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Do we have the freedom to make our own decisions?

The freedom to make decisions is balanced by huge responsibility.

Leaving the government to take the helm at Care Australia has presented vastly different but highly rewarding challenges for me.

In many ways, the challenges are similar to those I addressed in organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Office for Women or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – how to create change toward greater equality and justice.

As chief executive of Care Australia, a clear vision and decisiveness are essential. My newfound freedom to make the big calls and to back our organisation’s expertise has been hugely liberating – but it comes with huge responsibility.

Formidable goal

We have the somewhat formidable goal of beating global poverty, addressing inequality and achieving social justice. We expect all programs, and our funding, to help us deliver this mission.

Care has worked hard to build loyal and lasting relationships with communities and with its donors, and they expect nothing less. I expect nothing less.

A large non-government organisation, we work in 78 countries. But in the context of the change we need to create, our resources and influence are small. As a member of this confederation, Care Australia is even smaller. This means we need to be at the top of our game. We need to be as smart as we can and remove unnecessary impediments to our progress. If it is not useful, change it, move it or get rid of it. We are persistent in chasing our vision of a world free from poverty.

One of the greatest challenges of leadership in this sector is understanding the contexts and communities we work in so we can enable real and sustainable change. This requires us to regularly analyse formal and informal politics and power relations: who makes the decisions in a particular context, who is going to be the winner and loser, who will champion change and who will block it. We need to continually ask these questions and adjust our actions to help drive change.

No right answers

And we must be comfortable with uncertainty. There are no right answers in international development, so trusting yourself and your team is key. We must be willing to make decisions and stick to them, even in uncertain times. Flexibility is also vital. The trick is to know when to stick with your course, when to tweak the direction and when to reverse.

To create and drive transformational change in poor communities, we need to be effective, quick thinking and have clear pathways to decisions. Getting the balance right between letting people get on with their jobs and keeping us all working in the same direction requires a deft touch.

As I adjust my leadership approach to working in the non-government sector, these are the lessons I am learning that make the job so exhilarating. I love that equality and justice are at the heart of our work – we know that tackling inequality is one of the most effective ways for communities to step out of poverty. I have spent my career fighting for gender equality and social justice, and have learned that diversity always delivers better decisions.

Different people – men, women, indigenous people, people from different cultural backgrounds, people with disabilities – really do bring different perspectives because of their different experiences and lives. They inevitably see the world differently, and we need to ensure our workplaces allow these different perspectives to be fully heard.

Time to restructure

It is no use bringing different people into your organisation for them not to be heard because systems haven’t changed. Taking full advantage of these different perspectives entails flexibility, a willingness to really listen, restructuring your organisation to be inclusive, and mutual respect.

We must continually strive to understand ourselves; we are working to address devastation often inflicted by fellow humans. International development is about relieving some of humankind’s most intractable suffering – poverty, inequality, injustice and conflict. To do this, we need to ask ourselves the hard questions about why and how we can do things differently in our own lives and at an institutional level.

Sometimes the challenges can appear insurmountable, so it is important to remember just how much progress is being made. Over the past 25 years, the number of children younger than five years who die every year has halved from more than 12 million to less than 5.8 million. Since 1990, the number of people living in absolute poverty – on less than US$1.90 a day – has fallen by 35 per cent. This means that in 2013, when these statistics were last compiled, 767 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day, down from 1.85 billion in 1990. Poverty rates have declined in all regions of the globe.

Likewise with equality. In my lifetime, Australia has introduced legislation for equal pay, the Sex Discrimination Act, women’s ability to control their own bodies, the ability to secure bank loans without male endorsement, and legislation to outlaw domestic violence. These moves have revolutionised women’s lives and set us on a pathway toward equality.

Unacceptably high

These changes are amazing and a pretty powerful riposte to anyone telling you the world was once a better place, or that foreign aid does not work. But no country has managed to completely remove inequality, injustice or poverty. For many countries, Australia’s progress in terms of equality has not been replicated. Also, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally is still unacceptably high. So there is still a lot of work to be done.

At the same time, the world is going through a period of intense political upheaval. New US President Donald Trump is pinning his reputation on shaking up the political order. It can make people feel uncertain, fearful and insular, and does not make for a particularly receptive audience when arguing the effectiveness of Australian aid.

But Trump is not without precedent. Throughout history we have seen change-makers, for better or worse, like this. It could be tempting to take brash measures in response, but really our energy is better spent on what we are able to change.
That is how Care started more than 70 years ago, in the aftermath of World War II. A famine was looming in Europe, so 22 organisations came together to rush lifesaving “care packages” containing food and basic supplies to survivors.

If we want to address poverty, injustice and inequality, we must enact the change we want to see. Encouraging respect for a broad range of viewpoints and championing equality and diversity are among the most important leadership challenges. And we need to recognise that if it were easy, it would have been done already.

This job, above all, is about turning apathy into empathy and action.

Sally Moyle, Chief Executive, Care Australia.

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