13 Australian heroes you haven't heard of: Kirsty Thompson, CBM 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.

This week meet Kirsty Thompson, Inclusive Development Director at CBM Australia, an organisation that is devoted to improving the lives of people with disabilities living in the most impoverished places in the world.

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

In essence, I’m a member of three key teams at CBM Australia (CBMA) and here, I’ve focused on explaining my role as a member of the senior management team. We are responsible for the implementation of CBMA’s Strategic Plan, Risk Management Framework and Budget as approved by the CBMA Board.

This also sees us being responsible for the day-to-day operations of CBMA. My role in this team is to be part of the decisions and daily operations of the organisation. I am most heavily involved in program-related decisions, especially those that relate to advocacy and policy work, supporting disability inclusion across the organisation, and how we integrate our program work.

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

I always had an interest in this type of work simply from things I had read and heard as a child. I also knew that I wanted to be involved in a career that involved supporting others and working with them to improve their lives and communities. I was given an opportunity in my last fieldwork placement at the University of Sydney to become involved for a number of months in Community Based Rehabilitation Programs in India. This was just the taste I needed to know this was something I wanted to do. I had other similar opportunities and short-term stints in this work that made it clear to me that this was something I wanted to do full-time as a career.


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Video via CBM UK

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

It’s always a challenge for people that trained and are drawn to the direct support to continue finding the feedback and satisfaction as you get further removed from seeing the direct impact of your work on people with a disability in developing countries. There is always more need than there are resources in order to meet it. It can be really difficult to make the tough decisions sometimes about which programs to resource, which person to prioritise and where to spend your time to best impact.

While I now understand the need for it better, I always find it difficult when people who have so little (food, shelter, etc), are keen or even insistent on sharing what they have with you. I’ve been in places working with children with disabilities, where the family or village will insist on giving you a drink (like a coke) or a meal or something, where in many instances, you know it’s some luxury they would never afford themselves. But they need to say thank-you, to restore some sort of balance in the relationship.


Of course, it’s always rewarding to see real change in the lives of people with disabilities on the ground – more opportunities such as going to school or getting a job, or doing whatever it is they want to do with their lives as a result of some small piece of support from you.

Kirsty Thompson, Inclusive Development Director of CBM Australia. Read more about Kirsty here.

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

I’m always humbled by it. Giving takes a number of forms… not just financial. Many people are generous with their time too. We have a high volunteer rate in Australia.

I recall a time a few years ago now when I was talking with some regular donors in rural Victoria and NSW. As a country girl myself, knowing many were facing their 9th year of drought, I was incredibly humbled by the fact that they wanted and could still give to those they knew.

We hear some amazing stories: from old age pensioners to children raising money in cake stalls, to quilting groups, to parents donating each year on the birthday of a child they have lost – all feel really connected to the work and want to be a part of it in some small way.

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

Australia’s aid levels are at their lowest on record since record began Australia’s ODA is currently at 0.27% GNI (2014-15). Compared to most others in the G20, we are well below expectation. There are areas, like disability inclusive development, where Australia is seeking to taking a leadership role with other donors – sharing what we have learned, etc. It’s an example of where we are being strategic prioritising in an area of need and using our expertise and lessons to leverage other donors, etc to get involved.


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

Obviously, the challenges associated with conflict as well as those related to climate change have massive impacts on the development of communities and in turn, lead to significant global populations of displaced persons – all of which places high demands on organisations and countries as they attempt to deal with these issues, and the flow-on effects (like displaced persons), both on home soil and abroad at the source of the issue.

Meanwhile, growing inequalities in those benefiting from development at all levels is another massive problem. The most disadvantaged are by comparison, often becoming more disadvantaged as the gap between those poorest and others widens. We often talk about poverty programs and economic development running the risk of only working with the “accessible poor” – those easiest to reach, with less disadvantage etc. But what does this mean for people with disability, from disadvantaged minorities, for the elderly, for those in remote locations and so on?

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

Many face multiple disadvantage. For women with a disability, we speak of “triple jeopardy” – where they face the triple discrimination of being women, having a disability and being among the poorest of the poor. Children, especially girls, are often relied upon to care for parents or siblings with a disability, which can impede education and health; with many girls dropping out of school.


Women with disability globally face much higher levels of family violence. For example, a study we were involved in in Cambodia In Cambodian study, women with disabilities suffer sexual violence perpetrated by family members at a rate five times higher than women without disabilities and are much more likely to be insulted, made to feel bad about themselves, belittled and intimidated.

In many countries, from local village through to national government level, women are not well represented in political systems as decision makers etc. For women with disability – this is even more the case.

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

 I think it’s important to start close to home. Ask yourself: how do you contribute to or challenge inequality for example, or poverty, or access to heath, or education in your own life?

People can also donate time, money and expertise while asking these questions:

  • Who is not at your (figurative) table and why not?
  • How do you make them feel welcome?

Something I was taught to do early in life and appreciate immensely now.

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

Here’s what I’d say to anyone looking to engage in aid work:

  • Volunteer and get some experience to test if it’s a good fit for you.
  • Study in your areas of interest and passion – e.g., politics, development, law
  • Know yourself – from the outset, we often get into this to “help others” – but need to be honest about what you get from it as well and how this plays out in relationships. Development is a lot about relationships.
  • Make connections, networks, talk to others that have made it career or not and why
  • Realise there is no single path to working in this sector

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