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A Lifetime of Care

21 March 2016 at 10:27 am
Ellie Cooper
CEO of CARE Australia Dr Julia Newton-Howes AM was inspired by her childhood experiences to pursue a career in international aid. Dr Newton-Howes is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to journalist Ellie Cooper.

Ellie Cooper | 21 March 2016 at 10:27 am


A Lifetime of Care
21 March 2016 at 10:27 am

CEO of CARE Australia Dr Julia Newton-Howes AM was inspired by her childhood experiences to pursue a career in international aid. Dr Newton-Howes is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to journalist Ellie Cooper.

Julia Newton-HowesGrowing up in Rhodesia under a white minority government, Dr Newton-Howes saw first-hand the devastating impact of inequality and poverty.

After a varied career working first as a scientific researcher and then in the Australian Government aid agency, she had the opportunity to join the Not for Profit sector as the CEO of CARE Australia in 2007.

As this week’s Changemaker, she shares her knowledge about the multifaceted nature of poverty and what inspires her to tackle one of the world’s most pervasive issues.   

You had a very interesting childhood, can you tell me about it?

I was born in a really remote part of India, but I left there before my first birthday. My parents had been living in Africa and went back from India to Africa, so I spent all my childhood in what’s now Zimbabwe, and left there to go to university at 19.

That was a huge influence on my life, because at that time Zimbabwe was Rhodesia.  It had a white minority government that had racist legislation and I guess on so many occasions I saw poverty really close up, and I think the enduring lesson from my childhood was so much of your life is not defined by how good you are or how clever you are, it’s defined by where you were born and who your parents were. And because I saw, every day, people who were just as clever as me, or cleverer, more able, but who had a very different life. And I think the world would be so much more prosperous if everyone had a fair go and, really, we don’t.

I was very, very fortunate to end up migrating to Australia. I studied in the UK and while I was there I lost my Zimbabwean citizenship because the government of Robert Mugabe basically took citizenship away from people who were non-resident. So I looked around the world and thought Australia would be a great place to go and live, and I got a job in Australia and managed to become a permanent citizen here, and then resident. So I’ve lived here since I came in 1984. In some ways getting Australian citizenship is better than winning the lottery. How lucky am I to live in a country that gives its people – by and large, not entirely – so many opportunities.

So it was this experience that made you want to work in international aid?

Absolutely. One of the most confronting memories I have is as a very young child at home with my mother and a woman knocking on the door asking for food. And I can just remember, as a child, struggling to understand. In my world my parents were in charge, my parents provided food and shelter and kept me safe, and the woman who knocked on the door had a baby on her back, and she had no food, and it just seemed extraordinary that adults who appear to be so authoritative, who appear to be in control – how could this woman not even be able to feed herself. That is a memory that really has stayed with me. I have always felt really strongly about the issue of poverty and hunger, and also the intersection of gender with that. My life experience, but also all the data and facts you look at about poverty, anywhere, show that you’re more likely to be poor if you’re female. And that is because the most invasive type of discrimination in the world is on the basis of gender.

But actually at school I was good at science. I studied science at university, did a PhD in science, and worked as a researcher for a number of years. And it was after I had my first child and was expecting my second that I had this opportunity for a complete career change. I moved into what was then AusAid, the government department that manages Australia’s aid program, and worked there for a number of years.  I worked at the World Bank, had postings overseas, both in Washington DC and in Vietnam, and I suppose got more and more drawn into international development work, and always felt really passionate about it.

Why did you join CARE Australia?

One of the reasons I wanted to join CARE, after really enjoying a career in AusAid, was that I recognised the Australian Government’s aid program primarily works government to government, through working with the governments around the world, to provide assistance. And that’s important, but it’s not enough. Actually, many governments are unwilling or incapable of providing what these citizens need, and I became frustrated by the limits to what one can achieve at that level, and I was interested in what NGOs, civil society organisations, offer and how they work, and so when the opportunity to move to CARE came up I grabbed it, and I’m really pleased I did.

The other thing about CARE is we really strive to understand what works and why, in terms of poverty. There’s no simple formula, often for people who are trapped in poverty there are multiple factors around their circumstances – it might be environmental degradation, it might be discrimination, it might be dysfunctional government. To really be able to hear their concerns, to understand their needs and to be able to work at a grassroots community level to address those needs, is incredibly motivating and rewarding.

I think in the late 90s and early 2000s there was a lot of work done globally to get a better understanding of poverty. We often measure poverty just in terms of someone’s income, but actually poverty is multifaceted. When you listen to poor people they will often say their concerns are the stigma that’s attached to poverty, the fact that people are rude to them, their teachers at school are rude to their children, that they have no access to power-holders, when they go to the clinic they can be treated in a very rude and dismissive way. It’s about how do we address the stigma of poverty, how do we change society as well as look at income measures and access to services. I think that’s where civil society organisations really have a lot of knowledge and understanding of working to support change at a grassroots level.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?

The biggest challenge is always securing funding, and we’re always on a knife edge on that. Fundraising is hard, and we’ve got a lot of evidence of the effectiveness of our work, but people don’t have a lot of time to capture their imagination if you’re persuading them to provide funding, What’s a 30-second grab that will really excite people? It’s fabulous how many generous Australians support our work, or the work of other Not for Profits. We apply for funding from the Australian Aid Program and while we have a very good success rate, I always feel you’re climbing a mountain and you’ll never reach the summit in terms of fundraising. That’s the biggest challenge.

I guess the other thing is, we do work in some really difficult places. And most of our staff are nationals of the countries where we work. We have a small number of expatriate staff, but all in all CARE Australia has about 1,000 staff and most of those are nationals of Papua New Guinea or Vanuatu or Timor Leste. Getting the right staff in the right place at the right time is also a challenge. But they’re also challenges that I relish.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It’s always going into the field and meeting the communities where we work, and listening to them, listening to how their lives have changed. About three weeks ago I was in Papua New Guinea, and I visited a community outside Goroka where we work with the coffee industry and coffee growers. One of the things we’ve seen is that whilst women do most of the work, when it comes time to sell the coffee beans that sale is handled by the men, and the men decide what happens to the money. What we’re doing with the coffee industry there is providing some rethinking about family business units. We’ve been working with the coffee growers to provide quite simple training about how to set financial goals, how to think about the expenses your family has, and encouraging families to meet as a family group to talk about where their money goes. What we’re seeing is that this is encouraging men and women to talk about who does the work and who decides what the money is spent on. It was quite interesting meeting this group and hearing their views on how eye-opening this training has been for them. That’s really exciting, that’s the sort of program that is always such a pleasure to go and see.

You’re a member of the General Division of the Order of Australia, and you’ve been recognised as Telstra ACT Business Woman of the Year and one of the Westpac 100 Women of Influence – what do you put your personal success down to?

One, I have to say luck. How lucky was I to get to Australia. Luck, a lot of hard work, and a lot of support. I have a fabulous team of staff here, and a really fabulous board. And I always think one of the most important decisions you ever make is who you hire to work with you.  Always try to hire people who are much cleverer than you. I’ve got a fabulous team, we’re all committed to the work we’re doing, really believe in it, and put in the hard work to deliver results.

Where do you see yourself in the future?  

I will definitely spend the rest of my life working on issues of social justice and poverty, that’s what really, really motivates me. And I know that actually we’ve made huge strides in addressing poverty and social injustice around the world, but unless we maintain our commitment, unless we keep working on these issues, that progress can evaporate, we must continue our focus on those issues.

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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