Tim Costello is one of Australia’s most sought after voices on issues of social justice, leadership and ethics. Since 2004 Tim has been CEO of World Vision, Australia’s largest international development agency. Trained in economics, law, education and theology, Tim has practiced law, served as a Baptist minister, and has been active in church and community leadership, local government, national and international affairs.
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Over many years, wearing different hats and leading a number of different organizations, you have been an eloquent advocate and determined practitioner both in Australia and internationally around such issues as gambling, urban poverty, homelessness, reconciliation, substance abuse and, of course, international development. What has sustained your longstanding and continuing commitment to social justice?
On one level I’ve been driven by a faith that says justice ought to be the norm and it’s injustice that is against the natural order of things. In many ways this is counter-cultural as it challenges the ethos of radical individualism and materialism. I’ve certainly been inspired by the long line of campaigners for social justice, especially the anti-slavery movements and the civil rights movements. Yet I haven’t ever wanted to be some kind of prophet in the wilderness, so I also think you need some pragmatism. To engage with the world as it is and not get so caught up in counsels of perfection that you fail to connect with reality.
On another level, in a long life of travel and having been privileged to experience life in many different settings, I’ve simply been able to be with people who are disadvantaged, oppressed or marginalized, and in that sense it’s simply a matter of seeing the need and wanting to use whatever resources and opportunities are there to make a difference. I have learned that material wealth isn’t everything – people in modest circumstances often enjoy very satisfying relationships, strong community, mutual support and so on. And they often draw on enormous reserves of courage and hope – even in some of the hardest and most unenviable situations – and certainly encounters with people in those circumstances strengthen and sustain me.
Since 2004 you have served as Chief Executive of World Vision Australia, which is part of the worldwide development organization that has some 22,500 staff members and works in 96 countries. Do you think the World Visions and Oxfams of this world can make a difference given the scale of the problem? How do you answer the criticism that Western non-governmental aid agencies are little more than band aid operations whose principal function is to relieve the feelings of guilt on the part of the rich and the comfortable?
That is certainly a risk if we were stuck in the aid paradigm that prevailed in years past. But actually it’s a bit more complex. World Vision is large – 42,000 staff actually – but in any given year we might be helping 50 to 100 million people. Some of our programs (I’m thinking about some emergency responses that happen quickly and can be under-resourced) might look like band aid solutions from a distance, but even those actually save lives and improve lives. But most of our work is focused on change, not just traditional charity. I’m with Desmond Tutu when he said that after you’ve been pulling bodies out of the river for long enough, it’s time to go upstream and see who’s pushing them in.
So we use development programs and also advocacy to challenge the structures and systems that generate poverty in the first place. And often we are brokers and catalysts for change, supporting communities to create their own futures rather than just providing services. We are working on some innovative approaches across a range of issues like gender empowerment, active citizenship, farmer-managed land care, and many others. We are brokering new partnerships.
And it’s not really accurate today to characterize us as ‘Western’. Almost all of our programs are managed by the local World Vision office, and expatriates are only a tiny proportion of our staff. Our international board has a majority from the global South. So yes, there is undoubtedly an element of guilt-salving among people in the developed world, but actually that’s not the main story. Most of our supporters are in it to make a difference and they stay involved because they believe in what they’re doing, not as some kind of throw-away guilt fix.
Over the last 20 or so years, a number of countries that were previously considered developing countries have achieved remarkable rates of growth, of which China, India and Brazil are perhaps the best known. Does poverty continue to be a problem in those countries? If so, what can be done about it?
Poverty persists in all of those countries but poverty takes on different shapes in different places. Many Latin American countries have been at what’s regarded as middle-income status for many years, for example, but the continent has extraordinary inequality. And the great majority of people living in what we would call absolute poverty – less than $1.25 a day – are in Asia, mainly South Asia, not Africa as many would assume. I don’t like to get caught up in simplistic solutions or false dichotomies – aid versus trade for example. I think that each country needs to chart its own course according to its particular circumstances.
Of course, there are some policy adjustments that would clearly make a difference – fairer trade practices that give developing country producers a better opportunity, for example. Action against global tax avoidance so that developing country health budgets can expand. Real commitment to finance for climate mitigation and adaptation. Education investment, especially for girls, has demonstrated benefits just about everywhere.
Many of these economies are now members of the G20 which appears to be overtaking the role of the G8 as the primary international grouping that monitors the health of the world economy. What is your view of the G20? Does it offer a useful platform for thinking about questions of poverty reduction and equitable development?
World orders change, and it’s better that they evolve rather than collapsing in chaos and catastrophe. I think the G20 is far more relevant and appropriate for considering these issues than the G8 was. The G20, for all its limitations, at least includes a proper cross-section of both developed and emerging economies, and across all the main regions. And of course in global terms the G8 countries are declining as a proportion of the world economy. I don’t think sustainable development can be properly dealt with if you don’t include countries like China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.
I think it’s interesting that it was Australia and South Korea – developed countries in the Asian region, middle powers that typically having a strong appreciation of the need for balance and inclusivity – who worked particularly hard on the diplomacy that saw the G20 agenda expand. But of course the G20 has limitations; it doesn’t automatically include smaller or poorer countries, although they are often invited as guests at leaders’ summits. And like all governmental processes and institutions it has to interact with both markets and communities, so its success depends on continually attending to democratic space and the inclusion of the popular voice.
I understand that a new initiative is getting off the ground, known as the C20. What exactly is the C20, and what do you think is its potential to make intergovernmental decision-making more sensitive to social justice and development concerns?
As the G20 has developed over the past few years, some governments have seen advantages in having parallel processes in place so the needs and views of other sectors can be brought into the global conversation. So we now see each year a business gathering (B20) and in some years there have been strands representing trade unions, think tanks, youth and also civil society. In Mexico last year and again in Russia this year there have been active civil society events and as the president for 2014 the Australian Government has encouraged civil society to mount a program that has been dubbed the C20.
At the moment the C20 is being planned by a steering committee that cuts across different civil society groups – social service agencies, environment, ethnic communities, international development and so on. I’m chairing the group. I think it’s a very valuable opportunity to bring justice and development issues more effectively to the table, and establish dialogue not just at the inter-governmental level but within some national political systems as well. I think whether you are in a developed country or a developing one, there are troubling issues around social cohesion and quality of life that ultimately stem from various forms of inequality, and this is an area where states and markets often fail to correct the imbalance. Civil society voices are critical in this way, as well as being essential in a democratic conversation.
I’m optimistic that the Sustainable Development Goals now being developed for the post-2015 period will be ambitious yet practical, and that every actor – rich and poor country governments, civil society, business and so on – will get on board with them. There is a risk that the ongoing aid commitment, and the commitment to structural changes in areas like trade and climate finance, could get lost in domestic political debates within rich countries. Advocacy needs to operate at multiple levels – we need to be pressing for policy change and presenting credible, evidence-based proposals.
At the same time we need a paradigm shift in how the citizens of rich countries understand the challenge of poverty and development and education is critical here. The most important thing we can do in shifting attitudes is to focus on young people – as with issues like slavery and racism in the past, real social change only becomes solid when a new generation rises up who embrace the new world and internalize the new ideas.
Tim Costello is interviewed by Professor Emeritus Joseph A. Camilleri OAM, La Trobe University
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