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13 Australian heroes you haven’t heard of: Rhonda Chapman

Each week we’ve been runnings Q&As with Australian women doing vital humanitarian and aid work. Women you may not have heard of.

This week, the final week of our series, we meet Rhonda Chapman an independent International Aid and Development Advisowith clients including the Australian government and some of our largest NGOs.

1. What do your roles entail on a day-to-day basis?

Working as an independent consultant with a range of clients, my days are anything but routine. While in Australia, the majority of my working days are spent working out of the co-working space I co-founded with my partner in country Victoria, where I am privileged to work with other independent workers from a wide range of businesses and sectors.

My clients include the Australian government and NGOs, and I spend much of my time working in person or remotely with colleagues who are seeking my advice on strategic, program or partnership challenges. I also spend a fair bit of time conducting reviews of Australian NGOs seeking government funding from DFAT or applying for tax-deductibility.

I’m regularly at meetings and in contact by phone or email with staff at WaterAid Australia as part of my role as a Board Member and Chair of the Programs and Advocacy Committee discussing policy and strategy issues. I spend many hours at the computer drafting, reviewing or completing reports, or sorting and analysing data in the preparation for a report. There are sometimes night-shift teleconferences with fellow panel members of the International Accountability Charter. Rarely are two weeks the same.

It is a different story when I am on an overseas field trip and again, it depends on the type of work I am doing. If I am undertaking a review of field programs, it can include hours of formal meetings with government officials; long and rough car journeys to remote communities, and humbling experiences learning from community members about their lives, resilience, the clever things they are doing to improve life for them and their families and the challenges they face. I also spend time meeting with and facilitating groups of people from local and international NGOs, government, business and communities to assist them with their partnerships and ensure the collaborations are working well and achieving positive change. These days, most of my work is in SE Asia and the Pacific.

Rhonda while visiting a WaterAid Australia project in PNG. Source: Supplied

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

As a biology student in Sydney, I discovered a talent for event organisation. After a few years working as a biologist, I realised it was not the career for me and looked for something more people focused. After completing a Graduate Diploma in Leisure Studies (yes, it is a real course), I won a job at Oxfam (then Community Aid Abroad) in the late 1980s organising the iconic Walk Against Want fundraising event, initially in the NSW office and moving to the National office in Melbourne after a year.

I was hooked, and then spent some time volunteering for some of our projects in Asia. Following that I volunteered or worked in NGOs and community organisations both in Australia (WWF and Australian Volunteers) and overseas, including Central America and Azerbaijan. After coming home in 2000, I worked at the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) for four years before starting a PhD in Cambodia for 2 years.

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

I truly love working with passionate, committed and seriously clever colleagues who are seeking out innovative ways to change the world for the better. I am regularly humbled by the dignity and resilience of the local people I encounter in communities, particularly the dynamic women I meet with in the course of my work.

I love unpacking complex challenges – systemic, integrated, multi-faceted – and putting a human focus on what we’re trying to achieve. Seeing people working together in constructive culturally appropriate ways is a joy and I am committed to translating the often over-used buzzwords and technical jargon to help all of us better understand the role that we can and do play.

Social change (which is what good development is) takes a really long time and requires mutual respect, understanding, listening and patience. Yet donors and others seem to be in such a hurry to see tangible results. The most challenging part of the job is the seemingly intractable nature of the challenges, and how despite numerous amazing wins on the ground, solving these global and local challenges remains susceptible to ideology, bureaucracy and short-term agendas. I often challenge the unrealistic ambitions of aid programs by putting a mirror up to those of us asking communities and governments to change by asking the question: “how would we feel about strangers arriving and telling us we need to change and how to do that?”

Taken while interviewing girl students in a World Vision project of the Laos-Australian NGO Cooperation Agreement program. Rhonda is seated with her research assistant, Vilakone Chansamouth. Source: Supplied

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

Well, after 25+ years in the sector, I honestly don’t know. In some ways yes, however, I think we are becoming less generous, more fearful, more parochial and less trusting of charities despite the efforts of ACFID for many years, and the ACNC more recently, ensuring high levels of accountability and transparency. However, there remain high levels of volunteerism and direct engagement in aid and increasingly, people are seeking innovative ways to be involved beyond the simple transaction of donating money. Increasingly, people are rightly questioning the effectiveness and virtue of this approach to solving poverty.

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

No. There are too many differing agendas that governments use to determine what their ‘global responsibility’ is and how developing countries can best develop. The Abbott government’s decisions regarding the Australian Aid program have had significant negative impacts at many levels, with the closure of AusAID and the integration of the Aid Program into DFAT and the significant reduction of funding leaving many programs prematurely terminated, and a change of tone to the program overall.

Around the world, the one-directional nature of rich countries funding aid programs, and how growing global economies such as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China)[1] use aid to secure political and economic influence, has a paternalistic tone to it. The intrinsic power imbalances of the current aid structures need to be challenged by changing how we view aid, regarding it as “investing in our collective development (social, economic, environmental)”.

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I see great opportunities for the innovative involvement of more than just the government. We live in a highly disrupted era that recognises the inadequacies of large, complex institutions and systems. In establishing our business, my partner and I have worked to seek responsive and creative solutions to the way we in Australia can work with our friends in neighbouring countries to support their own ambitions for positive change (rather than imposing our own). We take our own ‘disruptive’ view of aid and the services we provide, as well as adopting more entrepreneurial approaches from outside the aid sector, which everyone can have a role in. Technology enables many people in developing countries to have greater opportunities to be heard and to participate. Effective contributions to development projects can be achieved by various government departments as well as corporates, small business, philanthropists, communities and individuals all supporting a start-up/modern collaborative approach.

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

Climate Change is a key issue, especially around the Pacific, where the local people feel disregarded by Western populations/governments. I was recently in the Solomon Islands working with a woman whose parents had been forced to purchase land on a larger island because the island atolls their families have lived on for many generations were 20 metres out to sea, underwater. The challenges posed by climate change are often reported in the Western media as being something that will affect us in the future if we don’t act but it really is happening now - devastating many communities, taking livelihoods away and moving people into poverty.

Wars around the globe are also changing communities with the same consequences. Unfortunately, they are also bringing out the worst in global politics and western communities. I am ashamed and shocked by the Australian government’s stance on refugees and people seeking asylum – shocked at our lack of humanity and ‘colonial’ approach to sending the ‘troublemakers’ offshore to recipients of our aid. The social disruption these policies have on the local communities, people seeking asylum and refugees will be experienced for years to come.

Taken while visiting rural communities in an Oxfam project of the Laos-Australian NGO Cooperation Agreement program.  Source: Supplied

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

Entrenched misogyny and power imbalances in households, communities and political systems at home and abroad leave women as the silent partners, powerless, unmotivated and vulnerable to domestic violence. Addressing this requires disruption to some of the most entrenched and systemic challenges at all levels of our societies.

Working effectively to change power balances in developing communities requires us to have a sound understanding of how these issues affect us personally before we can influence positive change for women in different cultures. It also requires a balanced approach between promoting possibilities for change while being culturally respectful. I have seen great progress in some communities around women’s involvement in governance and enterprise. I am optimistic when I see women who are encouraged and assume positions of leadership and influence, no matter whether that is as a Board member in Australia or running a women’s group in a rural community in Laos.

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Beyond this, there remain many fundamental issues preventing women’s active participation in positive change. At WaterAid, we are working on addressing improving health and education of girls and women through improving sanitation facilities at school and access to water. Access to education is without doubt the dream of the vast majority girls and young women I speak to when I am working in communities. On a recent work trip in Laos, I was heartbroken as I interviewed over 20 groups of girls and women where they had dreams of finishing school and becoming teachers, nurses or lawyers. Yet, they were resigned to their reality where the majority were forced to finish school in grade 5, help with the family farm and end up married and with babies by their late teens. In many cases, the reasons they could not continue school were simple things like there was no nearby high school, no road to get to the nearest one or money to pay for transport.

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

We need to take a bigger worldview than what we see in our own backyard, to be consciously aware that we are a diverse global society who together determines our future. We are fed jargon and viewpoints, which masquerade as unquestionable solutions. We need to base judgments and decisions on FACTS not supposition, be creative and generous not only with wealth but also with our involvement, whether that takes the form of joining a friend’s group or simply starting conversations around the dinner table.

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

Go for it! It’s an amazing career. We need younger people in the sector who bring fresh ideas and are passionate about a more sustainable global lifestyle. Many current governments and organisations have developed in times of growing inequality, environmental damage, and aggression. This has to change. We need a new mindset that young women can bring with their natural ability of human understanding and ethical principles. Diversity is a key to workplace effectiveness, and it is increasingly competitive, so don’t presume there is only one way to get into aid work or that there is one type of job. Life experience, community communication skills, personal resilience, flexibility and an honest awareness of the mutual benefits of this work are useful traits. A willingness to acknowledge that good intentions alone are not sufficient (i.e. have your eyes wide open to your own influence and privilege) would help you maintain a career of many years.

Rhonda Chapman is an International Aid and Development Advisor at Co-Impact P/L, the Co-Founder, Cohoots Coworking, an Accredited Partnership Broker at the Partnership Brokers AssociationBoard Member and Chair of the Programs and Advocacy Committee for WaterAid Australia and a member of the Independent Review Panel for the International NGO Accountability Charter.

If you missed our series, you can catch up with our other heroes here:

Gina Olivieri, Grassroots Engagement Manager at RESULTS Australia

Kirsty Thompson, Inclusive Development Director at CBM Australia

Nichola Krey, Head of Humanitarian Affairs at Save the Children Australia

Grace Nicholas, Senior Program Coordinator at ActionAid.

Isadora Quay, International Gender in Emergencies Specialistat CARE

Kathryn Michie, Public Sector Partnership Manager WWF Australia

Alison Darcy, Former Program Development Manager at CUFA.

Briony Mackenzie and Carmen Hawker, Founding Members of The Global Women’s Project.

Libby Bowell, Australian Red Cross Health Aid Worker in Nepal

Sam Mostyn, President of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID)

Joanna Hayter, CEO of the International Women’s Development Agency

Helen Szoke, CEO of Oxfam Australia.

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