World leaders were in Perth on the west coast of Australia last month to take part in the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which attracted a host of charities and advocacy groups keen to lobby leaders.
Francis Ventura, 21, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Melbourne, spoke to Michael Sheldrick, Australian Campaign Director of the Global Poverty Project, and Martijn Roos, a volunteer, about their work on poverty alleviation and youth leadership and their campaign to eradicate polio.
Ventura: So we’re here this sunny afternoon with Martijn, who’s one of the volunteers with the Global Poverty Project and also with Michael who is the Australian Campaign Director for the Global Poverty Project and of course they’ve just had an extremely successful weekend. They’ve raised tens of millions of dollars to basically end, or eradicate polio around the world and they’ve also staged a successful concert just across the road from us. So they’ve had a very successful weekend. So gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr Roos: Thanks for having us.
Ventura: So Michael, would be be able to give us a brief of your role?
Mr Sheldrick: I’ve been running a campaign that the Global Poverty Project have been running called The End of Polio. The End of Polio campaign is a campaign we launched about three months ago, in support of the critical work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is a partnership led by Rotary International, UNICEF, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation. This partnership has the aim to eradicate polio in the near future.
Now particularly what our campaign was about is, although we’ve made some great progress and strides in eradicating polio since 1988, which is the year I was born, in my lifetime alone we’ve reduced cases of polio by 99%. The work of this amazing and extraordinary effort is currently limited and at risk by a funding gap of US, well before yesterday, US$530 million so our campaign, if you like, was to shine the spotlight on polio and use CHOGM as a platform, whilst we have three of the four countries where polio remains endemic, which are Commonwealth countries, in Perth, as well as key donor countries, was to get polio up on the agenda and to mobilise public opinion to provide Commonwealth leaders with a compelling mandate to take urgent action and fund the critical work of global polio eradication efforts.
Ventura: So Michael just on that, of course Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Australia will provide $50 million over four years and Bill Gates donated $40 million to help eradicate this issue. What is your response to this? For instance, is that enough, would you like more? Also, if you could just describe what you did, how you went about advocating for this?
Mr Sheldrick: Well I’ll answer that first and then you can see the announcement as the result of it. Basically, this campaign to mobilise public opinion, we did a whole bunch of things. We launched a website called www.theendofpolio.com where we encouraged people to sign on and show their support, and we were very fortunate to have a wonderful Rotary Club, the Rotary Club of Crawley, who for every sign-up we got donated a dollar, roughly the cost of one child being vaccinated, all of which went to polio eradication efforts. We produced a number of short clips featuring celebrities such as Hugh Jackman supporting the campaign.
We sent it through our social media. We held meetings with all levels of the Australian Government and High Commissions in Canberra and other Commonwealth representatives. I guess the final thing, which many people have heard about, is on Friday, just before the start of CHOGM, well the night of the opening of CHOGM as a quarter of the world leaders arrived in Perth, we staged The End of Polio Concert to mobilise public opinion, we had international acts, we had Australian acts, we had amazing and inspiring speakers, and the idea was to use this to really show the public support and commitment that this is something that the leaders should be putting on the agenda and committing to.
Ventura: So just on that partnership with the Rotary Club of Crawley, how much did you manage to raise throughout that?
Mr Sheldrick: Well we raised, some amazing people from there came down on Friday night to present a cheque. We’ve actually raised over $20,000 since the concert, but on the night we had this massive cheque and that was fantastic.
Ventura: So that’ll be at least 20,000 polio vaccinations?
Mr Sheldrick: Exactly, that alone. And of course that was just part of the publicity but the big thing that we we’re excited about is putting this on the agenda. We had been calling for the Australian Government to show leadership and put this on the agenda. I had met with Prime Minister Gillard asking if she would do this. She said it was something that she was interested in.
We asked for $50 million, we thought that was reasonable, we thought that’s what Australia should be giving and we were so excited when we heard yesterday when we were invited along to an announcement where we were joined by Julia Gillard and four other Commonwealth leaders and at that she stood up and she showed amazing leadership on this issue when she announced $50 million in support of polio eradication efforts and she made the commitment which said very, very clearly that Australia is part of the global effort to eradicate this disease once and for all and that was just amazing. She delivered and she was personally committed, it was her leadership that put this on the agenda and all credit to her for doing it.
Ventura: Martijn, as a volunteer with the Global Poverty Project, what do you think of the events leading up to this, for instance the concert, the general advocacy work and about this decision?
Mr Roos: I think for me, coming from another country and just being part of this since about three weeks ago, I think it’s amazing to see how this is just a group, a small group of young people able to organize such a huge thing. These people have been working really hard to pull this off and I think the concert was absolutely amazing with over 4,000 people there, the music was good, the speakers were really good and then of course it was really exciting that all this work paid off the day after this concert. We went into the press conference and we had the announcement and I think, I can just say it’s absolutely amazing to be a part of this and to just see what young people can do.
Ventura: Wonderful! Michael, Kevin Rudd (Australian Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister) who of course spoke at the concert has said, and I quote, ‘our view is that the richest among us have a profound responsibility to help the poorest members of the human family our of poverty’ and that ‘poverty destroys human dignity’. Why then, apart from a few rich nations, have governments failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2015?
Mr Sheldrick: Yes, certainly and I guess the first thing I’d note is that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard together have shown personal conviction on these issues. In the last couple of years, what we’ve seen are plans for Australia to go from laggards to leaders in international development, we’ve got bi-partisan support on that and I’d very much encourage them to do that. Australia’s only committed to increasing it’s foreign aid budget to 0.7% of GNI by 2015. Obviously, we would love to meet our aspirational goal of 0.7%, but I do recognise that 0.5% would deliver basically an extra $4 billion over the next four years, effectively doubling our aid program and that itself is a massive achievement and we would commend the government for that and encourage them to keep up their efforts.
But you are right, of the G8 countries, only one of them is on track to reach their commitment of 0.7% by 2015 and that’s of course the British Government led by David Cameron, and I was fortunate enough to speak to him yesterday after the announcement and I thanked him for his leadership on that. I said that I use his example all the time when I speak to MPs (Members of Parliament) and say ‘here’s a leader who, even in an uncertain economic climate, is standing up to do the right thing’ and I think, I actually said to David Cameron a quote I use a lot from him which he said earlier this year at the Davos Economic Forum. He said ‘there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing’ and to countries, yes there are financial crisis, yes there’s economic uncertainty, but at the same time, as David Cameron says, we shouldn’t be balancing our books on the back of the poorest. So I would encourage all countries to show the leadership displayed by our government, to show the leadership displayed by Prime Minister Cameron’s government in terms of getting to 0.7% by 2015 and increasing our aid budget in line with our international obligations and the Millennium Development Goals.
Ventura: So just very broadly Michael, the conference, one of the big news items of this conference is that it’s failed to introduce a Commissioner to oversee democracy, human rights and the rule of law and the push by the Secretary-General to decriminalize homosexuality in a majority of Commonwealth nations has been stymied. Although this is disconnected from the specific issue of poverty, it does relate to the whole, the broader issue of social justice and lack of fairness. How do you respond to this and what can be done from now?
Mr Sheldrick: A lot of those recommendations were put forward by the Eminent Persons Group, which of course Justice Michael Kirby, who’s an amazing defender of human rights, sat on. The Australian Government, and I believe Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard themselves, embraced those goals and very much wanted to see them put through. Yes, it’s unfortunate, like in a democracy in general, in terms of international democracy, that’s what CHOGM is, it requires consensus of all members. It’s unfortunate that that wasn’t achieved here, but to all these people who say that CHOGM 2011 would go down as a failure, I wholeheartedly dispute that and reject that.
I think CHOGM 2011 will be remembered, hopefully, as a turning point in terms of the effort to eradicate polio and if one thing came out of it, and it was that, and polio was one of the few things to come out of it, I think that in itself was a remarkable achievement. The Gates Foundation, I was speaking to them yesterday, they said it was unprecedented to have five Commonwealth leaders come together and commit to the worldwide eradication of polio, that’s never happened before and I think that that should be commended and people, I think, in time will realise that that was a monumental achievement.
Ventura: In Africa, around 800 million people still live in extreme poverty. Given that over one trillion dollars in development aid has been sent to Africa over the past half-century, is it time that governments begin to focus on areas such as political and trade liberalization, reduction in corruption, rule of law and greater focus on youth development, rather than a reliance on foreign aid?
Mr Sheldrick: I think that most people who are serious about development and work in this space, know that foreign aid itself isn’t a silver bullet, and they know that you need a holistic approach and I don’t think it’s right, the whole aid vs. trade thing, that’s an old paradigm and we need to move beyond that. The thing is we need both. We need both foreign aid, so that we can provide services on the ground such as education and health, the means through which the communities can be empowered to realise their goals, aspirations and dreams; but at the same time, you are right, there are obviously issues with trade.
One of the big things at the moment is the Doha round of trade negotiations which goes on. Eventually we need to break through the stalemate. We need to, basically, agriculture subsidies from countries such as the US, Japan and Europe, we need to abolish these and we need to put in place fairer, equitable trade systems that allow all countries to participate. So I think that we need to acknowledge that foreign aid is important and it provides many of the means through which infrastructure, health and education are provided, but we also need to acknowledge that issues like corruption, the rule of law and trade all go into the same thing, and ultimately it’s only once we focus on all those areas together and recognise that they’re all part of a successful development approach, that I think we’re going to realise the Global Poverty Project’s vision of a world without extreme poverty within a generation but I think it’s definitely possible, and I do think, I am wary, yes we need to focus on these issues, but we shouldn’t use the need to focus on them as an excuse not to realise our aid obligations. We can and we should be doing both.
Ventura: Just on one of the topics you mentioned in there was the farming subsidies in those three areas. Obviously one of the areas why they haven’t been abolished is because of the political support behind them and to do otherwise, to abolish them, would be quite politically sensitive. Martijn I’d also like to get your opinion, from a European’s perspective, especially now given that there’s a financial crisis occurring in Europe. How can we as young people, how can anyone basically, change public opinion or assist in the push to see fairer trade laws between developing and rich nations?
Mr Roos: The only thing that I can say about that is that advocacy work is extremely important in achieving these kind of goals. I think that we as individuals, and it doesn’t really matter if we’re young or old people, must make the change. So what I’ve been doing for example in the Netherlands is that I’ve been doing a lot of advocacy work in my university to get attention for these kind of issues. I’ve been encouraging people to start buying fair-trade products, to start thinking about where their clothes come from, to start buying fair trade things and I think that’s where it all starts. I can just say from my perspective that it’s important to do advocacy work and of course this thing is really big, but there are a lot of small things happening also and there are a lot of groups doing advocacy work for these kinds of issues and I think that’s where we have to start.
Ventura: So Michael, you’ve just led the push for CHOGM to develop a fund to eradicate polio. So obviously your opinion on shifting public opinion holds quite a bit of sway, how do you think this can happen, what do you think can be done about this issue?
Mr Sheldrick: Well I think, in Australia, a couple of years ago when the movement to end extreme poverty secured an announcement from Kevin Rudd when he was Opposition Leader that if elected, he would double Australia’s aid program. I think he acknowledged, and I still meet MPs and government officials now, and I still hear them saying that speech, and I think the thing that gets these things over the line is at the end of the day demonstrating that public support. There’s a wonderful quote by Bono, going back five years, I was fortunate enough to attend and be in the audience of the Make Poverty History Concert in Melbourne, which Bono obviously played and spoke at, and I always remember he told the audience that ‘we can’t blame the politicians because we have to give them a mission to spend, what is in the end, our money’ and I think that’s what we’ve got to do.
We’ve just got to highlight that we care about these issues and that we need to provide our leaders with a mandate to act. We’re never going to get full, although I’d love to, 100% support, you never to for any issue, but there are those that disagree and agree with you, but if we can demonstrate that mainstream Australians and mainstream people elsewhere in the world care about this issue, I think that’d what we can do to get our leaders over the line because issues like agricultural subsidies, it’s not popular but that’s why we need to be out there campaigning on the streets, demonstrating why this is the right thing to do.
Ventura: Michael, young people from around the world will be reading your remarks, many of them are involved in social justice. As a young person achieving such good things for the world, I mean you’ve just organised to have polio eradicated which is certainly no easy feat.
Mr Sheldrick: I should say, although I was the Campaign Manager, we had an amazing team. We had volunteers like Martijn, we had an amazing team of production crew, Wei Soo, the Country Director in Australia gave me invaluable guidance, support and mentorship. So it was definitely a team effort.
Ventura: Nevertheless, you certainly gave up quite a bit of time alongside your Law studies, so what advice can you give young people on topics such as perseverance, time management and the urge to never give up, what advice can you give young people around the Commonwealth?
Mr Sheldrick: I think often when we have these ideas, the first reaction from many people is to look for excuses why these things can’t be done and I think it’s to stay true to those beliefs. I’ve come to learn that if there’s someone out there saying it can’t be done, in fact that’s all the more reason why you should go ahead and pursue the idea, because if people are saying it can’t be done, then it usually can be done and certainly with this campaign, when we had this idea back in December last year, which is when we sat down and I first agreed to take on this role of managing this campaign, we thought it was possible to put it on the agenda.
We didn’t know how to do it, but we certainly thought it was possible and we certainly stayed true to that and saw it through, put in the effort, and I think that’s the main thing. I think it’s to pursue that idea, speak to people about it, rally support, see if anyone else is willing to help you. But I guess, don’t be afraid that people will think you’re naive, don’t be afraid to think that things are impossible. Russell James, who MCed (Master of Ceremonies) the concert said to us, that the thing I love about you guys is that you’re too naive to realise that certain things shouldn’t or can’t be done, and I think that that’s the power of our energy.
I don’t think that it’s confined to just the youth as well, I mean I know, I’ve met many people through this campaign, I know a 76 year-old polio survivor by the name of David, who I caught up with back in March, and he’s been the one encouraging me and saying that this can be done. I think that’s it, surround yourself with people that are supportive, but also take on board advice and seek that out and make sure you’ve got a good team as well. But number one, don’t be afraid to try try something new, and I know in this day and age, particularly when you’re young and you’re at university, you’re juggling all these other commitments and sometimes you think, well I’ve got work, I’ve got study, where should I direct that? But don’t be afraid to, it’s ok to say I’m going to take a year out and not necessarily go and work for that law firm straight away. I’m going to go part-time or I’m going to try something new.
Don’t be afraid to say I’m going to try something different that might be a bit unconventional, because you’ll be glad you did and I gave up some things to pursue this campaign, I went part-time at university which means it’s going to take me another year to finish, but it was definitely worth it and yesterday that announcement paid dividends to many children around the world and hopefully go somewhere to creating a polio-free chapter in our world’s history.
Ventura: Well that’s the thing, you’ve basically led the campaign to end polio in the world, so I’m sure that’s definitely worth doing. One final question, and completely off topic, Martijn what do you think of Australia?
Mr Roos: Hahaha! I think it’s a very nice country, it’s not comparable to the Netherlands at all because, and I said it to somebody the other day, the Netherlands is a very tiny country with a lot of people and Australia is a very big country with very little people, so that’s also one of the reasons I came here. It’s just beautiful, the weather is good and I’ve been really honored to be part of this campaign an to meet all these amazing people. So I can’t say any negative things about Australia.
Ventura: You’re a good man then! Well Michael and Martijn thank you very much for your time. I’m sure young people around the world are going to be very interested, certainly I’ve been very interested, to hear your remarks and certainly your guidance and opinion on various matters will be used as part of their fight for social justice and I thank you very much for joining me here today.
Mr Roos: Thank you.
Mr Sheldrick: Thank you.
“G’day! My name is Francis Ventura and I am currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Melbourne. I am also the youth director of the Australian Republican Movement.
“As Melbourne is the sporting capital of the nation, I have a keen interest in cricket and Australian Rules football. I also love exploring Australia’s beautiful environment. After my studies I would like to dedicate my life to human rights, with a focus on protecting civilians living in war zones or under totalitarian regimes.”
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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