A checklist for engaging the Australian government in humanitarian action

The Australian flag. Photo by: Alex Steffler / CC BY-NC

CANBERRA — How can we engage governments to act on humanitarian crises? Encourage them to use their seat on international forums and bilateral relationships to advocate for change at the highest level.

In January, World Vision Australia released the results of its research on this question — a checklist for action. Designed for Australian NGOs and civil society organizations, the list is a tool for assessing the role that key international and regional bodies, as well as the Australian government, have played in preventing and responding to conflict-related humanitarian crises.

“While Australia has made strong rhetorical commitments to preventing and responding to conflict, we don’t always see that translated into action.”

— Rebecca Barber, lead author of the checklist

“The bulk of humanitarian needs are driven by conflict,” Rebecca Barber, associate lecturer in humanitarian studies at Deakin University and lead author of the checklist, explained to Devex.

“NGOs can do their best to meet humanitarian needs, but the needs will persist so long as conflict persists. At the end of the day, it’s only through political solutions that humanitarian needs can be reduced over the long term,” Barber said.

Barber explained that while Australian civil society calls upon the government to engage at the political and diplomatic level to prevent or respond to crises, it can be clearer, smarter, and more strategic in deciding what to ask for.

“NGOs have only a limited amount of time to engage in advocacy, so we need to be sure we focus our attention, and our ‘asks,’ on what’s most likely to be effective,” she said. “It’s hard to do this without a solid understanding of all the options that are available to the Australian government through its seats on various international and regional forums — the U.N. General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and so on.”

Barber hopes that the checklist will provide NGOs with a better understanding of those options, so both NGOs and government can have informed and targeted discussions about how the government is responding to conflict-related crises.

The role of Australia

The checklist is unique to Australia, and for good reason — Australia is not currently on the U.N. Security Council. Barber said that this means NGOs need to be “a bit more creative” in advocacy than NGOs based in the United Kingdom and the United States — governments that have a stronger route for action on conflict-related crises.

“Another thing that makes this particularly pertinent in Australia, is that Australia has a leading role in the region, and is a member of key regional forums that could potentially take a more robust role in responding to humanitarian crises in our region, such as the Rohingya crisis,” she said.

“These are the sorts of questions we’d like to see prompted by the checklist,” Barber said. “Our [Australian] foreign policy and humanitarian strategy contain very strong commitments to the protection of civilians, conflict prevention, the responsibility to protect, accountability for human rights violations, and regional leadership. We see the checklist as a tool for trying to ensure that we capitalize upon — and hold Australia accountable to — these commitments.”

In assessing Australia’s role to date, Barber said it is regarded as a good humanitarian donor, despite aid budget cuts reducing the scope of its work.

“While Australia has made strong rhetorical commitments to preventing and responding to conflict, we don’t always see that translated into action. This is so particularly in cases where Australia has political, economic or strategic ties. Australia has been very guarded in its public statements on Myanmar, for example, relative to some other states,” Barber said.

Engaging NGOs on the checklist

While the checklist was developed in consultation with Amnesty International, Australian Council for International Development, CARE Australia, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, Oxfam, Save the Children, and World Vision, among others, it is still early days for its implementation.

“We have some discussions with Australian NGOs scheduled over the coming weeks and will be discussing the use of the checklist, which ideally will be collaborative,” Barber explained. “We’ve received very positive feedback from NGOs regarding the checklist so we’re confident that it will be a useful tool.”

The discussions will also include the future of the checklist, including how it is updated to adjust to changing political conditions. But with the basic procedures and mechanisms recommended in the checklist fairly fixed, there are unlikely to be frequent updates required.

“The major changes would be when Australia reaches the end of its term on the Human Rights Council, at the end of 2020, or if we were to come on the Security Council again. But we’ve got a while until then.”

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.