Introductory note: I was very excited this week to discover I now have 31 followers on this blog journey, including seven people who are not family or friends! Welcome to you all – I hope my ramblings here continue to merit your interest 🙂
This week, I’m going to continue the story of my eclectic career, dwelling on what happened after my first writing sabbatical put a twist in my tale. You may recall that my aspiration to pen a young adult novel was truncated at 20,000 words when I decided instead to go in pursuit of knowledge. At that time, my freedom from the daily grind and the pause for reflection it offered had led me to believe I had finally come across the answer to THE QUESTION. I wouldn’t write, I decided. I was going to change the world! A nice modest little ambition, no?
I had thoroughly enjoyed my years in media and politics but I had come to realise that the noble art of journalism was no longer particularly noble. It was not so much about opening and stimulating a space for public dialogue on the issues of the day, but more and more about fear mongering, pandering to vested interests and feeding the growing cult of celebrity. And my experience in the political sphere had sadly revealed that re-election rather than betterment of the people was the motivating factor for most political operatives. No, I decided, much of the real work of bettering the world happened quietly behind the scenes in the realm of policy. The levers of change were held inside government and I wanted to get my hands on them.
I began my Masters in Public Policy with a general interest in social justice. I come from a long line of battlers for the underdog, and as cheesy as it sounds I aspired to do my bit for those less fortunate. When I discovered international development policy the heavens opened before me, and I saw a gargantuan vista of need and the most noble of all possible aims – ending global poverty. The world was just starting to focus on the Millennium Development Goals and I was on a mission.
My long term goal wasn’t to become a bureaucratic fat cat. I wanted to combine my expertise in policy, politics and communications and become an advocate speaking on behalf of those unable to sit at the tables of power and influence. But I didn’t know enough about how the system worked – I needed inside information. I needed to go undercover.
I set my sights on AusAID, then the Australian Government’s aid agency. Inside the bureaucracy I could learn about how it all worked and discover the best means to present persuasive and compelling cases for change. I packed my car and drove to Canberra to take up a role in AusAID’s Policy and Multilateral Engagement Unit.
I was tasked with developing the agency’s policy for engagement with the World Bank, a mega-global institution which at the time was in the business of lending large sums of money to impoverished countries provided they obeyed a set of quite draconian economic measures approved by the rich countries. In particular, I was to support the process for negotiating Australia’s next ‘replenishment’ of our contribution to the World Bank, a three yearly cycle of haggling where the rich countries try to force as many favourable conditions for themselves as possible into the provisos attached to their funding.
Picture my incredulity when about six months later I was clutching my newly issued diplomatic passport on my way to Athens as a small but functional cog in the Australian negotiating delegation. My mission was to make copious notes of the replenishment deliberations and then take a report known as a ‘cable’ to the Australian Embassy and transfer it through secure systems back to base in Canberra. I literally had a briefcase handcuffed to my wrist as I made the perilous dash across town to file each critical missive. I had become Catherine Boomer, international woman of mystery!
I confess, though, that I found it a little difficult to understand how several hundred well-fleshed rich people gathering at the Athens Hilton (complete with Parthenon view) were really contributing to ending global poverty while noshing on four course meals washed down with fine French wines. It was an eye-opener and no mistake. Still, I was proud of Australia’s contribution and gained fascinating insights into the art of diplomacy.
Australian public service careers are predicated on exposing new recruits to a range of experiences early on to test their mettle and expand their views, and before long I was tapped for a new posting. My journalistic credentials had come to the attention of management and I became AusAID’s Media Manager. Once more I was immersed in writing media releases and speeches for the Minister but occasionally I got to have some real adventures.
For several years AusAID had been delivering a programme to remove Persistent Organic Pollutants from Pacific Island Countries – an initiative which when translated into the bureaucracy-speak of acronyms created the charmingly quirky title of POPs in PICs. It involved locating, identifying and safely disposing of toxic chemicals like DDT which had been dumped in Vanuatu, Figi and the Solomon Islands by previous bureaucracies and left to cause dreadful harm to local water supplies and islanders’ health. I made a documentary about it.
Now this was more like it! I was out in the field, literally hacking through the jungle with men with machetes slashing a path through vines and creepers. I was hurtling through palm oil plantations in the back of an old Rover jeep and clutching my hat against the wind on boat journeys across sapphire seas. Most important of all, we were really making a difference – a tangible, quantifiable difference – to these communities, and especially to the children. And it was the children of the Solomon Islands that stole my heart and brought my vision of the future into sharper focus.
On the remote island of Malaita the kids had never seen a white lady before and I caused quite a sensation. I was mob hugged on arrival and spent the day of our filming there surrounded by a gaggle of grinning, gorgeous youngsters chattering away to me in voluble pidgin. A picture I took of this little gang has had pride of place on my desk for 15 years and never fails to give me inspiration.
Yes, I would become an advocate, and the focus of my advocacy would be children – children who shouldn’t die from simple preventable diseases like diarrhoea, children who should not have to become indentured labourers or child brides, children who deserved the opportunity to go to school, children who should not suffer the injustice of extreme poverty.
I’d learnt enough about international development architecture and the workings of government. There was only one possible next step for me – a job with the world’s largest child-focused aid organisation, World Vision. In next week’s episode …