Indigenous Australian aid supplier pivots to domestic work

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Aid supplies at a warehouse in Brisbane, Australia. Photo by: DFAT / Ray Cash / CC BY

CANBERRA — Indigenous Australian aid supplier i2i Global has announced it will pivot from its international aid contracts to focus on domestic initiatives supporting the needs of Indigenous Australians in response to COVID-19.

“Until international travel returns, we can’t get long-term or short-term advisers into the field. That’s what we do, so there is nothing for us.”

— Darren Godwell, CEO, i2i Global

Indigenous Business Australia and other federal and state-based Indigenous authorities in the country will be among the groups now aided by the company’s international development staff, as part of efforts that could see experienced Indigenous development professionals supporting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade occupied with alternate work in the coming years.

COVID-19 — a timeline of the coronavirus outbreak

Follow the latest developments on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Darren Godwell, CEO of i2i Global, told Devex the decision was based on a discussion last month with the chairman of i2i’s board, Tony Martens, that assessed the company’s contingency plan.

“The number one priority was the safety of our staff and their well-being,” Godwell said. “And then the second priority is the focus on the well-being of our company and making sure the company is healthy. We made the decision to start standing down staff from interstate travel, gatherings, and so on. We also realized it would take time for DFAT to work through the impacts and consequences, so we started shifting.”

Staff members at i2i are now working from home, with Godwell keeping them aware of new opportunities in the domestic space. Regarding the decision, Godwell said that there were different pillars of revenue in existence for i2i, so it would not be vulnerable to any one sector.

“That resilience in the company, and our ability to shift and be agile, is something we have looked to build into i2i Global in its early years — we just didn’t expect it to happen this early,” he said.

The payment for its international development work, as lead contractor or subcontractor, comes after the delivery of services, which also made the decision easier; it was a funding model that could have left them deprived of revenue if projects were put on hold for a long time.

The announcement of i2i’s pivot came two weeks after the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told its aid suppliers that determinations on the continuation of projects would be based on discussions with specific contract agreement managers “if the impact of COVID-19 is expected to affect the achievement of end of program outcomes,” with decisions made on contract amendments after that.

“From the messages I have been getting through DFAT’s suppliers network, they appear to be putting everything on hold anyway,” Godwell said. “They’re just asking suppliers for contingency plans for how some elements of the contracts can continue. But until international travel returns, we can’t get long-term or short-term advisers into the field. That’s what we do, so there is nothing for us.”

Assurance will be required from DFAT

Godwell said that if DFAT required staff members to be redeployed, i2i would be ready — but only with the assurance of staff safety.

“We would expect DFAT to take the lion's share of responsibility for fundamentals like personal protective equipment that’s needed,” he said. Suppliers would need details about what would happen in the event that somebody catches the virus — including extractions, evacuations, and certainty on how DFAT would respond, Godwell said, adding that “there's not a lot of testing going on in Pacific countries to provide assurance that staff is safe from coronavirus.”

Godwell said it was important that DFAT was treating regions as if there was an outbreak — even though the relevant data may not be available — to ensure there were adequate protections.

“We expect the protection for staff to be based on the highest risk of contamination,” he said.

But, he said, he was also aware that with Australian domestic activities now the focus, i2i Global’s development staff may not be available to support programs on the ground.

“We need to rethink our service model where we would use our Indigenous professionals as team leaders and managers, and we would then use other Indigenous personnel experienced with CSOs to deliver the services,” Godwell said.

Concern for partner countries

Godwell expressed worry over the message being sent to partner countries in the Indo-Pacific region, who voiced concern that Australia was leaving them to respond to COVID-19 alone.

“We had a staff member who was in Papua New Guinea for a meeting on Manus [Island] with the regional governor,” Godwell said. “This just before the official [Australian] travel ban came in. At that point, the official line was consistent with others around the world. But our staff member said on the ground that everything was very much business as usual and life as usual. It was a bit of a disconnect.”

The staff member also said that government officials in PNG hoped that Australia would step in, according to Godwell. “The officials he was talking with really did expect and hope that the Australian big brother would help out,” he said.

Godwell said he is hopeful that the future will see i2i supporting countries such as PNG again.

“In the development space, having Indigenous professionals in delivery and front-line services helps to equip our workforce with a natural asset to do that intercultural work,” he said. “That’s why the i2i approach is, for us, a real opportunity for DFAT to lift the effectiveness of what it does to help countries recover from the impacts of COVID-19.”

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.