Advocating for a stronger Australian Aid program: Q&A with new ACFID President Susan Pascoe

Susan Pascoe, newly elected president of the Australian Council for International Development. Photo by: ACFID

MELBOURNE — The Australian Council for International Development 2017 National Conference, held in Melbourne on November 1 and 2, saw the election of a new president for ACFID to lead Australia’s international development and charity sector — Susan Pascoe.

Pascoe was previously commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). Although new to international development, she is not new to the legal and political aspects of charities and not-for-profits in Australia — experience which is expected to be highly valued by the sector.

Speaking with Devex at the conference, Pascoe explained that she too is excited to advocate for and support the sector in building a stronger Australian Aid program. And she is ready to get to work.

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

What do you note as the strengths and challenges for Australia’s international NGOs?

In terms of strengths, I noted that when I accepted the role the ACFID code of conduct is regarded as the world’s best practice — if not the gold standard internationally. So from a self-regulatory viewpoint, it starts from a very strong base.

Motions from the floor at ACFID’s annual general meeting explained some of the challenges for the sector, including the right of charities to advocate for causes. But they are not unique to Australia; when you look at other common law countries, it is a very similar issue.

In Australia we are fortunate that there was a High Court decision — the Aid/Watch decision — which gave expression to the rights of charities to advocate for the causes for which they were established. More than that, it noted that it was healthy in a democracy to have civil society expressing a range of views.

I think Australia is pretty well placed, actually. For the overseas aid organization, it is a matter of them being able to express their views within the boundaries.

There is an analogy used by the ACNC and that is the charities swimming between the flags. In pretty much any area of human life it is bounded; you can’t just get on the road and drive anywhere you want. There are rules that are set for safety. In relation to the advocacy, there are clear rights but there are also clear boundaries.

While working with the ACNC, were there common questions charities asked about “swimming between the flags” and where activities would be crossing the line?

The ACNC has a consultative mechanism and a couple times a year a group of lawyers and accountants would get together with peak bodies and charities groups and it was not uncommon for someone to raise an issue to try and explore where the boundary was.

Ultimately they are decided on a case-by-case basis. There are certain non-negotiables. Charities are not allowed to fund or support an individual candidate or a party. That is really clear. But there is often ambiguity about how much interpretation a charity can give to policy and not cross the line.

Some of the charities here did a good job in the last election where they laid out the policies of the various parties in relation to overseas aid funding and they rated them along a traffic indicator system — green, orange, and red. That is absolutely acceptable and that’s what you might expect a well-functioning charity would do. But if a charity were to take a policy of a party, analyze it and then say “Don’t vote for this party,” then they have stepped over the line.

You have taken up your role with ACFID soon after finishing with ACNC. The ACFID code of conduct was something that stood out for you when taking up the new role. What else influenced your decision?

“Any one of us could have been born in a refugee camp. We have also seen images recently of Rohingya women giving birth on the way to camps or soon after arriving. What allowed us to be born in safe, secure, prosperous Australia and that little one to be born in that circumstance?
For me, there is almost an onus on us to recognize their plight and do something about it.”

— Susan Pascoe, president of the Australian Council for International Development

To be honest, it was primarily a heart rather than head decision.

I personally think the work overseas aid organizations do is extraordinary in altruism. It is empathetic in its concern for others, it recognizes that we are a global family and we are not bounded by national borders, and it is also compassionate for the circumstances of others.

Sometimes I think of the statement “There by the grace of God go I.” Any one of us could have been born in a refugee camp. We have also seen images recently of Rohingya women giving birth on the way to camps or soon after arriving. What allowed us to be born in safe, secure, prosperous Australia and that little one to be born in that circumstance?

For me, there is almost an onus on us to recognize their plight and do something about it.

With a broader understanding of the charity and not-for-profit sector — including local, national and international focused not-for-profits — does it assist you in communicating with people who say ‘charity begins at home’ to explain there is room for both?

I think so, but I think in the current context any one of us can turn on the news at night and see the circumstances of others — you know what is happening in countries that are not faring well.

For me, it is not about the knowledge but the empathetic reaction that someone does or does not have. I’m always struck when someone criticizes an overseas aid organization for money spent on administration or that they stay in secure hotels in countries where they are delivering aid rather than dangerous camps. And they use this as an excuse for not giving.

Where I sit, if you don’t want to give that is fine. It is not a requirement. But don’t use as a screen a critique of overseas aid organizations. I don’t think it’s fair and reasonable, particularly when we know Australian overseas aid organizations are operating under a self-imposed, regulatory code that requires them to operate to the highest standard of probity, integrity, efficiency, and delivery of good governance.

The minister for international development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, spoke about the importance of everyone coming together to advocate for and educate on the value of the Australian Aid program. What can NGOs do to support her calls?

I was struck by the figure she gave from the Lowy Institute polling saying 80 percent of the general populace are not supportive of increasing overseas aid. In comparison, 80 percent of the overseas aid organizations are in support.

There is clearly a mismatch here.

I thought the message that everyone needs to take responsibility for communicating the importance and benefit of overseas aid was a well made point; you can’t just leave it to the minister and you can’t just leave it to the Department [of Foreign Affairs and Trade] or ACFID. It is up to everybody.

I think this sector is particularly well placed because of particular sector leaders. Sam Mostyn, the outgoing president of ACFID, and CEO Marc Purcell are very on top of the detail. But there are also others like Tim Costello, who has just returned from Bangladesh, Oxfam’s Helen Szoke and Mat Tinkler from Save the Children. I could keep going on. But these opinion leaders position the sector very well in terms of communication.

What will be your initial priorities following the conference?

There will be a fairly immediate immersion.

The board is meeting for a week in Fiji, coinciding with Civil Society Week in Fiji, and I’ll have a week with the board in December. And then I will be going with a parliamentary delegation to visit the Solomon Islands in the second week of January.

That again will be an immersion of a different sort.

One of the benefits of parliamentary delegations is that you generate many people throughout the parliament who can understand aid and development through a first-hand experience. And they can help with the push when the time comes to progress aid and development issues.

The minister emphasized the importance of person-to-person engagement, and it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of that in my experience. The more that you are able to pick up the phone and speak to your contacts, it makes a huge difference in trying to get something underway. And this is part of my role with ACFID.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior 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 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.