What to expect on the ACFID 2016 conference

By Lisa Cornish 25 October 2016

Photo by: crystal710

Australian NGOs are gathering this week in Melbourne to piece through the most pressing questions facing the sector now and in the coming years. The Australian Council for International Development’s annual conference, taking place on Oct. 26-27, provides an annual forum for organizations to take stock of the state of development and plan for what’s ahead.

This year, the buzz is about action. Following several years of government budget cuts and a greater focus on the private sector, there is a sense that the worst is now behind Australia’s nongovernmental organizations. And they are ready to get on with the job.

In this exclusive event preview, Devex delves into the key outcomes, messages and takeaways Australia’s development sector will expect from the conference.

From change and innovation to impact

ACFID’s theme this year is “impact” — an apt word for what participants expect to dominate discussions. While past conferences have discussed the role of disruptive change and innovation in the NGO sector, this year’s forum will focus on how organizations can implement those ideas on the ground.

The conference theme is a response to the changing environment for NGOs, particularly financially. The reduction in government aid funding, combined with a global push for greater localization in development, requires Australia’s NGO sector to re-evaluate their approaches, including how they utilize technology and collaborate with partners.

The conference will provide NGOs space to explore a “bold, future agenda for the Australian development sector,” according to Marc Purcell, executive director of ACFID.

Conference participants seem to be shaking their past pessimism about changes to the sector. Devex interviews revealed a new level of confidence and optimism about NGO work going forward.

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In the lead up to the conference, ACFID has called for submissions on “think pieces” about what international development will look like over the next decade.

“This week’s conference provides us with a chance to look ahead and develop a new agenda for international development at a watershed moment for the sector,” Purcell told Devex.

The ACFID conference will give the sector space to shape the future and, according to Purcell, will explore what the sector needs to do now to make it happen. “It will offer our members a chance to explore ideas from which we can make strong policy recommendations to inform Australia’s development policy and aid program.”

Among the major ideas that have shaped pre-conference discussions are: focusing bilateral climate change partnerships purely the Asia-Pacific; whole-of-Australian-government action to support the SDGs; utilizing the Federal Court in Australian government responses to global development challenges; and how refugee diasporas can aid humanitarian responses in the future.

Establishing Australia’s aid objectives

Australian politicians will join ACFID in discussing the future and impact of development. Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, her counterpart in the shadow cabinet Claire Moore and leader of the Australian Greens Sen. Richard Di Natale will all be speaking at the conference.

NGOs will be able to hear plans Malcolm Turnbull’s government has for the Australian aid program and where they plan to focus their efforts. Moore and Di Natale are also expected to speak about the government’s vision for aid impact longer term.

The forum will also provide NGOs with an opportunity to influence these key decision-makers. Conference speakers such as Amihan Abueva from the Child Rights Coalition Asia, for example, will be urging Australian NGOs to take a greater leadership role.

“There should be greater cooperation and collaboration among NGOs so that we have a greater impact on public policy including on the rights of children,” she told Devex. “I think if NGOs can agree on the key points they want to advocate for and they carry this message across, both at the local level and national level, we can persuade leaders of the government to look at development issues more closely.”

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

Collaboration is important for the ongoing viability, success and impact of NGOs, and conference attendees will hear about it. A lot.

Keynote speaker Kerry Graham, director of Collaboration for Impact, told Devex the complex social change and impact NGOs aim to achieve cannot be done without strong leadership and collaboration. And while NGOs understand the need to collaborate for impact, converting this into action can be difficult.

“There are some courses and degrees that help you to learn to collaborate as an organization, but that is not necessarily the answer for NGOs,” she explained. “NGOs need leadership and then just get out there and do it.”

Collaboration can also multiply NGOs’ individual impacts and provide organizations with a stronger sense of where their competitive advantages lie.

“By looking outward, NGOs can see where their pieces of the puzzle are, what they do really well and where they can contribute to other pieces of the puzzle are needed,” Graham said. “And by turning outward you can learn and collaborate alongside others for impact.”

Graham will be encouraging NGOs to seek collaborative partners broadly to generate new ideas for development solutions. She plans to speak about several strategies and skills NGOs can develop to turn ideas into action, for example leadership approaches, collaborative process and practices, effective data use and impact evaluation in volatile environments.

Inspiration to make a bigger impact

The ACFID conference is, lastly, a chance for development professionals to be reminded of why they do what they do.

“I want NGOs to be inspired, even though at times it can be overwhelming and messy,” Graham said. “Everyone has a role to play in making an impact — you don’t have to be at CEO level or in charge of budget and program decision in order to be a catalyser for change. You can make change at every level.”

Purcell is hoping to encourage NGOs to create a stronger, more unified front for a larger impact on developing nations.

“Accounting for the changing context for development, the need to innovate and do development differently, we will look at how we can reshape our approach to increase our impact and continue to deliver upon our purpose: to unite our members in action for a just, equitable and sustainable world,” he said.

For NGOs not in attendance, the discussion, debate and impact can be followed on Twitter using #ACFID2016.

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About the author

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Lisa Cornishlisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a Devex reporter based in Canberra, Australia. 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.

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