Saturday, August 1, 2009

Interview: APMG Talks to Heather Saville of Quaker Service Australia (QSA)

By Rich Bowden

Img: Heather Saville at book launch. Credit: QSA

Quaker Service Australia (QSA), one of Australia's most highly respected charities, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with the publication of the book Friends in deed: 50 years of Quaker Service Australia. APMG spoke to the QSA's Heather Saville on the Service's aid operations in the Aust Pacific region and talk of its future.

The book follows the development of QSA -- the aid and development arm of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia -- in its overseas aid work and chronicles the Service's history, adventures and laudable achievements throughout its first five decades.

From its humble beginnings in March 1959, to the re
nowned NGO that it has become today, QSA has worked in regions as distant as the Pacific Islands, Indo-China, India and Africa, operating in over 20 countries during its existence. The book charts the different challenges the Australian charity now faces in its aid work, compared to those it encountered in its beginnings, with the scourges of climate change, AIDS and overpopulation now very much to the fore.

Friends in deed also describes aid methods us
ed by the QSA, including permaculture techniques and organic principles, that have helped set up farms and food gardens in countries as far apart as Uganda and Cambodia.

In the following interview, the book's author, Heather Saville, kindly took some time out to discuss with the Auspacific Media Group's correspondent Rich Bowden the achievements of QSA over the last fifty years as well as give a more in-depth view of the Service's operations and talk of its future.

Friends in deed was launched on Friday Mar
. 20 at the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Melbourne, Australia. The book is available for purchase through the QSA website ( Heather Saville is a former convenor of the Quaker Service management committee.

Rich Bowden: Your book "Friends in Deed" was launched in Melbourne recently to celebrate fifty years of the foundation of Quaker Service Australia. During those five decades
of aid work, what do you see as QSA's greatest achievements and greatest disappointments?

Heather Saville: Two of the QSA's greatest achievements have been the successful handing over of its two largest programs in Cambodia to loca
l organisations.

The Cambodian English Language Training Project, which now forms part of the University of Phnom Penh English Department, and the QSA HIV/AIDS project, now a local NGO -- the Cambodian HIV/AIDS Education and Care (CHEC) -- which has continued and expanded the work done by QSA.

Also, with our permaculture and other organic farming activities, end of project evaluations have indicated that many hundreds of families have been able to achieve food production sufficient to feed themselves and produce a surplus, often in areas where long-terms levels of hunger had been endemic.

Disappointingly though, the work with our project partners in Zimbabwe has been severely limited with the political upheavals in that country and as a result many of the most disadvantaged in the community have been even further disadvantaged (see the work with the King George V School in Chapter 7 of the book).

However our greatest disappointment would surely be that not only is our work still needed after 50 years but that the need is greater and the numbers needing assistance is growing.

RB: What have been the overall aims of QSA in its first fifty years?

HS: Our Statement of Purpose is "to express in a practical way the concern of Australian Quakers for the building of a more equitable, just and compassionate world. To this end, QSA works with communities in need to improve their quality of life with projects which are economically and environmentally appr
opriate and sustainable." I think that pretty much encapsulates our aim back then in 1959 and remains so today.

RB: In its work, how closely does QSA look to follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) as outlined by the United Nations?

HS: QSA’s Strategic Plan takes as its starting point the MDGs, particularly Goals 1, 3 and 7 (1 = eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 3 = pro
mote gender equality and empower women and 7 = ensure environmental sustainability).

Img below: Author Heather Saville at launch with friend Veda. Credit: QSA

RB: Does QSA prefer to focus its activities more on emergency aid relief or the long-term development of communities?

HS: Like most NGOs QSA began its work with providing short-term emergency relief. Gradually as the role of development NGOs has changed and become more multi-faceted, QSA has concentrated on long-term projects with local communities, where there is the possibility of ensuring sustainability of skills exchanges. Today the complexity of emergency relief work is too great for agencies of the size of QSA to carry out usefully.

RB: What criteria does QSA use to assess requests for grants/aid?

HS: Our project selection criteria appear as an appendix in Friends in deed. If a project proposal meets these criteria we then examine whether it is in the sort of work in which we have particular skills or expertise and whether it is in a geographic region where we have other projects or can call on local knowledge. We seek through our project selection to promote human rights and dignity of all involved, to enhance gender equity and community development and ensure as far as is possible that the environmental impact of projects is positive.

RB: Does QSA utilise microfinance programs as a means of assisting communities to develop? If so, how successful has this system of small loans been?

HS: Yes, QSA has used microfinance within many of its projects over many years. We have always found it to be a highly successful way of assisting poor individuals to break out of extreme poverty.

RB: Can you elaborate on the type of work done by permaculture author and consultant Rowe Morrow and others amongst developing communities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere?

HS: Though Rowe Morrow is not a member of QSA, she is a Quaker and has worked as a consultant to QSA on many occasions over many years, including in Vietnam, Cambodia and the refugee camps in Hong Kong. Most of our Permaculture activities in these countries have focused on marginalised communities and have concentrated on small-scale home gardens. Chapters 2, 3 and 10 of Friends in deed give details of these projects.

RB: To what do you attribute the success of the teaching of these permaculture techniques in war-torn countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia and have they been continued on by these communities?
HS: Food and water security are essential to all people, and this is particularly true for those who have emerged from war. The techniques QSA have used in our permaculture work have been based on principles of ensuring the knowledge is entrenched within local communities and is, therefore, sustainable once the project ends.

Our consultants work with local project partners so that they become fully trained permaculture trainers and can continue to pass on knowledge to others. Our end-of-project evaluations show that not only do the people who have actively participated in the projects gain, but so do their neighbours. The systems are replicable.

RB: How does QSA help encourage organic farming in its aid projects?
HS: The type of organic farming which QSA has supported has been small-scale rather than broad acre. Permaculture is one form of this farming but other projects use similar methods including crop varieties, natural disease and pest control and seed banks.

RB: Looking back to when QSA first sent aid workers overseas, how much has the world changed in regard to the challenges aid agencies now face?
HS: Throughout most of our 50 year history we have only sent people overseas for short periods, as consultants or trainers. There have been exceptions to this of course. The most obvious change is the way in which communication between the field and Australia has altered. This has greatly improved the way in which local partners and QSA can interact and solve any problems that may arise during the course of a project.

The challenges that agencies face are more complex, the demands of those needing assistance, particularly the needs of displaced people are greater, and the huge increase in the world’s population since 1959 are all factors that the entire development sector now faces.

Changes to international lending bodies, the advent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the pressures on developing countries to give greater emphasis to export crops rather than food security are all matters that have an impact on all development agencies including QSA.

RB: Can you outline how the scourge of AIDS in countries has affected QSA in its focus on aid work?
HS: There have been two large projects in which QSA has been involved (Uganda and Cambodia) that have been specifically designed to deal with HIV/AIDS. In Uganda at present, some of our work is with child-headed households, who are usually orphans because their parents have died of AIDS. In the case of the women-headed households in the same project they are often AIDS widows.

RB: Does your work focus more on care for AIDS patients or teaching prevention?
HS: In both the two major projects QSA has been involved in education and prevention activities rather than direct care. However, a palliative care project in the Philippines has included HIV/AIDS patients.

RB: In your work in the South Pacific and Asia region, what effect has climate change and lack of water supply had on local communities and what strategies has QSA developed to deal with this?
HS: A variety of approaches to ensuring food and water security are being used, including seed banks and use of different strains of crops to cope with changing climate. Water harvesting and management is also used. In our three main projects (Uganda, Tamil Nadu, India and Cambodia) during 2008 our partners took part in discussions on how these changes were being experienced and how these matters had changed in the past 30 years.

According to the women interviewed in India, fresh water could be found 30 feet (9.14 metres) below the ground 30 years ago but is now 240 feet (73.15 metres) down. Where patches of forest used to exist there are now none, people used to use saris to carry food but now plastic bags line the streets. There are more mosquitoes, fewer cattle, fewer fish and traditional grains such as corn, millet, dahl and patti have been replaced by rice and peanuts. These are some of the changes which QSA and its project partners are seeking to rectify in our work [which includes] the use of solar panels, water storage, revegetation using indigenous local plants and nurseries of traditional medicinal herbs and plants.

RB: As you mention in your book, the question of supporting wider social and political change in countries is a hot topic in Quaker circles. Do you believe certain political conditions must be encouraged to build on development work done by QSA?
HS: Our approach to our work over 50 years has consistently recognised the need for human rights to be protected, for the empowerment of women to be supported including women’s education and access to birth spacing. Land tenure security is essential regardless of the nature of land ownership. QSA believes in the value of advocacy and does so usually in concert with other agencies through our umbrella body of ACFID. On other occasions we will participate in advocacy direct to the Australian government.

RB: How important is the absence of armed conflict to successful aid projects?
HS: The absence of arm conflict is crucial if longer-term development work is to be successful.

RB: Looking into the future, say fifty years hence, what do you believe QSA aid workers will see as their greatest challenge?
HS: When contemplating the future it seems clear that the current financial crisis can either assist countries to work together in a collaborative way or to become territorial over resources. For the average farmer with whom we work global politics means very little. They are only concerned with finding enough food to eat and clean safe water to drink. If political changes mean that every resource, be it land, food, crops or water becomes government owned or in some other way out of their control, then their lives will be changed irrevocably.

Add to that, the impact of climate change which means that rains are unreliable and other natural disasters may increase, seeds do not germinate and crops do not grow, then relief efforts will be more necessary.

QSA has tried to raise awareness of climate change, environmental care and use of different strains of plants so communities will survive. In a Utopian existence access to resources would be more equal and NGOs would be unnecessary. I doubt that in another 50 years QSA will be redundant although I would like it to be so.

RB: In your book you pose a number of questions concerning NGO aid in general, its aims and the success it has achieved. What conclusions did you draw for smaller aid agencies such as the QSA?
HS: Obviously I do believe that there is a place for organisations such as QSA or I would not continue to be involved in its work. The lessons learned over the years could be summarised as:

* start small;

* develop local relationships and trust;

* modify the projects as needed;

* recognise political realities;

* ensure knowledge and skills are shared

* know when and how to leave.


  1. Great story and great work Heather Saville.I am an Australian Permaculture consultant currently in India searching for opportunities to promote Permaculture.It is good to see that NGO's are having success with aid work in areas of need.After searching for Permaculture groups in India has proved a little exhuasting,it is refreshing to see some good work being done.
    Should there be any opportunity to get involved with QSA in India please contact me by mail:



  2. Hi Ringo, thanks for the comment. I found the people at very friendly and helpful and suggest you contact them for advice on opportunities for aid work.

    Their book also outlines the large amount of permaculture work that goes into their work and it is also available at that address.

    Best of luck!


  3. Glad that organic farming is related to effective pest control. :)


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