The plenary panel at the second day of Australian Council for International Development 2017 National Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by: ACFID

MELBOURNE — Amid growing threats of populism and nationalistic rhetoric, politicians must reach across the aisle to protect much-needed development assistance — or else risk imperiling their own long-term interests, Australian opposition Senate leader Penny Wong said. Speaking at the second day of the two-day Australian Council for International Development’s 2017 National Conference, in Melbourne, Penny Wong, who is also shadow minister for foreign affairs, stressed the crucial role of foreign aid.

Wong highlighted how aid is still failing to make its mark. She called for a strong foreign aid program in a period “characterized by widespread disruption” led by economic and social inequality, the movement of displaced peoples, consequential ethnic tension in neighboring countries, and global surges in nationalism and populism. Even as economies grow, inequality is increasing, leaving pockets of deeply impoverished people still requiring support in countries now classified as middle income.

“Our nearest neighbor, Papua New Guinea, is a case in point,” she said. “Using the World Bank metrics, Papua New Guinea is approaching middle-income status, thanks largely to the successful development of its natural resources in oil and gas. But a consequence of this rapid growth in national income has been rising inequality within the country and especially in rural areas.”

“When we should be working closely with Papua New Guinea to direct assistance where it is most urgently required, it finds itself disqualified from some multilateral support by outmoded classifications,” Wong continued.

The pressure on NGOs to provide support was greater than ever — and so was the need for development assistance. But Australia’s official development assistance, she said, was predicted to fall from the current 0.22 percent of GNI to 0.16 percent by 2027-28 under current funding models, put in place by the ruling Liberal party.

Her calls to combat the cuts urged a return to previous 50 year history of bipartisan support of aid.

“In this current environment, there’s an immense need for support for development assistance to come before partisan politics,” she said. “So that is why today, I am calling for members of the coalition to work with us. Labor calls on the Liberal and National parties to join us in a bipartisan commitment to rebuilding Australia’s aid and development programs. The only way to protect development assistance from threats posed by populism — and the nationalist rhetoric of parties such as One Nation — is to place it beyond party politics.”

The goal, said Wong, is an aid program that would be “more transparent, accountable, and focused on achieving clear outcomes,” convincing the public that money was being spent where it could do the greatest good with the lowest transaction costs.

“In this current environment, there’s an immense need for support for development assistance to come before partisan politics.”

— Senator Penny Wong, shadow minister for foreign affairs

“Rebuilding consensus will take years, and more than the term of one government, but we must start this journey now,” Wong urged on the final day of the ACFID summit. The summit focused on tackling some of the key issues facing the development sector today, and panelists on Friday discussed transformative change, the need for leadership, and emerging challenges facing the sector.

Creating transformational change in the development sector

Examining the factors that can enable organizations to become transformative in strategy, programs, and policies, a panel discussion highlighted the barriers to and potential for transformative change in the development sector.

Claire Rogers, CEO of World Vision Australia, discussed the potential of digital technology, and how it could transform the way programs are planned and delivered. “For every 10 people that join the internet, one will start a business and one will get a job,” she told the audience. It was an important statistic for the sector to consider in their approaches to development. And Devex’s global head of partnerships, Alan Robbins, highlighted the democratization and localization of aid that is occurring through social media, where local players can use the communication platforms to identify and influence where aid and supplies are delivered.

But transformation does not always come from technology. Lynffer Wini-Maltungtung, manager of the Family Support Centre in the Solomon Islands, spoke of the importance of funding for small NGOs, with her staff working at half pay in 2016 to keep programs running. Ensuring funding stability meant working with more small donors rather than fewer large ones and looking outside the funding box.

Liz Skelton, co-founder of Collaboration for Impact, explained that fear of loss was often the greatest barrier to transformative change — and those with most to lose would be the strongest opposed to change. But rather than allow loss to stop transformation, it needed to be built into the change model. It is key to align models around purpose — which she said provides a “powerful foundation” that can lead to better approaches, programs, and outcomes.

To achieve transformational change, said Rogers, it is important to work hard to “not maintain the status quo.”

Making the fight against coal mines a development issue

Noelene Nabulivou, political adviser to Diverse Voices and Action for Equality in Fiji, urged the development sector to take a stronger stance in fighting coal mining and ocean pollution. With the Pacific among the regions at the frontline of climate change, the continual use of coal-fired power stations in Australia and elsewhere is more than a frustration — it is a political decision that could result in climate refugees, loss of culture, food crises, and death.

Her message was loud and clear. “The age of coal is over,” Nabulivou told the audience. “It is over because we are in your region and require your assistance and help.”

The fight to stop the Adani coal mine from being built in Queensland, she said, goes beyond an Australian issue, to a development issue. Nabulivou called on all NGOs to get behind the elimination of non-renewable energy before it causes more natural disasters and deaths.

Noelene Nabulivou, political adviser to Diverse Voices and Action for Equality in Fiji. Photo by: ACFID

Creating inclusive leadership in the development sector

At the conclusion of the two days, a high-level panel on women in leadership, chaired by outgoing ACFID President Sam Mostyn, demonstrated the challenges still faced in creating inclusive leadership.

Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, actively advocates for more women representatives at higher levels of government and in overseas postings. But even she was surprised by the unconscious biases that exist and create barriers to inclusive leadership, explaining that training at DFAT showed she was unconsciously favoring the stereotypical ideal of a male leader.

The women on the panel responded positively to the question of quotas to reduce gender gaps in leadership. Adamson said her career with DFAT began thanks to changes in the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act. And Mostyn said she was taken on as part of the quota — a badge she wears with pride. ACFID is already leading the way with their annual general meeting voting to approve a quota of 40 percent women, 40 percent men, and 20 percent undecided for their board.

Within developing countries, work is needed to build social change to enable women to reach leadership positions. The recent election in PNG highlighted as an example of the frustrations women face: Despite DFAT working with more than 200 potential female candidates for the 2017 PNG elections, there are currently no women in parliament.

“The results are not OK,” Adamson said.

The discussion of inclusive leadership extended beyond gender and into wider diversity, with panels also discussing disability inclusiveness at the top level. Cathy Nasarua, board member of the Fiji Association of the Deaf, explained the importance of having people with disabilities at the highest ranks. “I am a role model for other deaf people,” she said.

But more effort needs to go into breaking down barriers. Christina Ryan, founder of the Disability Leadership Institute, said obstacles preventing inclusion, progression, and leadership of people with disability were often as simple as difficulty with access or facilities supporting needs, including transportation. Despite wanting to be involved, she said sometimes it is just too difficult.

And Ekawati Liu, a disability inclusion specialist based in Indonesia, said fear of engagement with a person who is deaf often prevent her from achieving more. But she encouraged everyone to simply talk to people with a disability, ensuring they are part of the conversation and decision-making.

There is much knowledge, experience, and passion available among people with disability to share and contribute at all levels of NGOs, including in leadership, speakers explained. And it would open the door to development outcomes to be more inclusive and better targeted for those more likely to be at risk of poverty and injustice.

Devex is supporting the ACFID National Conference as a media partner. Follow discussion from the conference which took place on November 1 and 2 using the hashtag #ACFID2017.

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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.