What did we hear and learn at ACFID’s National Conference

Current development challenges and the space for innovation were the key topics addressed by international and national development practitioners, scientists, campaigners, social entrepreneurs and representatives from the private and the social services sector at the ACFID National Conference in October 2015.

An overarching message was the need for innovation to tackle complex and emerging development challenges. However many speakers forcefully made the point that innovation shouldn’t be the goal in itself; the ultimate goal must be impact.

Innovation is driven by collaboration, unusual partnerships, not accepting complacency and a focus on organisational culture, leadership and value-add.
Innovation is no silver bullet and it must be tempered with a focus on tried and tested approaches. Policy makers and practitioners alike must assess the value of an idea, rather than how it is labeled.

Australian aid agencies have brought much innovation to development over recent decades however there are opportunities for NGOs to have a more deliberate and systematic approach to innovation. Ultimately, driving lasting change often requires agencies and other development actors to work politically, supporting social movements and with a focus on systems change.

Journalist Karen Middleton led a panel discussion looking at disruptive challenges for society with academic Dr Haydn Washington; ACOSS CEO, Dr Cassandra Goldie; ActionAid CEO, Archie Law; and Global Compact Australia CEO, Alice Cope. The panel stressed that a ‘business as usual’ approach will not be sufficient to meet the challenges posed by climate change, inequality, poverty and conflict. Greater commitment and significant policy shifts are required by governments matched with enhanced collaboration across sectors and the building of social movements for change. 

Conference participants heard about the importance of leadership for innovative and sustainable development from Dr Fiona Kerr and Fabian Dattner. Understandings of effective leadership have shifted from ‘command and control’ to collaboration. Australian agencies must invest in insights into how leaders are seen in their organisation.
We also heard about the fascinating world of neuroscience, with Dr Fiona Kerr providing stimulating examples of the connections between the human brain and the complexities of leading, collaboration and creativity which are all required for leading innovative and adaptive organisations.
In a final closing panel moderated by Marc Purcell, Sam Mostyn, President of ACFID, Brian Doolan, CEO of the Fred Hollows Foundation, Jo Hayter, CEO of the International Women's Development Agency, Terence Wood from the Development Policy Centre at ANU, and Helen Steel from the Shared Value Project provided conference participants with a range of take-home messages.

They included: the need to work together to build a more compassionate Australia; for NGOs to devote more thought and resources to engaging politically to change systems; the need for the private sector to integrate poverty alleviation considerations into everyday practices; and the opportunities presented by the Sustainable Development Goals for greater cross-sectoral collaboration and development progress.