Putting Women in the Driver’s Seat for Change
21 August 2017 at 7:30 am
Michelle Higelin has taken on the top job of CEO of international anti-poverty organisation ActionAid Australia after four years as the organisation’s deputy executive director.
Higelin has been working with women’s organisations in Australia and internationally for more than 20 years and has more than 15 years of senior management experience in NGOs focused on human rights and development.
Her roles have included deputy executive director of the World YWCA, one of the world’s largest women’s rights movements, and CEO of YWCA Australia.
Higelin says she is driven by ActionAid’s clear commitment to women’s rights. She is this week’s Changemaker.
How did you get into the sector originally?
My first degree was in journalism and while I was waiting for that big break into media I started volunteering with a women’s rights organisation and I think basically I realised in doing that that my passion was really about working for social change rather than reporting on it.
I guess I have never really looked back from there and I started working in women’s organisations and I have spent the last 20 years working for women’s rights in Australia and overseas and obviously the four years with ActionAid.
What attracted you to ActionAid?
Through different international spaces I had encountered people from ActionAid and I was really inspired by their approach to development. It’s a really strong analysis of what makes for effective development from a human rights-based approach. And looking at particularly how the people who are most affected can be in the driving seat of change and can be at the forefront of programing and campaigning, so that all of our efforts are really enabling them to have a voice and be more actively engaged in decision making at all levels.
So that really inspired me as well as a clear commitment to women’s rights throughout all of the work, recognising that women make up 75 per cent of people living in poverty, so they were probably the first things.
Is that what makes ActionAid stand out, it does development aid “differently”?
Most definitely. I think that you see a lot of the development work that may consult with women but it doesn’t actually support to move them into leadership roles and to have a crucial part in decision making. ActionAid really if you look at at our things like our humanitarian response, we are putting women in the driving seat of that emergency response. We have pioneered a women-led emergency response program that enables women to have the skills and capabilities so that they can lead and determine where resources go in line with their community and, through that process, they can transform their role in society towards greater gender equality.
For ActionAid, our campaigns put the voices of the people who are most affected at the forefront. It is really important for us that we don’t continue to reinforce those inequalities of power and resources but really use our organisation’s resources towards lifting voices of people who are most affected.
You have moved from deputy to CEO. What does your day look like?
My day with ActionAid is really varied. Definitely I am a working mother so my day starts very early with a whole range of household activities. But my day with ActionAid sees me travel a lot and I do have a lot opportunity to connect with the women we support through our programs overseas and have a chance to hear how that work is impacting on their lives.
I spend a lot of time in the office with the people who are all behind ActionAid making sure I am across what is going on and can provide that support and guidance. There’s definitely a lot of external focus in terms of meeting with government, meeting with some of our donors. So it is a very varied day. I don’t think any one day is the same. Definitely for me the highlight is when I have an opportunity to meet with the women we work with.
What are the current challenges for the organisation?
We are seeing significant changes in Australia’s aid landscape which is opening new opportunities for the private sector to engage in development. I think that one of the challenges we see is that we have to make sure that these efforts are actually contributing to ending poverty and not further reinforcing inequality. If we just look at some of the efforts to open up trade and foreign investment for Australian companies we need to make sure these opportunities are actually providing decent work opportunities to women overseas, that they are not fuelled off the back of exploitative labour.
So I think one of the real challenges is how do we continue to influence to make sure that policy and practice by the Australian government and by Australian corporations is making a meaningful contribution to things like women’s economic justice, things like climate justice for the people who are most affected. This is what I see as the challenge at the moment.
Are there frustrations around diminishing foreign aid?
I think it is frustrating to see that Australia is at the worst moment in its history in terms of its generosity as an aid donor. At a time when governments are mobilised around a set of sustainable development goals which set a clear pathway to ending poverty and inequality.
This is a time when our government should really be stepping up. So that is frustrating. But is the government listening? I think the government needs to listen and while there has been an openness to consult with the sector, things aren’t changing. I think this is a government motivated by what’s popular with the voters and so I think it is important that we continue to engage Australians, making sure their local MPs understand that Australians do care about what is happening oversea, they do care about our reputation and they do want us to be a good global citizen. We need to continue to support that pressure from below.
How do you find time for yourself?
That is a good question. Wise advice from a previous mentor was that whenever you are with your family always make sure you are 100 per cent with your family and that when you are at work you are 100 per cent at work. I have always strived to try to achieve that and so I do make sure that when I am out of the office I do disconnect and I have my time in the evenings and weekends with my children and that has been really important to me in maintaining that balance.
I think also as a woman and working mother in a leadership role, I think it is really important to set a really good example as a role model. I am always mindful of that.