13 Australian heroes you haven't heard of: Helen Szoke, CEO of Oxfam Australia.

Each week we will be running Q&As with Australian women doing vital humanitarian and aid work. Women you may not have heard of.

First off, let us introduce you to Helen Szoke, the CEO of Oxfam Australia and a leading thinker and advocate for Australian aid and international development, human rights, gender and race discrimination.

1. What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis?

My days are hectic and start early. Often the media team will be on the phone in the early morning arranging urgent media commitments.

Each day is a great mix of public events with supporters, media and other stakeholders, as well as internal work with, and I say this very genuinely, the incredible staff at Oxfam Australia.

2. How did you become involved in humanitarian/aid work?

I was lucky. I have a background in human rights and when Oxfam approached me, I couldn’t have been happier, or felt more privileged, to be part of the work the organisation does to change the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

It’s been a steep learning curve, but the core principles of human rights are the guiding force of everything Oxfam does and this has helped me
navigate my early days in the organisation enormously.

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Helen Szoke. Image: Supplied.

3. What are the most rewarding/challenging parts of your job?

To have the incredible opportunity to see the work we do, and meet the people we work with, first hand. Sometimes it can be heart wrenching to see the extent of the need and inequality so many people face around the world. But I have also seen such incredible resilience, change and hope as people are given the tools to lift themselves out of poverty and fight for the right to be heard.

4. In general, do you think Australians are generous givers?

Australians give more than $4 billion to charity each year, and we are statistically one of the most philanthropic countries in the world. The average donation made has more than doubled in the past ten years, far exceeding the rate of inflation.


At Oxfam, 550,000 people support our work either through volunteering their time, participating in our campaigns, giving generously or joining our conversations.

5. Do you think that the Australian government is currently meeting its global responsibilities in terms of foreign aid?

Australia has one of the highest incomes per capita in the world yet Australia ranks only 14th out of the wealthy OECD member nations that give aid, and we have seen massive cuts to the Australian aid budget.

The total cuts to aid by this current government are more than $11 billion, which see Australia’s development assistance at its lowest levels in our history – just 22 cents in every $100 of national income.

Of Australia’s 24 nearest neighbours, 22 are developing countries. We are wealthy enough to be able to respond to the needs of our vulnerable neighbours as well as those here in Australia.

Aid not only saves lives and helps people rise out of poverty, but it is also an essential investment in the security and stability of our region and our economy.

6. What are the most significant humanitarian crises we are facing, both at home and abroad?

We have seen and responded to so many humanitarian crises this year – from Cyclone Pam in Fiji that affected 188,000 people to the devastating earthquake in Nepal, which killed 9000 people and destroyed 850,000 homes.


The crisis in Syria remains unprecedented and has caused the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with no end in sight. Over 4 million Syrian refugees have been forced to flee their homes and country.

Closer to home, our neighbours in the Pacific, already vulnerable because of the effects of climate change, are staring down the barrel of a “super El Nino,” the climate phenomenon that develops in the tropical Pacific and brings extreme weather to several regions of the world.

As many as 4.7 million in the Pacific are currently facing hunger, poverty and disease this year due to droughts, erratic rains and frosts and this is likely to grow.

Domestically, while Australia is a rich first-world nation, our First Nation’s people represent one of the most impoverished and disadvantaged communities in the world. We believe that each and every Australian has the right to equal access to health, income, employment, education, and the chance to live a meaningful and positive life.

 Oxfam Australia CEO Helen Szoke and Shirley Laban, manager of Oxfam’s climate change program in Vanuatu and coordinator of the Vanuatu Climate Action Network, Takara village on Efate Island, Vanuatu.   Oxfam Australia CEO Helen Szoke and Oxfam Board Chair Dennis Goldner travelled to Vanuatu to visit cyclone-affected communities and see Oxfam’s response first hand. In the three months since Tropical Cyclone Pam struck, Oxfam has reached 21,278 people in more than 50 communities on three islands.
Oxfam Australia CEO Helen Szoke and Shirley Laban, manager of Oxfam’s climate change program in Vanuatu and coordinator of the Vanuatu Climate Action Network, Takara village on Efate Island, Vanuatu. Image: Supplied.

7. What do you see as the most significant challenges for women in the developed and developing world?

The fact is that if you are a woman, you are more likely to be poor. The majority of the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty are women and girls.

Discrimination and injustice are major causes of poverty worldwide and women and girls bear the brunt of it in all aspects of their lives. About two-thirds of the 759 million adults who lack basic literacy skills are women.

Globally, only one-quarter of senior officials or managers are women and hold only 19% of Parliamentary seats worldwide, and only 16% of ministerial posts.

More than 350,000 women die each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth – 99% of these are in developing countries. One in every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime


Yet we know that investing in women, and ensuring they are empowered and above all, of equal value to men, is the key to overcoming poverty and effective development.

8. What can everyday Australians do each day to make a difference?

There are a million ways you can make a contribution. It is just important that you do, in some way. It doesn’t have to be done just through your work. You can be involved in your community, you can volunteer, you can have a view and write letters to the editor or you can share activism on Facebook and other social media.

9. Do you have any advice for young women who want to do aid work?

Remember that a career pathway is not always a straight line; my own career is evidence of that. Think laterally. The aid sector is competitive and there are many, many people who want to be part of it. Volunteer, network, look for secondment opportunities if you’re in the corporate sector, sit on boards (particularly of organisations who interact with overseas aid).

What the sector is looking for is not just experience, but also a capacity and values alignment. How you work is just as important as what you do, if you want to work for Oxfam.

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