For about twenty years until 2004, Palms Australia’s work was funded in part by the Australian Government through AusAID. The discontinuation of government funding of Palms’ volunteers was a significant enough moment that some supporters refer to the last five years as the “post-AusAID era”. While initially the idea of a substantial drop in income was of concern, this era has offered many opportunities to re-connect with and re-explore the vision and mission of Palms Australia. Indeed, as the model favoured by the government in 2004 seemed in some ways to relegate volunteering agencies to sub-contractor status, implementing and tacitly endorsing government agendas, it was indeed desirable that Palms was able to maintain its independence.
During this time, Palms Australia has proved resourceful and innovative. Initiatives including Open Hands Day, The Fair Trade Coffee Company, Connect East Timor, multi-directional partnerships with Australian and overseas communities, the 99% Challenge, an expanded CommUNITY program, the Australian Global Volunteer Network, research partnerships with the University of Wollongong into volunteering (and soon, fair trade), Reverse Hospitality Immersions and our new Encounter Program, all began or flourished since 2004. Our budgets have been tighter and our staff slightly smaller, but through the financial and in-kind contributions of our members and individual and institutional supporters, we continue.
“If independence has encouraged resourcefulness and innovation why, then, re-engage with government?”
Firstly, it is important to remember that for twenty years, Palms Australia received government funding. During this time it still provided the best-prepared and supported volunteers to hundreds of requesting communities. It remained a dynamic and vital organisation which contributed to poverty reduction, educated and connected communities and built lasting relationships. Government funding need not preclude freedom, especially if the relationship between government and the agency is one of dialogue.
Furthermore, Palms did gain much from its relationship with AusAID. Despite the sheer volume of work associated with its shortlived volunteer accreditation process, this process did allow Palms to properly document its policies and procedures such that we are more able to meet the increasingly professional requirements of our work. In Palms’ documentation, the AGVN members recognise processes and policies which would take them decades to develop independently and which demonstrate the value of cooperation with Palms.
Finally, as governments change so do directions. Preliminary discussions with Bob McMullan, Parliamentary Secretary for Overseas Development Assistance, have indicated a willingness to dialogue with agencies and partners rather than dictate to them. Hopefully, this more respectful attitude will also be extended to overseas partners. We still have not heard a great deal about the new government’s directions on overseas aid and development, though the early signs – an increased budget as a percentage of GDP, an increase in the percentage given through not-for-profit non-government organisations, a desire to increase community education on global justice issues within Australia – are positive.
So, how has our re-engagement taken place so far? In the past year, Palms Australia made a submission to a Senate Inquiry on the challenges facing Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific, met with Mr McMullan, participated in a review of AusAID’s current volunteering program and met with representatives from the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. We have invited Mr McMullan to launch the papers from our recent forum co-hosted with the University of Wollongong (see back page) and we will address the public hearing of the abovementioned Senate Inquiry. We will continue to consider opportunities to cooperate with the government and AusAID, where they align with our vision of “a more just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful world.”