Diaspora Action Australia hosted a roundtable discussion with Mr Matthew Neuhaus, Assistant Secretary, Africa Branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and African diaspora leaders in Melbourne on October 28.
The meeting was requested by Mr Neuhaus as part of DFAT’s ongoing engagement with diaspora community leaders in Victoria in order to foster a better understanding of their concerns. DAA hosted a similar meeting a year ago, and was honoured to facilitate this recent event.
Attending the workshop were fourteen diaspora leaders, representing Darfur, South Sudan, Oromo, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These individuals are involved in peacekeeping, advocacy, development and human rights in their countries of origin.
The roundtable powerfully demonstrated that diasporas have a unique capacity to influence development in their countries of origin, for they have particular insights and channels of access not available to foreign governments. Diaspora groups, working in tandem with the government or NGOs, can be strong players on the global stage.
In his introductory comments, Mr Neuhaus stressed how important it is for Australia to have accurate information about Africa; this is where diaspora groups can make a difference, using their personal experiences to help policy makers and other Australians become more aware of the continent’s cultural richness. Africa is also rich in resources, and many countries, including Australia, have invested significant sums in various mining projects. However, foreign financial investment does not mean financial aid, so African countries must continue to strive towards economic self-development.
Even though Australia did cut funding to Africa last year, this country is still involved in African affairs. Mr Neuhaus cited the many recent exchange programs and conferences dealing with Australian-African relationships.
He concluded by noting that it can be difficult doing business in a country wracked with political turmoil, and that a mutual economic relationship can only occur in a more stable, peaceful environment.
Each group had an opportunity to discuss its own areas of concern, and asked cogent questions on Australian policy. The issues raised reflected the countries’ different situations, and they ranged from ethnic conflict, peacekeeping, gender inequality, human rights, education and economic development.
Several leaders mentioned the importance of dealing directly with their local MPs in order to effect change. There are many tens of thousands of Africans living in Australia, some participants noted, and what happens within the African communities here can affect Australian society overall. Many of the leaders critically observed Australia’s funding cuts to Africa. They were hopeful that this meeting could act as a springboard for heightened DFAT-African diaspora relations, resulting in eventual increased funding to their organisations.
Mr Neuhaus expressed a willingness to meet with individuals at a later date, and urged them not to give up, even in difficult economic times. He mentioned that Australia was eager to work with Africa in three areas of development: skills, community and gender. Change can happen more slowly than people may like, he noted—but positive change can happen.
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