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Teaching for change

While visiting Busboys and Poets, an educational café and bookshop in Washington DC, we rediscovered the book by Peter Singe titled – The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.

Singe points out that as many as 27,000 children die every day from poverty that could be easily and cheaply helped by existing charities. He notes the psychological barriers to charitable giving in the western world, including cognitive dissonance where a public belief can be held – for example ‘we are all very generous donors in Australia’ – that is contradicted in practice.

Singer says that many of his readers enjoy at least one luxury that is less valuable than a child’s life. He says his readers ought to sacrifice such a luxury and send proceeds to charity, if they can find a reliable one. He clarifies that people have a right to spend money any way they want, but says that fact does not change the way one ought to spend it.

This once again raised for us the issue of how comfortable middle-class affluent Australians might understand their role in alleviating poverty, both within Australia and globally. It also raised the issue of the amount of effort and time that is put into fundraising and marketing campaigns by numerous not-for-profits, often about the same cause, without any interest in collaboration to maximize effect, or indeed to educate Australians long-term about their role as global citizens.

It seems that little has changed over many years in the Australian ‘charities’ sector. Australians, compared to many Europeans, know very little about the real statistics and the devastating human impact of global poverty. The size of Australia’s GDP allocated to overseas development assistance is hardly an issue that will surface at the next elections. The pitiful amount provided through social security benefits for single mothers and long-term unemployed in Australia, or the third world conditions of many Indigenous communities will not be issues that are crucial for any party to be elected or lose government.

Unlike Sweden, there are no coordinated ‘development education’ programs in Australia where education about suffering and poverty in the two-thirds world is on the primary school curriculum, and remains a part of the education process through to the tertiary level. Most not-for-profits have little resources to provide ‘education’ with the sole purpose of teaching people about the causes and effects of poverty, separate to fundraising and marketing. It seems that ‘education’ is not seen as an end in itself but always tied to seeking a dollar.

So the challenge for the Australian charity sector appears to be unchanged for the last three decades at least.  How do you effectively educate people to think mindfully about both domestic and global poverty, and how do you take disparate resources in the Australian charities sector and combine them to produce effective education initiatives?

Maybe that is where we can go backwards and learn from history in order to move forward. It was way back in 1964 that ‘development education’ was added to the Swedish curriculum by Olof Palmer (the then Swedish Minister for Education and future Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1986). And yet there is still nothing similar on offer in Australia.

Maybe if all the different not-for-profits in the charity sector in Australia combined resources they could effectively lobby and produce resources to ‘teach for change’, commencing with the primary school curriculum and then targeting specific adult market segments.

This means a lot more than 30 second TV adverts featuring a smiling African child. It means a concerted and collaborative venture where individual not-for-profits combine their energies to educate people of all ages in Australia about the real effects of poverty and suffering. This would be a long-term project, but then domestic and global poverty appears to be an equally long-term blight on the human condition.

Such a concerted education campaign might at least offer a counter-point to the Hollywood ethos of materialistic, mindless consumerism that dominates and fuels media coffers and provides a frame of reference for the lifestyles of so many Australians.

So who or what could coordinate such a project? How could individualism and competition within the not-for-profit sector be mediated for the common good – both domestically and globally?

Is this a possible role for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC)? Can the ACNC envisage a role for itself beyond compliance to include coordination and collaboration of long-term and impactful education strategies for the common good? Perhaps individual not-for-profit organisations could take a moment to stop and consider what role long-term education of the Australian public may have on the issues they are seeking to address. Or perhaps there is another body already working on this? Is there any energy out there to collaborate and educate for change and a more just world? We would love to know if there is and join forces!

We were impressed to hear about the Teaching for Change project in Washington, that provides educational resources to schools to enhance students’ understanding of issues relating to social justice. There is enormous opportunity to establish a similar project in Australia.

Surely it is hard to refute that a more ethically engaged and literate society will tend to make for a better quality of life, both for educated donors and those who benefit from their engagement to end poverty.

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