambitious agenda up to 2025 that could improve the lives of millions – and also, critically, improve our sector. In order to set ourselves on this trajectory, we need to articulate and affirm the progress that has been made, but also acknowledge that this progress is unsatisfactory, and that we are collectively responsible for our current weaknesses. We can achieve this if we look outwards, form new partnerships and champion new thinking – especially from those systematically excluded from our decision-making – and act with courage. It’s difficult – but this is the leadership required to live up to our responsibilities to those living in poverty, and that is demanded by the values and beliefs that we as a sector hold.

Geordie Fung will be presenting at ACFID National Conference 2016 in the session: A focus on children and youth for Australia's future international development agenda. For more information about ACFID Conference, visit the conference website

This post has been adapted from a submission to Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. The full submission is available here.

  • Geordie Fung
    Geordie Fung

    Geordie Fung is the Head of International Engagement at Oaktree, and leads Oaktree’s work on youth participation, strategic positioning and program design and has led several monitoring, evaluation and learning projects across the Asia-Pacific.

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