It’s a Big Wide World …

I’m in Adelaide today, and it’s hot. Really hot! I’ve acclimatised to Narooma’s year-round temperate clime, and Radelaide’s summer swelter has come as a bit of a shock. I’m visiting my Mum for a couple of weeks (lovely) and may incidentally avail myself of the literary and cultural delights of Writer’s Week and the Adelaide Festival (excellent!).

It’s now just under six weeks ’till my departure and I’m starting to get very excited. This whole writing in the south of France thing is becoming imminent and I confess I’m occasionally experiencing qualms of trepidation. I’ll leave the cold feet for now, but will perhaps explore this increasing phenomenon in a future post …

Today I’m going to take you on a quick tour of the highlights of my past 13 years and how they have shaped my present passion for authorship. You may recall in my last post that a visit to the Solomon Islands with AusAID inspired me to save the world’s children from injustice and poverty. When I dream, I dream big! Going solo clearly wasn’t an option, so I looked around for a workplace that would enable me to add my mite to the cause.

In terms of organisations that dream big they don’t get much bigger than World Vision. WV is a global advocacy, relief and development NGO with an annual budget of $2.5 billion and more than 50,000 staff working in almost 100 countries. It is Christian, child-focused and community based, and strives to ensure that children are healthy, educated, protected and given the opportunities to live full lives, free from injustice. I decided WV was the place for me.

I joined the organisation in 2006 as their head of public policy, based in Canberra. My job was basically to convince the Australian government to give more and better aid to address global poverty and to represent WV to them as a desirable partner for achieving this aim. Initially I engaged with John Howard’s conservative government that wasn’t really into development at all, but shortly afterwards Kevin Rudd swept to power and declared that Australia was getting back in the aid game. It was a heady time.

All the random skills I had developed in my eclectic career came together in this role. I was an advocate, communicator, facilitator, spokesperson, negotiator, trouble-shooter and of course, writer, though my writing now focused on developing compelling evidence-based policy recommendations and proposals. I managed to get quite a few runs on the board and caught the eye of those higher up the WV hierarchy. WV is a federated structure, made up of a small Global Centre (the Feds), Support Offices (the ones that make the money, Australia, US, UK, Germany etc) and Field Offices (the ones where the real work of tackling poverty gets done).

I was tapped to go federal as WV’s global Director of External Relations. My job was now to coordinate representation of WV with UN agencies and processes like the G20. I would also become responsible for training our senior leaders and advocacy staff, building their skills for engagement and influence. The only problem was that I had to move to New York.

HWB loved it and I loathed it. The Big Apple might be a fun place to visit, but it wasn’t my cup of tea as a place to live. It is famously the city that never sleeps. I certainly didn’t. I was serenaded by a nightly cacophany of sirens, horns, reversing trucks and jack hammers. I waded through knee-deep snow to rat-infested trains and dodged racing commuters who would rather die than make eye-contact. I came home to Australia after my first 18 months and realised I hadn’t seen a star or a bird that wasn’t a pigeon or sparrow in all that time. Happily, my new role required me to do a lot of travel that enabled me to escape the city, and when I say a lot, I mean a LOT. I spent 25 of the first 52 weeks of my New York posting in far flung parts of the world, and over the past 10 years I’ve visited more than 50 countries in the line of duty. How lucky am I?

I’ve been privileged to visit many of WV’s programmes, meet with local communities and see first hand the difference that our work makes. I’ve trained advocacy staff and leaders around the world on how to influence their governments and hold them accountable. I’ve been shocked and saddened and enraged by injustices of all kinds, and inspired and awed by the resilience and persistent hope with which communities meet calamities beyond imagining.

Community meeting in Agra
Meeting child protection champions in Jakarta
Leading a session at a community consultation in Mali

Most inspiring of all have been the times when I’ve had a chance to meet and talk with children. Just look into the eyes of this little girl and see if it doesn’t make you want to leap forth and make the world a better place for her …

Malawi inspiration

Children aren’t just recipients of our aid. They are agents of their own destinies and one of World Vision’s aims is to empower children to be advocates themselves. I have participated in many children’s groups and heard kids from many backgrounds speak of their dreams and desires. They are so simple. Safety, enough food, a chance to go to school, a hope to be able to contribute to their communities. And always one kid who wants a new football and the construction of a playing field.

Kids in Tanzania

One of the most personally satisfying moments I had was in Nepal, just after the devastating earthquake in 2015. I had been visiting our WV disaster response centre in the north of the country and had asked if there was anything I could do personally. It’s sometimes hard to equate lobbying for an inclusion of a child rights clause in in a Global Compact in Geneva with a tangible difference for real children facing real problems in their communities. Our staff advised that there was a remote community whose little school had been completely destroyed. The children had nothing, but needed books and pens and backpacks. For a trifling (for me) amount of money I was able to have our team purchase enough kit for 50 children. We treked up the inaccessible mountain and delivered the little back packs of goodies to the children. I’ve never felt more alive.

Handing out school packs in Nepal

But is hasn’t all been work. Sometimes, when I had two trainings running back to back I would have a spare weekend in between gigs where I could escape the training room and explore a bit, and these snatched moments have offered me some of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have white-water rafted the source of the Nile in Uganda,
made bouza (sort of dumplings) in a yurt in Mongolia, hung out with the Maasai in the Mara, been photographed in the Lady Di pose at the Taj Mahal, had close encounters with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, zip-lined in Costa Rica and sailed a dhow at sunset in the waters off Zanzibar.

Hangin’ with the Maasai

Apart from the gratitude I have for living in lovely Narooma, and for my dear family and friends, I am filled to the brim with thankfullness for the chance that I’ve had to get a glimpse into so many cultures and the lives of so many children. We talk about Australia being the lucky country. Well it’s true, and it distresses me that so many Australians don’t always seem to realise just how lucky we are. The world is a rich and wonderful place, despite the ongoing injustices that still need to be challenged by the idealists and believers. There are stories of hope to tell, and I want to tell them.

Dreaming Big …

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!

The negotiating table

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.

On location – POPs in PICs

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.

The children of Malaita

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 …