Leading through triumph and turmoil: Helen Szoke reflects
15 August 2019 at 8:50 am
Since 2013, Dr Helen Szoke AO has been at the helm of Oxfam Australia, steering the organisation through not only some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time but internal Oxfam scandals. As she hangs up her boots in the sector for good, she reflects on the challenges and triumphs of her role.
Szoke has led a distinguished career as a leader in the human rights space to say the least.
Prior to Oxfam Australia, she served as Australia’s federal race discrimination commissioner and the Victorian equal opportunity and human rights commissioner.
But she says that it was moments such as working on the ground with resilient people faced with extreme hardship across the globe, and leading the voice of Oxfam calling for systemic change for a fairer world, that made Oxfam Australia the most rewarding job she’s had.
She led the organisation through moments of great change including Oxfam’s global commitment to cede power to the countries it works with, which meant cutting staff in Australia in place of empowering locals to make decisions and find solutions independently.
Her time as CEO didn’t come without difficulty however, with the Oxfam Haiti scandal rocking the organisation and it’s brand globally, forcing a culture re-think across all branches.
As she finishes up in August, she reflects on her learnings as a leader, the challenges the world is facing today, and what she has in store for the future.
What would you say some of your biggest learnings have been from your time at Oxfam Australia?
The first is never to underestimate the resilience of people and to never underestimate the ability of people to find solutions to their own problems. And I think it’s really important that we actively listen to those solutions.
The second, which again is a bit of reinforcement, is that we have to work at the level of changing systems. It’s not good enough just to put services and connections on the ground. The kind of problems that we’re dealing with in the world are complex and intractable, and they’re linked to big global issues like climate change or the way women are treated across the world, even in rich Western countries.
I think the third that’s really come into focus is the importance of the private sector and the critical role the private sector can play in actually realising the ambition of lifting people out of poverty. How they do business and connect with communities on the ground is really important, and civil society organizations like Oxfam can play a critical role in actually blending and helping with that connection.
Your job involved many things, but what was most important to you?
Definitely around the connection with people. And certainly, this occurs when we go out into the field. I can recall these very moving but also humorous moments up in the north of South Sudan, talking to people who had fled conflict and connecting with them about what they think they need and how assertive and clear they are, notwithstanding their own conflict. Talking to our supporters in Australia as well and my staff, who are so values-driven.
What would you say some of the biggest threats to human rights are at the moment?
We seem to be in a period of significant disruption where there’s an increasing sense of nationalism in Western countries. Worrying about only protecting home base means there’s a real danger we aren’t lifting our head to think on the critical issues in the world, how the rights of people need to be protected and what’s the role that rich countries like Australia can play in that? I don’t think we can afford to lose sight of that.
We have major disruptions of people in terms of fleeing conflict or fleeing the impacts of climate or seeking different economic circumstances. We have to really push ourselves to think much more globally about how we manage the movement of people across the world in a much more seamless way. We have to start talking about how to revisit that idea because that initial ambition came after the world wars. We’ve got all the tools, the connectivity is there, the ability to be instant in our communication, the ability to reach out is there. So it should be that we are becoming less boundary driven rather than more, which seems to be the current trend.
We really have to remind ourselves that the reason that the Declaration of Human Rights was agreed was that we do want to enshrine the basic dignity of human beings and for them to have an ability to have a say in how their lives roll out.
Does the future worry you?
I once said that those of us who have the privilege of working in these positions, we don’t have the luxury or the indulgence of being overwhelmed by what’s ahead of us. I still believe that’s the case. But I think careful analysis is vital as we go forward.
What we’ve seen is a crisis of confidence in institutions, across all sectors, from the banks to the churches. We’ve even seen it in the charity sector at Oxfam’s direct experience. I think that’s where we really have to look much more deeply about how we operate so that we’re not perpetuating the wrong behaviours that are leading to a gloomy future.
Australia is also in such a fortunate position as a country to be far more generous. And I don’t just mean in terms of aid spending, which is in itself incredibly disappointing. But it’s also more broadly in terms of just our willingness to be generous about our own country, in terms of people who want to come and live here, about our interface with the Pacific and to think much more creatively, not just about the Pacific being a potential labor market for jobs that other people don’t want to do, but being a real regional partner so that we can look at the benefits of the total population. We do need to have some excitement in our thinking to lift us out of this hole that we seem to be in at the moment.
Success is often linked to growth, but Oxfam has redefined growth by shrinking the organisation in Australia to grow in countries where you’re working on the ground. Was that a difficult decision to make at first?
Oxfam globally made a commitment to actually cede power to the countries that we’re working with so that those countries are driving the strategy and decision making, which is the basis of a true human rights based approach.
At Oxfam Australia, we really want to position ourselves not as a head office, but as a facilitator of relationships where we can put the expertise that’s needed for solving the problems in the country actually with those countries and to really work to support nationals working in those positions to be part of their own country’s development. It’s challenging because, like many of the international NGOs, we are facing enormous challenges in terms of fundraising. But again, if we don’t set that ambition then we’re not going to realise that, and we’re really holding fast to that. It’s the best benefit that we can bring to really understanding how countries can drive their own agenda. How we can support them in the Australian context is to be clear that they need the resources to drive that from where they are.
It’s going to take a long time, because there are different capabilities in different parts of the world where we’ve set that as an ambition.
Your leadership coincided with some difficult times for Oxfam. How did you overcome that?
There’s no doubt that the last 18 months of leading Oxfam has been one of the most complex periods of my professional life. And it’s been challenging because true to ourselves, Oxfam said it’s not good enough that we just do a repair job. We have to fundamentally look at what the causes of this have been. We hold ourselves to the highest possible standard in terms of transparency and accountability, in terms of the independent commission inviting them to really come and say to us, “we want you to really test the cultural underpinnings for us to ensure that something like Haiti can never happen again”. And more than that, to ensure that we’re really being consistent in the way we work with communities in relation to our own practice within Oxfam globally.
Has going through something like this made you stronger as a leader?
Yes, but I think it has really deepened my conviction that came from having worked in areas like the equal opportunity jurisdiction, and that’s that we can never be complacent about how power is used. We need to have tools to check how power is being used and we need to make sure people feel safe and that they can speak up. We constantly have to be assessing our own credentials as leaders in terms of what that means.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple of external appointments outside of Oxfam, and my interest is that I can give back in different ways now that my husband and I are at a stage of our life where we are able to survive without needing income. We also have a very large family, and with six grandchildren, I suspect there will be some calls for support there. We’ve run on a very busy schedule for a long time and we’re very proud of our adult children who are now making contributions in this and many other sectors. And so we will look to support them more. And then we’ll do what all the grey nomads do – travel a bit, have a bit of time down the beach.
But I really aim to stay connected and stay contributing in some way from our very fortunate position to make sure that the ambition that organisations like Oxfam have continued to be realised.
How would you say that this experience has changed you and your outlook on the world?
Every field trip I went on where we have a country team on the ground, whether it was
in the middle of a typhoon response, dealing with displaced people and hunger in South Sudan, or looking at the kind of refugee responses we needed in Jordan and Lebanon, it was like being welcomed into a family.
It really gives you a sense of the richness of the world, the resilience, and the conviction of people. I remember visiting people in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. It’s extremely hot, and there are very little resources, but people invite you in and want to give you their scarce rations to show their hospitality.
Similarly, in Bangladesh, we went to talk to some people about their experiences and they would bring you a stool to sit on, because I’m an old lady with Western hips. They would be fanning us while telling their story with tears running down their face and standing up because they’re worried that we’re hot. Those moments gave me an absolute undying conviction, that in one way or another I’ll continue to want to contribute and try to make the world a better place. And it won’t be as a chief executive, but it will be by time or by money or in other means through my voice. And I know it’ll be worth it because people don’t give up. They want it to be a better world. And even in those awful conditions, they still have agency in the sense of purpose. And that’s why we’ve got to keep working.