Tag Archives: Australia

home

Reverse culture shock and the challenges of returning home

I recently returned home to Australia after living in Dhaka, Bangladesh for eight months. It was great coming home – seeing my friends, starting a new job and eating all my favourite foods again.

When friends asked me to talk about my time away, I was happy to do so, at first. But soon I started avoiding standard questions like ‘what did you do over there?’ ‘what are the people like?’ and ‘was the country poor?’

Now, most people don’t ask me these questions and if they do, I give them one-word answers. It wasn’t until the other day I realised my reluctance to speak about my time in Bangladesh was a symptom of a larger issue, reverse culture shock.

When people talk about experiencing reverse culture shock they often talk about one event, like a breakdown at the supermarket because they are suddenly overwhelmed by consumerism and trying to decide between five brands of toilet roll. And when I didn’t have a melt down at the supermarket – I just grabbed the toilet rolls closest to me – I thought I had been spared.

The selection is overwhelming - and then you see how much they cost.
The selection is overwhelming – and then you see how much they cost.

Like many others, I didn’t know that reverse culture shock can come in different forms and can manifest itself in less obvious ways, like in my case not wanting to talk about my experiences because I felt alienated from my friends and family. Because I settled back into my Australian life very quickly and I was glad to be home, friends assumed I hadn’t changed and things would continue as they had done before I left.

As for me, I felt like my time in Dhaka had never happened. This was because I struggled to convey how different my life was in Bangladesh compared to Australia. I couldn’t find the words to explain what I saw or how it felt to witness some of the things I did.

At first, I tried but I saw people’s eyes glaze over and I grew frustrated when they followed up my heartfelt responses with, ‘so do they have beaches there?’ I spent my first few weeks trying to defend Bangladesh and correct preconceptions: yes, the country is predominantly Muslim, but no they don’t all wear burkas; and Bangladesh isn’t an Indian state though there are strong ties between the two countries.

I guess people can’t be blamed entirely for their limited understanding. It’s hard to understand a country, culture and people when you haven’t experienced it for yourself and Bangladesh isn’t exactly a popular travel destination or on most people’s radar, although I would argue more attention needs to be given to the country.

As a result, I found myself agreeing to whatever ideas people had about Bangladesh and ‘developing countries.’ I didn’t want to be that friend who started an argument or always talked about human rights over dinner so instead I kept my thoughts to myself, and because I wasn’t able to talk about my time away it felt like a distant memory.

I also didn’t give much thought to coming home and the challenges with settling back into my ‘old life’, despite spending most of my time prior to moving overseas learning what to expect and mentally preparing myself. I didn’t consider that people didn’t really understand what my role in Bangladesh was and my reasons for going.

Some people I talked to thought I was on an extended holiday and I spent my days teaching English to children. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Having to explain repeatedly about my work was a real struggle for me. I felt I had to justify my decisions for moving to Bangladesh and when friends and family didn’t understand these justifications, it left me feeling alone and frustrated. I believe the misconceptions about what it is to work, volunteer, and live overseas, contributed significantly to the reverse culture shock I felt.

What I went through, and am still going through, is normal. Talking to a few other returned expats, I realised I wasn’t alone. Most have gone through a similar process and some have stopped talking about their experience to ‘make it easier’ for themselves and others, highlighting to me that reverse culture shock is common.

The best way I have found to explain it to people is comparing it to returned soldiers. There is a strong friendship formed between yourself and fellow expats. It is only with them that I have felt comfortable to say how I really felt about working in Bangladesh and my experience as an expat. Without this support network, adjusting to life in Australia would have been very challenging. You can’t live in a city like Dhaka and not have it change you and your worldviews.

I don’t think there is enough attention given to reverse culture shock. Expats often put all their energy in preparing to go and making most of the experience that little energy remains to prepare themselves for the final part of their journey: coming home.

Friends and family may not be aware support is required upon the expat’s return or that reverse culture shock even exists. Expats need to be aware of this and be proactive to find those they can talk to, because feelings of alienation and isolation are mental health issues.

For returned expats like me, it’s extremely important a lack of understanding about reverse culture shock doesn’t prevent us from sharing our stories. Telling our stories is both cathartic and helps reduce the misconceptions about development work.

AusAid

Significant aid stories of 2013 | AidWorks

To discuss some of the major issues of 2013, AidWorks host Albion Harrison-Naish, was joined by the heads of three prominent Australian aid NGOs. CARE Australia’s Dr. Julia Newton-Howes, ActionAid Australia’s Archie Law and Act for Peace’s Alistair Gee provided an engaging conversation about a variety of issues.

After a brief discussion of the recently-announced further cuts to Australia’s aid program, the panellists discussed the various cuts, diversions and delays suffered by Australia’s aid program over 2013. The conversation also covered issues like climate change and the developing world, the evolution of emergency humanitarian responses, the rise of the BRICS nations and how this will likely impact on development models, as well as the debates over the post 2015 development agenda.

249-artwork-focus

5 key takeaways from the ACFID DevelopmentFutures Conference

On the 21st and 22nd November, the University of Technology Sydney hosted the Australian Council for International Development’s (ACFID) 4th DevelopmentFutures conference. This year’s theme, ‘alternative pathways to end poverty’, brought together an eclectic mix of academic, practitioner, student, activist and bureaucrat. I was lucky enough to both attend and present, and harangued four other attendees for this post to present their key takeaways. First up is Enrique Mendizabal, one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

1. How may we work with them?

Enrique Mendizabal – Think tanks researcher, advisor and promoter, Founder onthinktanks.org

I think there is a deep sense of realism about the state of the Aid Industry. I was surprised (pleasantly, of course) that my direct attack on the development sector elicited a great del of support. Many of the reactions to my speech, which called for the dismantling of the industry and for an unmediated relationship between people, organisations, and governments, went ever further. Particularly keen on this idea were the Australian Award Scholars who, for the most part, were not studying ‘development’. Rather, they were undertaking postgraduate degrees in engineering, chemistry, underground water management, education, business, anthropology, economics, etc.

To me, this choice denotes agency. Uma Kothari’s excellent key note speech made reference to this by questioning the legitimacy of global development targets, namely the MDGs, which predefine an homogenous future; in essence, robbing people from the opportunity and responsibility of defining it themselves.

I felt the conference was successful in providing the space for different futures to be imagined and from perspectives other than of the development sector. Instead we heard of the contributions that the media, the private sector, and academia could make, not by joining the industry but by pursuing their own purposes. Not, then, ‘how to get them to work with us’, but ‘how may we work with them?’

2. A developmental ‘secret sauce’?

Gerard McCarthy – Director (Asia-Pacific) at TechChange: The Institute for Technology and Social Change

The irony of hosting a ‘Development Futures’ conference weeks after the dismembering of AusAID wasn’t lost on many of those who attended the conference. Despite the incongruence between the ‘blue-sky thinking’ focus of the conference and it’s timing, there were plenty of insightful take-outs. Unsurprisingly, the major one for me was that the next few years will be a time of great change in Australia’s aid and development program. As Robin Davies of ANU’s DevPolicy Centre observed, the imperative for NGOs to reduce their reliance on government funding is stronger than ever; whether that be by exploring ways to boost contributions from individuals or partnering with business and social enterprise where there is a good operational and values fit.

On the macro level, I was given reasons to be a bit more bullish about development outcomes after the expiry of the 2015 MDGs. As was repeated throughout the two day conference, the Rustovian ‘take-off’ model of development can and is being ‘leap-frogged’ by many developing countries who are reducing poverty and delivering public goods much sooner than the 1960s model might have predicted. Indeed, it’s clear that the emergence of centralised, bureaucratic governments are not the only trajectory to improving development outcomes. Rather, as Macquarie University’s resident ‘futurist’ Sohail Inayatullah summarised, clever governments and NGOs are recognising the weaknesses of highly centralised public-sector models and are enlisting technological innovations to ‘fly-over’ archaic institutional designs.

If ‘development’ does indeed have a future, as Enrique Mendizabal of On Think Tanks questioned, I actually think it’s likely to look much more like the health system innovations that have emerged in places such as Bangladesh and Nepal. As ODIs research on Nepal has shown, a cross-sectoral combination of strong government commitment, increased remittances and deployment of digital tools to improve data collection, service delivery and political accountability has reduced maternal mortality by 47 percent between 1996 and 2006. A remarkable outcome, and one which might just hint at what the ‘secret sauce’ of 21st century development practice might be made of.

3. If we can imagine a future, we can create it

Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte – Adjunct Research Fellow at James Cook University’s Centre for Disaster Studies

There is a deep sense of cynicism about the current aid architecture, and a deeper sense that anything is possible.  Conference themes cohered around futures thinking, or the idea that any future is possible. This unleashed my inner aid heretic and revolutionary.  The enormity of the dilemmas facing us as a planet, as a species, as a sector, felt pressing and insurmountable under current mechanisms that the conference discussed. There were several hundred Australian Leadership Award Scholars present, ostensibly as part of their leadership training. The trouble was that most were there under duress, and the program had not been structured to accommodate them or nurture their leadership skills. If grassroots empowerment is a cornerstone of a better development future, this was a perplexing and missed opportunity.

But, the very great intellect, integrity and straight talking at the conference profoundly energised and emboldened me. During Suhail’s workshop, for example, I imagined women and men experiencing themselves and each other as unconditioned, authentic, empowered, and imagined how we might get there. I heard others sorting world hunger, and donor arrogance, and empowering grassroots development initiatives. If we can imagine it, we can create it. This is the world I have started to inhabit.

4. Let’s scale down and have more events

Anthony Zwi – Professor Global Health and Development, UNSW

Linkages between policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and teachers is crucial to broadening and deepening the humanitarian and development fields. The crowded agenda and hectic pace mimicked the real world, with people and issues championing their causes, screaming for attention or identifying their issues as the priorities. Aside from a valuable annual meeting of this sort, we need more smaller-scale events that are more focused, more searching, across the calendar year involving a wider range of people in different parts of the country. This can be done alongside enhanced virtual interaction with people working together to take forward (conceptually, strategically and practically) a number of key areas.

A wide range of issues could be placed on the agenda. Here are a few that immediately spring to mind that emerged directly or indirectly from conference debates:

  • Engaging with the general public around development and humanitarian issues: innovations and experiences in stimulating understanding and critique;
  • Interfacing with DFAT: is there place for development values within an aid and trade environment?;
  • Indigenous rights and development: learning and exchange from within and outside our borders;
  • Taking forward the ACFID Principles for Ethical Research and Evaluation in Development: strategies, challenges and opportunities to extend learning and debate around these issues and to apply these principles within the humanitarian and development fields;
  • New media – tools for voice and vision or control?;
  • Slowing down: are we expecting too much too quickly?;
  • Innovations in humanitarian and development education, training and professionalization: broadening partnerships and critique;
  • Real time learning and critique: what to do and how to get there?

The list continues and they all need work. I’ll put up my hand to organise one in the next year and maybe others can do the same as a start to extending the fertile directions uncovered during the meeting and interpersonal connections made.

5. Game over man. Game over.

Brendan Rigby – Director of WhyDev

One thing is clear: NGOs need to critically and urgently rethink their roles within the public and development space. It’s game over. NGOs are no longer intermediaries between the public and development. Consider the following put forward by Andrew Hewett and Chris Roche at the conference:

  • Development assistance has played little direct role in poverty reduction over the past two decades. (Thanks China!);
  • Inequalities are growing along multidimensional lines, and most people living in poverty are in middle income countries;
  • There are an increasing number of people affected by humanitarian emergencies;
  • The urgency of climate change is increasing as its impacts are multifaceted from peace and security to disease and poverty.

Many NGOs still operate under a transactional model with the public in their role as intermediaries. However, the way the public can engage with development, through microloans (Kiva), direct cash transfers (GiveDirectly), voluntourism and advocacy (Global Poverty Project), is rapidly changing. On the other side, ODA funding is heading backwards and government aid agencies are leap-frogging NGOs as intermediaries. Bilateral relationships are trending as the aid architecture changes. However, I do not believe that NGOs can critically address these issues without first admitting and embracing failure. It is not something they do well. And, I was struck by this again at the conference as ‘success’ story after ‘success’ story was trotted out  and failure was relegated to ‘lessons learned’ (if at all). Many experienced leaders in the Australian NGO community are convinced of this need for change. But, where that change starts and who initiates it is unclear.

 

 

2013-09-27-stonecutters

Who sets the international development agenda? We do!

When talking about poverty and development, we seem to spend a lot of time and energy lamenting what isn’t on the agenda. The more important question is however, who sets the agenda?

“Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do! We do!”

2013-09-27-stonecutters.jpg

In the Simpsons episode, “Homer the Great,” the Stonecutters, an ancient secret society, are responsible for controlling the way society operates. They set the agenda. But in our world, who is truly responsible — those attending U.N. meetings in New York or ordinary people?

Last week, the U.N. held a high-level meeting to discuss the outcomes for people with disabilities in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other internationally-agreed goals. As we reach the post-2015 agenda, there is no doubt that the MDGs have failed the over 1 billion people living with disability in the world.

Although the eight MDGs touch on areas, such as education and health, that involve people with disabilities, there is no explicit mention of those with disabilities within these targets. In working out how over 1 billion, or over 15 percent of the world’s population could be ignored, it’s important to reflect on how the MDGs were formed in the first place.

The process itself was haphazard and took many years of negotiations. Although there were moments where certain individuals could influence outcomes, they are largely based on the amount of power certain groups could “wield” (economic, political, moral and even military).

Where does this leave those who have never been high on the international agenda? It makes it difficult for those to get on the agenda, clearly. Action was consolidated around those areas that were already deemed to be important, yet for those who were forgotten, they remained so. Simply put, the MDGs only reinforce areas of need where people have already been able to wield power.

The organization I have been working with, CABDICO, has recently started a new project in response to the overwhelming lack of comprehensive services in speech therapy. These services aim to help those with communication and swallowing disorders.

Recent research indicates that there are over 600,000 people in Cambodia who lack access to these basic services. The implications of this are critical.

People with untreated swallowing disorders are 13 times more likely to suffer premature death than those who are not. This is because they are at risk of aspirating (food or liquid entering the lungs) and hence contracting a pneumonia (chest infection). People with communication problems face isolation and low opportunities to participate in schools, work or their community. Mental health is also majorly impacted.

Even on a purely economic level, supporting this project makes sense. This is because the economic cost of untreated swallowing disorders is huge. Research in the UK has shown that a £1 investment in speech therapy services for people with swallowing problems generates £2.3 in health care cost savings through avoided cases of chest infections. This could result in significant savings for the health sector in Cambodia.

Every time that CABDICO has presented this concept to traditional donors the response has been that a important area has been identified, and that funding for this need is crucial. However, since disability is not their priority, these donors weren’t able to fund it.

This frustration is something that disability NGOs face on an almost daily basis. If those in positions of power have not identified disability as a priority how do we, as a society, determine whether it is one?

Chhon Chuon, one of the children CABDICO treats, who is now a important member of the community due to their work.
Chhon Chuon, one of the children CABDICO treats, who is now a important member of the community due to their work.

There is an interesting parallel to be made with what is now occurring in Australia in regards to climate change. The Climate Commission was set up by the previous Australian government in 2011 to increase public awareness of climate change science. After the recent election, the new conservative government, not the most ardent believers in climate change, scrapped the organization, claiming it would save $580,000 this financial year and $1.6 million in the following years.

This decision was announced on a Thursday. On the next Tuesday, the members of the former Climate Commission announced that they would work pro bono if necessary, under the banner of a new organisation called the Climate Council.

In response to this news, donations came in from all parts of the country and in one day, they managed to raise $400,000 from private donors. After only 24 hours, they were well on their way to raising the $580,000 that they required per year to run the organization.

Clearly, the people had spoken. Even if the government thought otherwise, those ordinary Australians who donated showed that they believed in the importance climate change. They collectively put climate change back on the agenda.

I wonder if the same thing could happen in disability: if ordinary people could show those that are in positions of power that this is an important issue that cannot afford to be overlooked again and again.

Due to a lack of interest from traditional donors, CABDICO has set up their own crowdfunding page, where individuals can give amounts of money, small or large, to fund programs that support people with disabilities.

Maybe this is the one way that ordinary people can shift the agenda, by creating a groundswell of support. One can only hope so.

You can support CABDICO’s efforts to assist the over 600,000 people who lack access to vital services.

This originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

ELECTION2013 TONY ABBOTT DARWIN

Tony Abbott’s business proposal for an Indonesian fisherman

On the 23rd August 2013, Australian Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott announced a new policy of regional deterrence for asylum seekers hoping to settle in Australia. The policy included the ability to buy un-seaworthy boats from Indonesian fishermen. (Otherwise known as the boat-buy back scheme.) This policy would ensure that the boats did not end up in the hands of people smugglers, and be responsible for the drownings of asylum seekers at sea.

In an exclusive for WhyDev, I managed to dig up the original email that Abbott sent to Indonesian fishermen. It is clearly inspired by the Nigerian bank scams that anyone with an email address is sure to be familiar with. This exclusive correspondence is below:

*********

Dear Respected Indonesian Fisherman,

GREETINGS,

Permit me to inform you of my desire of going into business relationship with you. I got your contact from the International web site directory. I prayed over it and selected your name among other names due to it’s esteeming nature and the recommendations given to me as a reputable and trust worthy person I can do business with and by the recommendations I must not hesitate to confide in you for this simple and sincere business.

I am Anthony John Abbott, the only son of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Henry Abbott. My father was English-born and I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. However, my father moved our family in 1960 to Australia by boat and we settled in northern Sydney. Although I attended a Catholic seminary, I am now an elected representative of the Australian people. Recently, with the death of the Australian Labor Party, the Treasury secretly told me that they have a sum of $20.000.000 (Twenty Million Dollars) for a policy of the regional deterrence of people smuggling left in a suspense account in the Treasury in Canberra.

It was also explained to me that because of the extraordinary number of boats and asylum seekers making their way to Australia, that I should seek for a God fearing foreign partner in a country of my choice where I will transfer this money and use it for buying back their fishing boats. Sir, we are honourably seeking your assistance in the following ways.

  1. To provide a Bank account where this money will be transferred to.
  2. Handing over of your fishing boat vessel upon receipt of Bank transfer.

Moreover, we are willing to offer you a bounty payment for specific information that leads to the arrest of people smugglers in your village.  Please feel free to contact me via this email address:

Tony.Abbott.MP@aph.gov.au

Anticipating to hear from you soon.

Thanks and God Bless

Best Regards

The Honourable Anthony John Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia

PLEASE FOR PRIVATE AND SECUTIRY REASONS, REPLY ME VIA EMAIL:

Tony.Abbott.MP@aph.gov.au

*********

follow-the-money-chjcc-corrupt-fraud-crown-heights-jewish-community-council-inc

Why the narrative on aid in Australia needs to change | AidWorks

Brendan Rigby, WhyDev Director and PhD student at the University of Melbourne, recently published a piece on the Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network, which called for a shift in what he sees as the dominant narrative in the aid conversation in Australia. Brendan argues that too much effort is being spent in attempting to hold the government to account over promises to meet the 0.5% of Gross National Income target for Australia’s aid budget, and that it would be better to more closely examine how the aid is being spent.

Albion Harrison-Naish caught up with Brendan to discuss these issues.

end_poverty

It’s time to reframe the debate around aid

Thursday, September 5, 2013. It was a day where I managed to bask in three minutes of wonderful news, before the sky seemingly crashed down, co-workers went into a frenzy and the atmosphere in the office transitioned from relative calm to utter despair.

It wasn’t the Australian election – although I’m sure there were enough people in the office disappointed at that result as well. Instead, the Coalition had just announced that, if they were to win Government, they would cut $4.5 billion from official development assistance (ODA) over the next four years, including a $656 million cut to this financial year.

How dare they!? In the face of a number of cuts and delays to Australia’s aid program, I know many that held the feeling that it had to stop somewhere. There was a largely unspoken expectation that any incoming Coalition government would cut ODA spending, but most didn’t expect the cut would be this large – or damaging – to Australian aid.

In reality, the development sector in Australia have backed themselves into a corner, with no easy way to forge ahead.

Australia, you’re doing it wrong

For at least 10 years, agencies and campaigners in Australia have put much effort into campaigning for an increase in ODA to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI), with 0.7% as the end goal. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a target that Australia has agreed to multiple times at the international and national level. It’s a target that many have latched on to as an easy way of communicating aid and our responsibilities as a nation to the public.

It is a target that I have wholeheartedly supported for years, and I still do.

It’s also utterly demoralising for aid supporters when leaders decide to renege on commitments, cut aid and throw the target down the toilet without a second thought.

Perhaps this single-minded emphasis on percentage targets has been misguided. At the very least, it has allowed the sector to be backed in – at one stage the sector pushed hard on the target of achieving 0.7% by the 2015-16 financial year. When it became obvious that this was unrealistic and would ultimately be detrimental to the work of AusAID, as it would require such a massive scale-up in a short amount of time, the target became 0.7% by 2020, with an interim target of 0.5% by 2015-16. Then we were promised by 2016-17. After the most recent announcement by a now-new government, where do we head now?

The more I think about it, the more I believe that aid communication in Australia has to drastically change from an emphasis on funding, commitments and promises to a focus on success and the ultimate end goal.

Change it up. After all, that’s what we’re asking our politicians to do

I know that I’m ruffling a few feathers among many friends who work in the campaigning space. After all, we’ve all spent countless hours crafting that perfect email to supporters or thinking up ingenious ways to encourage supporters to pick up a phone and call their local MP. But I think we’ve all missed something along the way: the end game.

No matter what you think of the Millennium Development Goals, what form you believe the next international development agenda should take, whether you think there should be an overarching set of goals in the first place, or your feelings toward neat catch cries that couldn’t possibly account for the complexities of “doing development,” the end of poverty is a compelling message. After the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda handed down its report, it seems that the catch cry for the next 15 years will be eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.

If anything, that throws a bunch of opportunities out there for campaigners in the development space.

I throw these thoughts out to create discussion, not as a blueprint on how to move forward. Some of these ideas may indeed be crazy and in the end may not work, but that’s okay.

1.     Highlight stories of success. And please, no more celebrity endorsements

The world is full of amazing stories of success and stories of why aid works. Bring them to the front, shine a light on those stories and show the public their tax dollars at work. Many agencies pay lip service to this idea, but it’s time to go all in on this. Also, these stories should stand on their own. We don’t need to adopt celebrities again as endorsements and the major drawcard.

2.     Call out bad policy, and don’t be afraid to criticise

Sometimes governments get it wrong. They release a policy or make an announcement that is clearly bad and ill-thought out. The sector shouldn’t be afraid to call out bad policy for what it is, even if that means putting some people off-side. In the end, better policy means better development, which means we’re closer towards the end goal. Agencies need to become more aggressive and proactive in this area.

3.     Experiment in how we communicate aid

We need to take some risks and experiment with how we communicate aid to the Australian public. Do something different that actually grabs the attention of the public. If that means BASE jumping off a building with an ironing board (extreme ironing, it’s a thing, Google it), try it. And if anyone figures out how you could link that to aid, please let me know!

extreme-ironing-on-mountaintop
Extreme ironing. Aid. There’s gotta be a connection somewhere.

4.     Focus on the end goal, not the interim targets

In the end, we all have an end goal that we want to see. Instead of framing the debate around the interim targets, frame the debate around the end goal. The end of poverty, while being a lofty goal, is a much more powerful story and rallying cry than a continual focus on percentages.

Continue to focus on development financing – in the end, it’s an extremely important aspect, and the 0.5% and 0.7% goals remain international commitments.

But frame it around the end goal. Don’t frame the end goal around achieving a certain level of funding.

Joan-of-Arc-joan-of-arc-29092574-400-260

Refugee policy debate needs Joan of Arc

Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte is an international development professional, zen student, writer, mentor and aid heretic. Her new blog “Inside Out Development” launches next week, where she will publish a longer version of this article. For more info email her at mariannejago@yahoo.com.au and she will excitedly add you to her blog list. 

In Australia we are in caretaker period, the lull before the federal election storm. The hysteria over where to send “illegal refugees” who arrive in Australia, or who die trying, has reached fever pitch. It’s all ending in tears. It’s time for me for me to dry mine, buckle up my boots, and wade into the policy arena.

This epidemic of nastiness toward refugees took on a new strain in August 2013. The incumbent government, trailing in the polls, outdid itself by promising to send Australian-bound “boat people” to neighbouring Papua New Guinea, a highly underdeveloped country largely unable to care for its own population, for processing and yes, resettlement. To me this seems remarkably like a f*** off refugees policy.

It is worth noting that that under the current system, almost 90% of asylum seekers’ claims to refugee status  have been ultimately accepted under Australian migration law, meaning they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country.

These people include the Hazaras, a case demonstrating one small piece of DoubleThink that I can’t get past. Many “boat people” are Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, where oddly enough our own troops and aid workers, are standing up to the Taliban because they randomly persecute people (like Hazaras).

Do forgive me but I can’t make out the logic here. We endanger our soldiers and aid workers to protect the lives of Hazaras in Afghanistan and we would also send Hazara boat people to Papua New Guinea because they are “illegal queue jumpers” and because “we will decide” who comes to Australia.

img-pic-27

How did Hazaras go from being worthy of protection to being worthy of demonization and abandonment? Might it be because they fled the country in which they were being persecuted and had the gall to seek asylum in Australia?  I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d be doing if I were Hazara.

There is plenty of information in the public domain to refute the slogans that the major parties are propagating in their demonization of refugees, such as the fact that all refugees were asylum seekers at some point, and that it isn’t illegal to seek asylum.

There has also been some serious policy work done which points to the need for a bi-partisan, regional solution that isn’t just about buying off the neighbouring country that can least refuse.

But this isn’t going to excite the voting public, at least not in the way a great piece of self-aggrandising bastardry does. To be frank: I’m holding out for a hero from among the major parties and all I’m getting are lies lies and not even any damn statistics to back them up.

Soon, one of the main two political parties will be in power, and neither has a credible refugee policy. I am fairly resigned now to this, and am flirting with the idea of a donkey vote, or even abstaining altogether.  But try as I might, I just can’t seem to disengage.

In an effort to be the change I want to see in the world, last week I wrote an impassioned letter telling our Dear Leader that sending refugees to Papua New Guinea is not only craven but is also in breach of our international legal obligations. I didn’t mention the stash of cash taken from the aid budget ostensibly to fund periods of prolonged detention offshore for asylum seekers.

Here is the letter’s high point, if I may say:

Finally, please could you provide me with the costing estimates of this “PNG solution”, in particular the fees being earned by the private security company to whom you have entrusted responsibility for the success of this policy. Please note I plan to withhold from further tax payments my portion of funds that would fund your PNG asylum seeker policy.

Striving for politeness and decorum, I signed the letter Sincerely. I took some deep breaths to calm myself down having worked myself up in service of humanity. I followed Amnesty International’s campaign instructions and sent  it to both the PM’s office and to the office of the Minister for Immigration. I have sought Divine Guidance – specifically from Joan of Arc – and now rise, phoenix-like from these policy ashes.

Here are the responses I received (Amnesty take note):

From the PM’s proxy people:

“If you wish to contact Prime Minister Rudd during this (caretaker) period, please direct your enquiries through the Labor Party website.”

There is nowhere on the website to submit letters.

From Tony Burke MP’s proxy people:

“Please note that this is Tony’s email address for electorate…matters. If you are writing to Tony in his capacity as (Immigration) Minister…please email minister@immi.gov.au”.

It’s true. I wrote to the Minister and he said I had to write to the Minister.

How is one to make meaning of all this? I’ve heard it said that good and evil oppose each other, contain each other, and this is the nature of things. Perhaps we in Australia are given this refugee rejection business as an opportunity to show our better selves: our tolerance, our irreverence for authority, our love of the underdog.

I am not hopeful that this election will produce a fair outcome for refugees but something good has come of it for me. I have connected with a community of practitioners using its considerable skills and integrity to help refugees seeking asylum in Australia. They are fearless and determined, and I feel only admiration and relief when I hear of their efforts.

Perhaps its time I joined them.

Learn more about the work of the Refugee Council of Australia.

The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.

Cultural constructions of ‘appropriate’ housing

Steven Roche is a social worker volunteering with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative.

Societies define disadvantage in a number of ways. One way is through identifying and defining housing status, facilities and amenities, or the lack of. When these criteria are placed next to housing conditions in a developing country such as the Philippines, a country such as Australia predictably begins to look privileged.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) counts people in ‘tertiary’ homelessness as “those living in a boarding house on a medium to long-term basis, and whose accommodation is below the minimum community standard of a small self-contained flat.” According to the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, one is considered to be in the category of ‘tertiary’ homelessness if lacking particular facilities or amenities: “people who live in rooming houses, boarding houses on a medium or long-term where they do not have their own bathroom and kitchen facilities and tenure is not secured by a lease.”

The ABS’s experts on homelessness have also said that elements required for adequate housing in Australia include: “…a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent a ‘home’.”

These are formless concepts to people living in and around Dumaguete City in the Philippines. I recently collected data from nearly 500 disadvantaged families in Dumaguete City and surrounding Barangays (a term that translates roughly as ‘village,’ however signifies a defined area with formal governance structures) as part of my volunteer role with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) Program. The data that emerged offers an idea of how the concept of ‘appropriate’ housing might be constructed differently in the Philippines, and can provide specific insights into the privileged housing conditions experienced in the developed world.

The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.
The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.

Economic status

The data indicated that these households were truly poor with meagre incomes that prohibit families achieving a well balanced diet, making house repairs, affording health care or affording school supplies.

To add perspective, these household incomes can be converted into US dollars. The rate at the time of collection was 1 US dollar to 40.6 pesos. In the Barangay of Taclobo, household incomes average at $51 per month and in Calindagan monthly incomes averaged at $81. Low incomes combined with poor security of tenure leaves families vulnerable.

Of the households researched, many were without formal leasing arrangements and few owned the land they live on. The Barangay of Canday-ong, for example, is considered to be a ‘squatters’ community, as residents had built their homes without permission years ago. Similar arrangements are dotted throughout other Barangays. Other Barangays offer cheap land rental in which a family may then construct a house. These are typically ‘handshake’ agreements without formal legal arrangements. Rental prices start at several hundred pesos, approximately $5 US per month.

Housing amenities and facilities are far removed from the definitions explored above.

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 10.56.13 AM

Housing is constructed of cheap, yet durable, local and recyclable products. Houses made predominantly of bamboo are traditionally called ‘nipa huts’, which are made mostly from light materials such as wood, bamboo, thatched palm leaves and tin. A nipa hut is a common, sturdy and sought after affordable housing solution on the island of Negros. A small nipa hut can be constructed for approximately 17,000 pesos, a little more than $400 US. Many nipa huts have dirt flooring in entrances and storage areas while elevated areas have bamboo flooring.

In urban areas, houses take on different constructions. Heavier materials are used and security is more of a priority. Houses are constructed of wood, ply-wood, bamboo, concrete blocks and other materials such as tarpaulin (plastic), tin and used polythene rice sacks. Kitchens are typically undercover unplumbed sinks attached to the structure and open fire cooking areas are outside. Facilities are generally shared, such as CR’s (toilets), electricity connections (between houses) and showers are taken at communal deep wells with pumps.

Amenities that are thought of as essential in Australian communities are not readily available or affordable in some Barangays. For example, electricity from outside clustered urban communities requires more infrastructure and finances to connect to households, such as in Timbao and Ticala. In other communities, such as Daro and Candau-ay, barriers to electricity are almost entirely financial. Access to electricity is demonstrated in the following table:

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 10.57.55 AM

Water, an essential amenity, is most often sourced from shared deep wells, and is reluctantly consumed. Households have no internal plumbing or sewage system. Instead, they use underground holes, tanks or other measures for disposing of waste. Most households have water trails or gutters which channel waste water away from the home into other areas, evaporating or disappearing into distant gutters, particularly in the more urban Barangays.

This data clearly outlines that the prerequisites for ‘appropriate’ living conditions in Australia, such as security of tenure and basic amenities, are remarkably unrelated to life for many in the Philippines. Disadvantaged housing circumstances in Australia are beyond comparison to the living conditions described above. These housing conditions provoke an array of poor health and social dysfunction. They also leave families vulnerable to natural disasters and the stress of uncertain tenancy arrangements.

For these eyes, an electrical connection and a lease would be a miracle, let alone any of the other perks that an experience of Australian disadvantage or ‘tertiary homelessness’ might offer. Defining disadvantage is institutionally and culturally constructed. The example of the ABS definition is defined by cultural expectations created by a history of economic success. The gaping difference between inappropriate housing conditions between these two countries, more than anything, further highlights the astounding privilege that developed nations enjoy, when set against the conditions of a developing country.

empathy

We are not refugees

On 19 July, the Australian Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, spelled the beginning of the end for the Refugee Convention. For at least the next 12 months, all asylum seekers arriving by boat will be transferred to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. In addition, those asylum seekers who are determined to be refugees will be resettled, not in Australia, but in Papua New Guinea. I put together a reader’s digest of media from far more well-informed writers who look at this agreement from every which angle. My intention with this post is slightly different than the commentary to date.

1000523_10153037311340414_863128978_n
Photo credit: Joel Gibson

Owing to the sense of justice and compassion many of my friends on Facebook and Twitter have, the latest policy development was greeted with barely concealed rage. Many reflexively stated, “I am ashamed to be Australian”. I did not. I am not ashamed, but not because I do not feel a deep sense of injustice. It is because I am not a refugee. I probably never will be. I think my friends are ashamed because its got them questioning like the Black Eyed Peas, “Where is the love?” They are ashamed because they empathise with these asylum seekers: who they are, what they have been through, and what the future holds. But, we don’t know. We can’t empathise. We are not refugees (yes, inspiration here). I am not a refugee.

I am a white male, 29 years old with a great education and financial security. I have never been in conflict. I have always lived in peaceful countries. I can move across borders with ease. I have multiple forms of proof of identity. Yes, I have worked with refugees and they have shared their stories with me, a stranger. But, I will not have to live with the direct consequences of this new policy. I know ‘seeking asylum is a human right’ as a legal concept, but cannot begin to fathom what it feels like to seek asylum. I have not experienced persecution, witnessed the massacre of family and friends or feared for my life every day. Nor am I the person, the voter, this policy and advertisement above is designed to appeal to for the upcoming Australian federal election.

I am not a HR manager in Australia from Rwanda who grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania and has no sympathy for boat arrivals because I see them as wealthy people able to purchase a seat from people smugglers. I am not a nurse on a temporary work visa from Goa, India, who has to pay for public health and education services until I become a permanent resident. I do not have a husband, who has to work two jobs, both at minimum wage, to pay for my children’s education and see every boat arrival as another 100 people who will push my chance at permanent residency further down the queue.

I am not a refugee. I am not a migrant. I am in no-man’s land. Seemingly powerless, yet all powerful.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. How do I empathise with the trauma, stress and fear of asylum seekers and refugees? When I was a history teacher, I would design empathy activities for my students studying trench warfare in WWI. We would read primary sources, examine photographs and read about the effects of mustard gas. The students would then have to write a letter, as a soldier, to a loved-one describing how they felt, their environment, their day-to-day existence. I did similar exercises when I was a student. We would read poems like Wilfred Owen’s horrifying Dulce Et Decorum Est, which still shocks me:

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Many refugees are displaced by conflict, and those from Syria may well have experienced the “misty panes and thick green light” of a gas attack. I cannot empathise with an Australian solider in WWI who suffered a mustard gas attack at Flanders nor a Syrian refugee in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan who suffered a sarin gas attack in Homs.

The notion of ‘identifiable victim bias’ is often evoked when talking about empathy; that by and large people will identify more with Hannah, a girl of five, who is missing in Sydney, than with a boat of 120 nameless and faceless asylum seekers from Sri Lanka off the coast of western Australia. And it is from such a bias that we make moral judgements in the politics of empathy. Paul Bloom, in a recent New Yorker article argues that “Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.”

He goes onto state that the act of making moral judgements, of empathy, is more than putting oneself in another’s shoes. As is the case with the Rwandan HR manager and the Indian nurse, empathy for others does not often extend beyond the tribe, beyond the family. Empathy begins at home. Paraphrasing Jeremy Rifkin and others, Bloom argues that the best hope is not to get others to think of all of humanity as family, that is impossible, but to appreciate “the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”

I am not a refugee. I cannot empathise with a Hazara refugee girl living in limbo in Indonesia waiting for UNHCR to determine her refugee status. Nor will I be ashamed to be an Australian, and let the Australian Government be the arbiter of my moral judgements. I will make my own moral judgements, which is to place the same value on the life of an asylum seeker and refugee as I would on the life of my mother, my father and my brother.