Australia aid minister on International Volunteer Day and the future of regional assistance

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific. Photo by: paolaharvey / CC BY-NC-SA

Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, joined Australia’s returned volunteer community this weekend in Melbourne for their inaugural conference, Valuing Volunteers — Bridge Builders and Change Makers.

Addressing the audience for International Volunteer Day, Fierravanti-Wells discussed the volunteers program as part of the delivery of Australian aid calling it “small but inspiring.”

“All of you have a role to play at home to ensure the stories of the lives you have enriched is known throughout our Australian community,” she explained to the audience. “This is how we realize the human dividend of this extraordinary network.”

Following her address, Fierravanti-Wells sat down with Devex to discuss volunteers and issues affecting the aid program.

The volunteer program plays a key role in the delivery of the Australian aid program. As we are nearing the next budget cycle, what will the focus of the aid program be over the next 12 to 18 months and how will volunteers play a role?

The volunteers play a crucial part. Last year we had about 1,345 volunteers and a lot of them are in our own area of the Indo-Pacific, so it is really important and an important component.

I see it as I travel out and about. I really make a point to catch up with them [the volunteers]. What is really inspiring about them is they can range in age from young to retired, for different reasons but there is one common theme, and that is their desire to contribute to the work Australia is doing abroad. They are the face of Australia — often in our aid program — and their expertise, their technical knowledge, their professionalism are exceptional.

I’ve met all sorts of people, and the wonderful part about it is the enthusiasm and the buzz that they get out of doing this. And we’re very honored and pleased to have them as part of our program — an integral part of our program and at times a very crucial part of the program. Because often you might have something happening and one position might be a linchpin position in a ministry or clinic that then so many other people depend on that expertise as well.

You mentioned in your speech today that we are in “uncertain times”. There are things happening now that may directly impact the aid program in the Indo-Pacific — the Rodrigo Duterte administration in the Philippines and the possible impact of the U.S. Donald Trump administration. How is the aid program looking to respond to these and make sure Australia remains an important leader in this region?

Australia is the leading donor in the region. We are, if I can put it this way, the largest house on the street. As a consequence, that comes with certain responsibilities. So whether it is disaster or whether it is assisting in a whole range of different ways, we have aid investment plans with many countries in the region. We work with them, we work with our priorities, we work with their priorities and we discuss the things that are important and should be attended to over different periods.

For example, when I went to Tonga last, we signed an aid investment plan and we looked at the different things that we were doing. One of the things that’s very important with Tonga is health — diabetes management and some of the work we have done there. Different countries have different priorities. Australia has our priorities which include governance, economic infrastructure, gender and climate.

We have priorities, they have priorities, we come together and we agree what is going to happen. I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future. Our program is about $4 billion. It is focused on the Indo-Pacific area and a considerable portion is in the Pacific area. This is our neighborhood, this is our region and our defense white paper said the stability and security of our region is second only to the defense of Australia.

Stability and prosperity, stability and security are key features for Australia, and that’s why our aid program dovetails into diplomacy. It dovetails into economic trade issues, it dovetails into a whole range of things — defence, security, policing — the sort of things we do in the region. It is part of an integrated picture of what will do in the region and that will of course continue into the future.

via Devex YouTube channel

We are nearing the Christmas period, a time when the Indo-Pacific is, unfortunately, prone to suffer from a natural disaster. What is the aid program doing to better prepare and respond long-term to natural disasters and will there be more funding allocated in the budget?

Our last budget did allocate more to assist with disaster management.

Disaster management is not just about responding when the cyclone hits. It’s actually about preparedness, and we do a lot of work in terms of preparedness. Cyclone Winston and Cyclone Pam have really given us some very valuable lessons — in particular Cyclone Winston — on the importance of responding, but also respecting the sovereignty of the country where the disaster occurs. I think that was one of the important regional lessons we learned after Cyclone Winston was to respond to what Fiji wanted.

Often what happens, after a disaster hits, is everybody wants to go in and help. That’s great, but often, as we’ve seen with some disasters in the Pacific, lots of people come along and want to help and it’s not as coordinated as it could be.

Some of the work we did at the Pacific Island Forum [is] we recently agreed to a regional disaster management risk reduction framework, which really does look at these things. It’s about preparedness, it’s about the different phases. Being prepared when the disaster hits and then the post-disaster, and how you activate simple things like repositioning of stores and ensuring that data is available.

This is one of the most disaster prone areas in the world. Seven out of the 10 highest disaster prone countries are in our region. And so, the old motto: be prepared.

You’ve gone out and visited some of Australia’s volunteer programs. Can you give an example of one that you think shows the impact of the volunteer program in creating ties with Australia’s neighbors?

There’s one person, and as a former lawyer this struck home to me. One young lady who I met is now working in the court system. She thought she was going to be an assistant but she’s actually ended up working in the court system in one of the countries [as a volunteer] and basically providing more than technical assistance. She’s actually been able to do quite a lot and assist other court staff in terms of how they manage things.

Another example was in another country where land management issues are often a difficult issue in the Pacific. This gentleman was retired, had worked in one of the major land titles offices around Australia, and he decided, “I really don’t want to retire, I want to go on.” Now he has become a very integral part of reform of the particular land titles area in this country.

That’s the sort of thing — a young lady, older gentleman. Two totally different walks of life but basically doing the same thing. And that is providing valuable technical assistance, filling a void and, most importantly, being the face of Australia and being the face of our overseas development assistance.  

Devex is a media partner for the Returned Australian Volunteer Network conference.

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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.