13 Australian heroes you haven’t heard of: Grace Nicholas – Senior Program Coordinator at ActionAid.

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

This week, meet Grace Nicholas, Senior Program Co-ordinator at ActionAid, an organisation dedicated to protecting the rights of women and displaced people globally.

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

What most people don’t know about aid work is that we spend much of our time in the office – in meetings, reviewing reports and budgets – which is essential in planning and implementing successful aid projects to empower women living in poverty around the world. It’s when I travel to the field to work with our colleagues on the ground that I see all the work we do really come to life through the strong women we are supporting to lead grassroots change in their communities.

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

I used to work as a journalist and was always interested in humanitarian and social justice issues but didn’t know how I could become involved. Years ago, I was working in London and my friend suggested I join her volunteering in Croatia – in a town that had been devastated by the war just a few years before.

As an Australian, this was my first exposure to the long term, human consequences of conflict. Many buildings remained decimated and I was based in a home supporting children whose families had been torn apart. It was impossible to go back to the daily grind after that. When I returned to Australia, I started applying for entry-level jobs in the aid sector – and here I am.

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Grace Nicholas. Image: Action Aid.

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

One of the biggest challenges organisations like ActionAid are currently facing is the unpredictable aid funding in Australia. In 2015, we saw the least generous aid budget in Australia’s history due to the massive aid cuts made last May.

It’s hard to plan long term, sustainable projects to eradicate poverty when there is so much funding uncertainty. Despite this, I am inspired by the strong women that we support to lead change on the ground – which is unquestionably the most rewarding part of my job.

About a month ago, I was in the West Bank, Palestine where despite the almost constant threat of conflict and violence, the women are positive and strong. Some of the women ActionAid supports to hold their own ‘women forums’ invited me to join them for coffee – just like in Sydney, coffee is the most popular social activity in Hebron.

Over our cups of coffee and Palestinian sweets, we spoke about the challenges we are all facing in this uncertain climate and their optimism for the future was overwhelming. They spoke about how they wanted to sell their handmade goods at local markets and ambitions for their children’s future careers – not much different from what I discuss with my girlfriends in Australia.

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

Australians have a strong sense of fairness and justice – and this can sometimes be expressed as ‘generosity’. I think it’s important that we stop understanding ‘aid’ as charity. While long term aid funding is essential to ensure sustainable change, women living in poverty overseas need more than aid ‘generosity’ – they need our solidarity.

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

The short answer is no. This is the stingiest aid budget in Australia’s history. Some of the world’s regions most in need of funding have come out worse – 70% of all aid to Africa was cut. This has been made worse by Australia’s lack of commitment to act on the issues that currently drive poverty – climate change, inequality and conflict. As one of the world’s wealthiest countries and the 13th biggest polluter, Australia has a responsibility to address the causes of poverty around the world.

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Grace in Palestine. Image: Action Aid.

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

Internationally, climate change is an unprecedented global crisis, which will only become worse as time passes. A damaged climate is causing more severe and frequent natural disasters, impacting on communities’ ability to farm (and therefore, their access to food!). It’s also causing more and more conflict all over the world – and will continue to do so as resources become scarcer. We know through our work and research that it’s women who bear the brunt of these crises. We see justice for women in this context as critical – and as everybody’s responsibility.

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

Women everywhere face so many challenges that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. To start listing them: dying in childbirth or losing a child, female genital mutilation, rape as a tool of war, climate change and disasters that destroy the basic resources women depend on like land and water. I could go on and on.

I’d rather speak about the strength and optimism that women offer and the fact that despite their low levels of education, discrimination and the frequent denial of their human rights, women are the hope for the future. We must keep working to support women to stand up for their rights because this is the only way to change the world.

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Grace in Palestine. Image: Action Aid.

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

Everyday Australians can support global justice organisations that are working to address these crises. In the face of aid cuts, public donations are critical for us to continue our projects to empower women living in poverty overseas. But this alone is not enough. Australians need to take action – read widely, sign petitions and talk to friends about what global issues are keeping you up at night.

Consider how decisions we make here can impact people around the world – from the products we buy ourselves, to the Australian government’s policies on climate change and taxation. Australians can make a huge difference by standing with the women impacted by our government’s policies. By standing together, we create social movements – and it’s social movements that make real change.

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

Young Australian women who want to work in the aid sector should volunteer wherever there’s an opportunity – domestic and internationally focused organisations. It’s important to be involved in your local community and to have a range of perspectives before you pursue a career in aid – the more experience the better.

Read as widely as you can – especially international authors and media outlets – some of the biggest global crises are barely covered in the Australian media. Finally – and perhaps most importantly– don’t be afraid to seek out the support of other women as you develop your skills and grow your confidence.

Learn more about the work that ActionAid does here on their website.

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