UNHCR Australia chair on how organisations can tackle the global refugee crisis

Saturday, 01 August 2020

Denise Cullen photo
Denise Cullen
Freelance Journalist

    Australia for UNHCR chair Michael Dwyer AM says businesses should be addressing the global refugee crisis and ensure they are investing care and time into their people.

    I’ve been on the board of Australia for UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees fundraising partner here, since it was founded in 2000. Our primary role is to raise awareness and funds in support of UNHCR’s global relief operations. Over the past two decades, we’ve raised more than $300m from everyday Australians. I was appointed chair in 2018, and our latest figures show we had an active supporter base of 90,000 donors, contributing over $32m in 2019 alone.

    My background is in finance, including 14 years as CEO of First State Super, so I was taken aback when Naomi Steer, founding national director of Australia for UNHCR, approached me to join the board. At that stage, I had no experience with the refugee crisis, but she said, “You know a lot of people in finance and superannuation, and if you ask them to come and help, they will.” We have certainly tested that theory, and I’m pleased to say the finance sector are strong supporters of our work, even if a lot of it goes on under the radar.

    This year marks 20 years of Australians supporting UNHCR. Our flagship event is the annual World Refugee Day breakfast. You would think that getting up in the middle of winter to attend an early morning breakfast would be a big ask, but we’ve never had a problem getting a 500-plus turnout. This year, because of social distancing, we hosted the event online. It included conversations with refugees, UNHCR frontline staff and several high-profile supporters such as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett AC, and Australia for UNHCR special representative Marta Dusseldorp, talking about how we can all make a difference.

    An enormous concern for us right now is people in refugee camps who don’t have access to the luxuries of soap, running water or hand sanitiser. People are living in extreme close proximity, so social distancing is very challenging. We’re fearful of how quickly COVID-19 could spread in refugee camps. Keeping the most vulnerable safe means keeping everyone safe.

    Just like us

    The first refugee camp I visited was in East Timor in 2002, and it was eye-opening. Since then, displacement around the world has increased exponentially. It really is the biggest humanitarian challenge of our time. Some conflicts have been going on for 10 years, and with climate change, food insecurity or health emergencies compounding these existing crises and creating even more complex situations, there will always be more to do for refugees.

    At first, I didn’t think I even knew a refugee, but after I spoke at some of our major events, people would come up to me with remarkable stories about how their families had come to Australia with the help of UNHCR. I heard about the journeys of the late sports journalist Les Murray AO, his friend Frank Lowy AC and immunologist Sir Gustav Nossal AC CBE. They remind Australians what a helping hand can do and highlight the rich vein of contributions made to our nation by formerly displaced people.

    It took me a while to realise there were important parallels between my work in finance and my work with UNHCR. Finance people know about the importance of investment, and returns on investment. That’s what we tapped into — the knowledge that these are fellow human beings we need to help and that by investing in their future, we’re investing in our own as well.

    Lessons learned

    In my time with UNHCR, I’ve observed corporate leadership is growing in support of refugees. More and more, corporate leaders I speak with believe it is an important part of their corporate social responsibility to support, empower and provide opportunity for refugees.

    Transitioning from CEO to non-executive director meant I had to come around to the fact I was no longer operational. As a CEO, you make timely tactical decisions almost daily and bring about change readily — but the pace can be unrelenting. As a non-executive director, you’re able to work with fellow board members to encourage and support management, while also challenging and probing their proposals.

    Australia for UNHCR has a couple of directors like myself, who have been involved for a long time, which provides a sense of legacy and history. It’s also important to get new blood onto the board and we’ve had a good turnover of directors to drive growth and change. Currently on the board we have Zoe Ghani, a former refugee from Afghanistan, and Lynn Dang, who fled Vietnam as a child. These are women with fascinating backgrounds who are senior business leaders in their own right.

    There is enormous power in celebrity, but done right it’s really about leadership and setting an example. When you see the Cate Blanchetts of the world visiting refugee camps and making public statements, it’s a positive way of affirming, “These are fellow human beings who need a helping hand”. We can’t sit back and let millions go without home or shelter. We all have a role to play.

    The sentiment of giving someone a fair go is deeply rooted in the Australian psyche. But sometimes people need leadership. When we see people we admire, we listen to their point of view, and think, “That aligns with my values, that’s what I want to do, too.”

    Theodore Roosevelt said, “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.” That resonated with me. Effective leaders have a role in making their colleagues feel valued. I’ve worked harder for people who I felt cared about me than those who were critical or indifferent. If you wish to get people to follow your lead, you have to invest in those people. You have to be authentic and show you care about their wellbeing.

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