Interview: Audette Exel AO — The starkness of inequity compels us to act now

We speak with Audette Exel AO, Founder of the Adara Group about how COVID-19 and climate change are the two existential crises that the world must navigate together and the urgency to re-set the agenda for international aid.

‘My journey to social justice and to creating Adara began right back when I was a little girl, realising that my life was so different to that of the lives of many little girls around the world. From a very early age, I was grateful for my own life and enraged on behalf of others less fortunate than me. I have spent much of my life thinking about social justice, human rights and trying to find a pathway to a small role in trying to make the world a better place.’ That journey took Audette Exel AO, the founder and Chair of the Adara Group, from activism into studying law. And then she had a moment of realising that she also needed to understand the power of capital. ‘So, I surprised everyone who expected me to be a human rights activist lawyer by doing the exact opposite of it and going into the commercial world.’

What followed was a very successful career in banking, law and insurance. But all that time, Audette’s focus on social justice remained front and centre, as she thought about how to use the knowledge she was gaining about how power and capital worked in the world to affect change. ‘I created Adara 23 years ago as a social entrepreneur, with a very simple idea, which was that we could use the power of business to generate revenue and use that revenue to serve and support people in extreme poverty. Life is about a whole series of building blocks, that you stand on as you think about what your best use is. And so, for me, this has been a series of foundation stones understanding social justice, human rights and how business can be a tool for change.’

Adara has a hybrid model. The group includes two corporate advisory businesses, Adara Partners and Adara Advisors, and a significant international development arm,  Adara Development. Over 23 years, Adara Development has grown into a global leader in the care of small and sick newborns in low-resource settings, and delivering health and education services in some of the world’s remotest place. The unique Adara model has allowed Audette to keep one foot firmly planted in the private sector and business community. It allowed her to build standing and engagement in the corporate sector, including sitting on the boards of some of the largest Australian organisations, including her current seat on the board of Westpac and former directorship with Suncorp. ‘It’s been a really fascinating and joyous journey of learning and venturing into international development, and at the same time, because we have our funding engines embedded at the high end of the private sector, I could keep my hand in the private sector.’

COVID’s exposes the starkness of inequity 

The last eighteen months have seen catastrophic impacts in the low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) as the pandemic cut its swathe through the globe. For charities and not-for-profits and organisations like Adara that are engaged in international development and humanitarian work, the challenge was immense. The report of progress that has been made against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides a very disturbing picture. In 2020 up to 124 million people have gone back into extreme poverty. South Asia and Sub Sahara Africa are the most affected regions. Both are regions in which Adara has worked for many years. ‘If I talk about our project sites alone, what we are seeing is a massive increase in child trafficking and in early marriage as education systems have shut down. As poverty increases, we are seeing increased nutritional insecurity. As people are unable to go out to work, to make a living and keep their families safe, we are seeing things that you wouldn’t expect like a rise in teenage pregnancies, as girls sell sex for food. Nearly 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides because of the pandemic. We are seeing an increase in preventable disease as people no longer access whatever healthcare systems they previously had in place.’

As part of Adara’s remote community development work in Nepal, they partner with 16 schools including two large Centres of Excellence which they have developed together with the community. As the schools closed, they have seen the impact on girls in particular, in not being connected to the school systems. Only 12% of children have been regularly accessing remote education in Nepal. ‘The results of the COVID crisis both health and economic are showing us inequality in a very frightening way. It is as if the curtains are open now. Everybody can see. And the impact is very much on the low-and middle-income countries, and it’s very much on women and girls. As a world, we really have to get our hands around that.’

One of the issues that Audette is focused on is equitable access to life-saving vaccines. Only 3% of all vaccines are being currently delivered into the arms of people in the low-and middle-income countries, which Audette argues is a global disgrace. ‘The things we debate in Australia — do I want Pfizer or AstraZeneca — I have almost no tolerance for that discussion. Because if you are in the low-and middle-income countries, you can be a frontline health worker, but you can’t get a vaccine, any vaccine. You are going out and dealing with people with COVID, armed only with face masks, and other PPE if you are lucky enough to have it. So, the divide… it is a chasm that’s opened. The starkness of the inequity we are seeing compels us to act now. We must. As individuals, as communities, as corporates, as governments, as a society, as a world. We must change the trajectory because it is intolerable.’

Kathmandu, Nepal - March 13 2013: Audette Exel AO, founder of the Adara Development
Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik 

The magnificence of human beings 

But what are the challenges that lie ahead as we return to the connected world after the global lockdown? Will we be able to recapture the sense of multilateralism, of collaboration and collective effort and endeavour for those who need aid and support now more than ever? Will we navigate back from the nationalistic policies and thinking that has disrupted a pandemic ridden world? Audette believes in the magnificence of human beings. ‘I believe this time in our world will be defined by the magnificence of human beings, not the malevolence. I think what we need to do, is show people how to make change. We are living in a world where there is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and trauma. So, people are naturally retracting.’

COVID teaches us that we need to be afraid of strangers, she says. It asks us to keep our distance. ‘At the same time, the paradox is, the only way out of this crisis is to step forward, reach out and recognise that our neighbours in faraway places are still our neighbours and we have to help them — for their wellbeing and for ours.’ Amidst the pervasive fear and all the noise that has been caused by the pandemic, there isn’t a lot of commentary, Audette points out, about how great people are and how easy it is to make change and help others at this time of huge need.

Four principles underpinning humanitarian aid 

In the 23 years that Audette has been in international development one of her areas of focus has been governance. There are four key humanitarian principles that underpin global emergency response which have been adopted by the UN General Assembly. Humanity. Neutrality. Impartiality. Independence. ‘The humanity principle means everyone shall be treated humanely and equally. Looking at the divergence of access to health care and vaccines — clearly this is not happening. Neutrality means support must be given in an impartial and independent manner. Now if you look at the cherry-picking of where support is being given, whether it is ‘oh we must give to Indonesia because they are our neighbour and forget about Africa’, or whether it is a debate about Poland bringing vaccines into Australia instead of putting it into the COVAX efforts to go into the low-and middle-income countries, that principle is being fundamentally breached. Not just around the vaccine, but around all support. I think it is because people don’t understand that this global crisis must be based and solved by reference to a needs-based fundamental principle.’

Impartiality speaks to non-discrimination — nationality, race, gender, religion, political. The adopting of support to people that look like us or that we can relate to most is a fundamental breach of that principle. The independence principle talks to autonomy from the political and economic system. That for instance is about positions like — we should only help people because some see China as a problem in the region, and we must counter that influence. So really simple, but really resonant, sound, high integrity principles are the key, Audette says. ‘What we are seeing is the world’s response to COVID falling apart at multiple levels in relation to those very simple principles.’

3.1% of people have had vaccines in the lower-and middle-income countries. The rest of the vaccine supplies are going into and being stockpiled by the wealthy countries. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO,  came forward entreating people not to buy booster shots before the poor are vaccinated, which hardly got any airtime. It was as if his plea did not register in the public consciousness. This attitude, Audette says, harks back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The house is burning down, so I cannot worry that somebody else’s house is burning down. ‘It is for that very reason that these principles are enshrined. At a time of crisis, you need to have a framework; that is what good governance is all about. You create frames and roadmaps so that people don’t make it up as they go along. And they don’t make it up at times when they personally may be in a crisis.’

A human rights lens on climate change 

Audette believes that there are two existential crises happening in the world right now. One is the public health and economic crisis created by COVID, which is feeding into and making clear the massive inequality in our world. The other is climate change. Once you start looking at all of this through a human rights lens — pandemics, floods, fires, famine, wars, and civil unrest - you suddenly see it clearly.

‘If you cast a human rights lens on climate change as an existential threat to the world, what you see is that the poorest countries in the world are the ones that have contributed the least to the damage that’s been done. But they are the ones being hit the hardest. Women and girls are disproportionately affected.’ In Adara’s work in Nepal and Uganda, a climate change lens is run over all strategy and planning as a matter of course to understand what needs to change or be adapted in service delivery and what’s the consequence of climate for the people and communities they work with. How long for instance Nepali women are having to walk to gather wood. How the rivers are drying up making water a central issue. How glacial lakes are melting. How harvesting is impacted as monsoons are starting earlier. Why food insecurity is increasing.

All of this, Audette says, is ending up on the backs of women and girls who are often doing the manual labour to keep their homes and their families safe. ‘So, there is a huge human rights perspective and a gender perspective we need to bring, as we face into climate change. The good news is that we know what we can do about climate change. We have seen that the private sector has decided to stop waiting on politicians and policymakers to take the lead and have started to lead themselves. Particularly the investment community; the amount of money they are transitioning away from carbon-producing investments or assets is just extraordinary.’

Aid is not a zero-sum game 

Has international aid and humanitarian work receded from public consciousness? And has that affected how much aid and relief is available and being given, to continue to service the ever-growing humanitarian need? ‘People are not talking, and they are not thinking enough about international development work or overseas aid. You see that with governments cutting back overseas aid. You see the UK for instance, which led the world in meeting its commitment to 0.5% of GDP towards aid, has come out in the last 12 months and said that with the amount of money they are pumping into the economy to prop the economy up post-COVID, they are going to slash the international development budget. We’ve seen years of that happening in Australia with overseas development assistance being hammered.’

And we are seeing a lot less conversation about what’s going on overseas. Audette reflects that there is almost a sense of trauma being carried, that people feel they cannot take any more, they cannot read any more about what COVID is bringing to their own country, never mind other countries. ‘So, there are a whole lot of reasons why we are seeing a retreat, almost an apathy. But we need to cut through all that noise and all that fear, show people that this humanitarian task is not a zero-sum game, talk about the greatness in the low-and middle-income countries. The extraordinary people who are our neighbours, who right now need our help and how easy it is to help them. How our world will not be safe until everyone is safe. We need to put the messages out there in a way that lifts people, rather than takes them even deeper into the darkness and trauma that a lot of people are living with.’

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