Australian Government aid has plummeted to its lowest level ever and there’s a growing shortage of funds to support critical, life-changing development programs for people in some of the world’s poorest regions.

Also contributing to this issue is the fact that, although Australian philanthropists have never been more generous in their support of causes close to home, they tend to steer clear of international development.

Individual philanthropists have a wide range of uniquely personal reasons for shying away from international development. Many are triggered to support local organisations or research efforts by a landmark event in their lives; others feel strongly about giving back to their community.

In contrast, international projects are perceptively more abstract and literally more distant. Philanthropists usually have a strong connection with the projects they support. It can be hard to forge these bonds with struggles and injustices thousands of miles away.

And then there’s the issue of efficacy. Today’s philanthropists are often entrepreneurs who apply business-like measures to social investment, including assessing long-term effects. After a decade of ‘development doesn’t work’ best sellers, local philanthropists have grown wary of funding development projects that could eventually prove either not to help or even to damage the target communities.

But now there’s a new type of international development that is highly suited to modern philanthropy, with its strong need for long-term, demonstrable results. With the primary aim of delivering ‘sustainable development’ – where social and economic benefits continue long after the development agency is out of the picture – these projects are starting to attract the attention of philanthropists who previously wouldn’t have considered international development.

For example, at ActionAid Australia, philanthropists value our focus on effecting sustainable change by enabling women – who make up 70 per cent of the world’s poor – to influence their own future.

We believe one of the most powerful ways to lift women out of poverty is to empower them as leaders. Instead of bringing solutions from outside, we create the space for women to discuss their challenges, identify effective solutions and act collectively to influence policies, laws and practices that can create lasting change in their lives and communities.

You can see this development philosophy at work in the ActionAid Fellowship program in Myanmar. This program develops young women and men (Fellows) to lead community-based initiatives that are democratic, participatory and empowering. The initiatives have simple, short-term goals such as improving living conditions. But their more powerful, long-term aim is to make communities self-reliant, improve government services and policies, create greater community cohesion, and promote peace and reconciliation in conflict-prone areas.

Through the program, Fellows undergo an initial intensive six-week course of training, after which they live in a community (either their own or another) with the aim of stimulating change and development, according to the communities’ priorities. A Fellow’s role is to facilitate and galvanise community leaders into action – and to support inclusion of different ethnic, religious and social groups.


The approach is highly sustainable because communities are empowered to mobilise and take action to drive long-term development even after the program ends. Since 2006, 803 young people have graduated from ActionAid Myanmar’s Fellowship program, with the majority still actively involved in local and regional community development and social enterprise projects.

This approach caught the attention of the Planet Wheeler Foundation and the English Family Foundation, which both support early-stage social changemakers in South East Asia.

These foundations seek out people who are working to bring transformative change to communities, particularly with the aim of restoring basic human rights. This is a tough ask in areas where a long-standing armed conflict has worn down social cohesion, where communities are divided along ethnic and religious lines and where poverty is entrenched.

But change is now happening, thanks to Planet Wheeler Foundation’s commitment to the continuation of the Fellowship program, which the Foundation has supported for the past six years in several regions; and the English Family Foundation’s recent two-year support of the Fellowship Project in Myanmar’s Kayah State, where 30 young women and men received leadership and development skills and knowledge to empower their villages.

Drawing on the development strategies taught by the Fellowship project, Myanmar’s young leaders have mobilised diverse teams in their communities to implement projects funded through seed grants and engage with regional government around democratically decided community priorities. Each community now also has self-help groups that support vulnerable community members, primarily women, with small cash loans to strengthen their livelihoods.

Each small success has shown the villagers that together, they can improve their lives. Now, they have the skills and the links with local and national authorities to carve a new, more hopeful path.

It’s an important example of how Australian philanthropy can make a profound and lasting difference in communities affected by poverty and conflict – and perhaps a model for other philanthropists to help fill the vacuum left by Australia’s receding aid budget.



Generosity_ActionAidArchie Law is Executive Director, ActionAid Australia