Supporting those who make a difference – DAWN

23 October 2014

As part of this year’s Changemakers Festival, we’re hosting a special panel on Thursday 23 October featuring three of our Great Ydeas grant recipients for 2014, Women leading change: small grants, big impact. 

Here, panelist and grant recipient Caitlin Sandercock writes about the process of creating the Development and Aid Workers Network, which seeks to provide information, support and advice to Australia’s ‘unofficial  ambassadors’. You can read more about the panel on our events page, and RSVP to zoya.patel@ywca-canberra.org.au.

A year ago, the creators of the Development and Aid Workers Network (DAWN)  read former aid and development worker Ashlee Betteridge’s article, An ex-volunteer’s perspective on improving the Australian Volunteers program, and the comments that followed, and we were struck by three things.

First, bravo to Ashlee for putting her name and her reputation out there to articulate the rumblings of discomfort many are feeling.

Secondly, although Ashlee shone a light on some of the aid industry’s seemingly intractable challenges, there are countless other examples of even more severe hazards faced by development and aid workers.

And finally, her piece evoked a profound question: is there a space that exists for constructive discussion on the nature of development work that actually causes the problems?

Instances of development workers encountering trouble while overseas on the job are increasing. The case of aid worker Alexandra ‘Pippi’ Bean, who was caught up in a Libyan political scandal in Tripoli and felt ‘abandoned’ by the Australian government is not unique. It follows a multitude of cases, reported to varying degrees, including that of detained ICC lawyer Melinda Taylor in Libya in July 2012.

Recent years have seen a rise in people seeking to combine tourism and volunteering. This so called “voluntourism” usually takes place in developing countries where volunteers often pay a fee to complete a short placement.

Voluntourism operators are not regulated. The volunteers usually enter the country on a tourist visa, often do not have a legal contract or any support aside from their travel insurance, and often work in high risk and unstable locations with minimal support.

Recently, the mainstream Australian media carried articles analysing Australia’s over-stretched diplomatic network, and the problems arising from Australian citizens’ soaring demand for consular services and support while overseas. It has been argued by some in the sector that this has been exacerbated by the merging of DFAT and AusAID, with even less resources directed towards the aid and development sector.

It has become almost common knowledge that professional and volunteer development and aid workers experience high rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol problems and burnout associated with their work. Efforts to mitigate these issues- such as security provided to workers in high-risk areas is often haphazard, unregulated and not mandatory, often rendering aid and development workers vulnerable to significant industry-related hazards, with no real recourse or protection.

Therein lies the great development conundrum: where is the recourse or protection afforded to those who undertook a position with Australian Volunteers for International Development or any other aid or development related NGO program? Who can they turn to, particularly when their immediate supervisor or in-country manager is insufficient, or even implicated in the issues faced? And for the isolated, at-risk development worker, abandoned, abused or screwed over in the course of their posting, who are they to turn to?

Through the course of our own work and through the vast network of development workers we know, we have discovered that a gap exists in the support systems for volunteers and early career professionals in the development sector beyond their sponsoring host organisation. Although there are high levels of information available to assist development workers, these resources are generally scattered, unregulated and not Australian-specific.

Speak to anyone who has spent time abroad on post, and they will tell you a horror story about management; dramas, which if faced at home could easily have been smoothed over through advice sought from a workplace lawyer, union, counsellor etc. These issues would be easily dealt with in any other profession, guided by the laws established to cover workers.

But, which laws cover Australian development workers while they are abroad? Are they governed by the regulations of the host country? The parent organisation? Or is it that their personal rights at work fall under no law, and they possess no legal recourse?

To answer this question and countless others that plague this important yet isolated industry, we are building a website that will serve as an accessible, online, crowd-sourced advice bank and network for development workers, infused with advice from independent industry professionals to empower and sustain Australia’s and other countries  unofficial ambassadors abroad.

Anyone with an interest in contributing or supporting this network is encouraged to follow DAWN’s Facebook Page, follow DAWN on Twitter, and to contribute their own aid and development stories and advice on our website.

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