This post is based on extracts from a transcript of the address given by Robyn Alders upon her acceptance of the inaugural Mitchell Humanitarian Award at the 2017 Australasian Aid Conference. The full text of Robyn’s speech is on the Devpolicyblog of 24 February, 2017. See also http://devpolicy.org/australian-veterinarian-robyn-alders-wins-inaugural-mitchell-humanitarian-award-20170216/
“About a month ago, I was sitting having breakfast in Dili, reading an Aussie paper online. The headline that jumped out at me was that Pistol and Boo – and yes, I can see that some of you know who I’m talking about – yes, the news in a major daily newspaper was that Amber Heard was to retain custody of Pistol and Boo after her divorce from Johnny Depp.
So, what can I say in a world where I know the names of two dogs who fly around the world in a private jet, and where I can be in a country where one in two nameless children receive inadequate nutrition and so never reach their potential?”
“I’d like to believe that by taking a systems approach we can put a spotlight on the drivers of the increasing wealth gap within Australia and the startling gap between high- and low-income countries.
Of course, when I’d finished my PhD here at the ANU in early 1989 and headed off to work at the University of Zambia, I didn’t understand any of this. I did, unfortunately, think that I knew a lot and had a lot to share. What my Zambian colleagues so kindly taught me was that I did know a lot, but I knew a lot about very little. So my list of thank yous continues, as I’d also like to thank my Zambian colleagues for uneducating me.
After three years of learning in Zambia I briefly returned to Australia but couldn’t settle. In what my veterinary mentor described as a ‘career-ending move’, I left a university job in Australia to become a program officer for Community Aid Abroad (CAA), now Oxfam Australia, and it was this position that started my enduring relationship with Mozambique. As many of you know, the official language in Mozambique is Portuguese with 16 major linguistic groups within the country. When I arrived there in May 1993, Mozambique was, according to the UNDP Human Development Index, the poorest country in the world and it was just emerging from 16 years of war.
Once again I extend my thanks to my Mozambican colleagues and friends for expanding my horizons to understand that the financially poor can be rich in so many other ways. Thanks for coping with my atrocious attempts at Portuguese, and thanks for believing that it was possible to teach me how to dance.”
Robyn then offered offered “one little anecdote to give you a glimpse of how difficult it must have been for my wonderful Mozambican colleagues”. She thought a colleague was asking if he could borrow one of the Honda motorbikes. In fact he was asking if she would give give him the ‘honour’ (‘honra’ in Portuguese) of attending his daughter’s birthday party.
.”Anyway, to me, this brief example served to highlight three important things:
Firstly, that I really needed to study Portuguese;
Secondly, that people in the countries where I was working worried about my wellbeing and took very good care of me; and
Thirdly, that having BSc(Vet), BVSc, DipVetClinStud and PhD after my name didn’t really qualify me for working in international development.
So now, 25 years later, I understand that development takes time. It takes time in Australia as it does everywhere else.
In 2012 I returned to Australia as I’d learned something else. On the food and nutrition security front, I felt that we were never going to achieve great outcomes in low- to middle-income countries while high-income countries set less than optimal examples.”