At Palms Australia’s AGM, keynote speaker Duncan MacLaren challenged Palms, and other non-government organisations (NGOs) to be prophetic.
Discussing Australian Catholic University’s Thai/Burma Refugee Education Program, Mr MacLaren outlined the importance of including refugees in development programs, citing the huge numbers globally and regionally and the human rights which remain unmet in many situations. He went on to outline ACU’s project which, in partnership with a number of American universities, provides tertiary-level distance education in fields identified as most useful by the refugees themselves, and currently utilises Palms Australia volunteer Frank Morgan in a tutoring and guidance role.
ACU’s program, and Palms’ involvement, is promoting “integral human development”. Defining development using Catholic social teaching, and noting similar definitions in other faiths and traditions, Duncan explained it is a holistic process, not simply economic or social but also cultural and spiritual. Development is about putting the human person at the centre, but also focuses on the the individual as part of a community. Quoting Amartya Sen, development can be said to be about “freedom with dignity”.
In protracted refugee situations, such as that on the Thai/Burma border, higher education is an integral part of development. The Diploma in Liberal studies is liberating people, providing livelihood skills with business training and citizenship and legal skills with studies of human rights and politics. Such training creates “responsible citizens who can reason systematically and be tolerant of opposing viewpoints”. These are people “who can be agents of their own and their communities’ development in the camps and question NGOs and others who try to make them objects of their idea of what it is to be developed… [Higher education] is not just about acquiring knowledge or getting a job but a vital element in restoring hope and dignity to people who have been driven from their homes by the vilest of regimes which sought to destroy not just their bodies, but their cultural identities and their personhood.”
Having outlined the realities of refugees and ACU’s program, Mr MacLaren concluded by challenging Palms Australia and other NGOs to be prophetic.
“Prophets appeared who would denounce the false gods and call for a return to right relationships – with the poor, the community, their land and their Creator… The prophetic style had to be outside the authority structure and could cause tensions – and they would be unpopular but they would triumph because their words were founded on important truths surrounding what it is to be human. NGOs have to return to this prophetic tradition from which they sprang. Kofi Annan described them as the ‘conscience of the world’ – entities which took risks, put the poor people before authorities, put flexibility before criteria as Palms Australia did with the ACU program and produced, in people both volunteers and those whom they touched coming home, a radical empathy described in Palms’ ‘Embracing Vulnerability in an Age of Fear’.”
“Palms’ mission and values echo many of the words used this evening – justice, dignity, building capacity and culminating in the Micah quote … ‘to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.’ Palms continues to stand in the prophetic tradition.”