How Diaspora Action Australia started its work in peacebuilding, development and humanitarian response

Have you ever wondered how Diaspora Action Australia began? We have interviewed Executive Director and Co-founder Denise Cauchi to understand how DAA started, and the challenges the new organisation faced.

Denise Cauchi, with two other colleagues, founded Diaspora Action Australia in 2008. However, many of us may not know how DAA actually started and the challenges the new organisation faced. As a DAA volunteer writer, I was able to catch up with her for an interview; read on! (AR is for Amy Rashap and DC is for Denise Cauchi.)

AR: How did you come up with the idea of DAA?

DC: The initial idea came from Brendan Ross, who was the humanitarian advocacy coordinator at Oxfam Australia and who had recently returned from Darfur. He had witnessed a terrible humanitarian crisis there and was shocked that in Australia very few people knew what was happening. I was working in a nearby desk at Oxfam — as was Grant Mitchell, who is now the Director of the International Detention Coalition — and we started talking.

We were all concerned about a real dilemma we had encountered many times while working overseas: international agencies serving in areas of conflict could not report human rights abuses happening in those areas. If they did so, they could jeopardize the project’s effectiveness, put many people in danger, and end up being kicked out of the country — or worse! Brendan, too, had been working with Darfur communities here who were keen to get the message out, but who faced different challenges: language skills, not knowing who to talk to, etc. So all three of us got together and eventually we drafted an outline of what we wanted to do. I went out and conducted a needs analysis to find out what these groups wanted.

AR: Did anything about the needs analysis surprise you?

DC: Yes, indeed! I was surprised that these small organisations weren’t that interested in advocacy. They all had pretty similar needs: how to find funding, or getting capacity building support so they could do things such as setting up schools or medical units — the type of projects they’re doing now, and that DAA has helped with. They were also keen to learn from other diaspora organisations. I was surprised to learn that though these groups were well connected with their communities, they were not connected with each other. The Darfurians didn’t know what the Tibetans were doing and the Tibetans didn’t know what the Oromo were doing, for example.

AR: So now that you knew what these groups needed, what did you three do?

DC: Brendan, Grant and I were able to get seed funding from Oxfam Australia, Caritas Australia and ActionAid (originally called Austcare): about $45,000. I think ignorance is bliss, so we thought: Yeah, it’s not nearly enough money, but let’s just do it! I went out to recruit a Board and Brendan agreed to be the founding Chair for the first 12 months. And then by September 2008, we became an association called Humanitarian Crisis Hub. So that was it! I had never set up an organisation before so I learned a lot from Google. You learn as you go, really. Many different people who had founded their own organisations also gave me useful advice. The hardest thing was establishing the principles of DAA and its mission. That’s the really hard stuff. The rest — you just wing it; you have to learn very quickly.

AR: How did you become involved in the international development sector?

DC: For most of my adult life I’ve been a human rights advocate, concerned about the effect of armed conflict on ordinary people. It’s been my privilege to work alongside many human rights defenders, and I’m interested in the way communities organise resistance to oppression.

I have a grassroots organising background, and have brought a community development model to DAA. We’re very much an enabler for diaspora organisations. We aim to support communities by helping them do what they want to do: working with them to build capacity where it’s needed and ensuring that the organisations themselves determine what they are doing.

AR: Initially, DAA was primarily working with various diaspora organisations. As the years have gone by, what else has DAA become involved with?

DC: As DAA has developed, we’ve worked on trying to link diasporas with the international development sector. How do you show this sector that diasporas are key stakeholders? These smaller organisations do similar work as many huge agencies — on a different scale and in a different way — but they are often completely invisible, which can be a real problem. I’m pleased to report that there have been many exciting developments in this space, but I think that’s another story for another time. I can safely say – very interesting times ahead. Stay tuned!

AR: What have been some DAA highlights?

DC: DAA and its staff and volunteers have done amazing things in the past eight years: we’ve worked with hundreds of individuals throughout Victoria and other states, helping their organisations become more effective.

One of the most amazing things we worked on was bringing 500 southern Sudanese people to the polling booths in 2011 to vote in the referendum that led to the formation of South Sudan. Think about that: in our own way, DAA helped establish the new state of the Republic of South Sudan! How great is that? We were exhausted afterwards — just exhausted. But it was worth it. And, equally importantly, this huge project helped us gain the trust of the many South Sudanese organisations throughout Australia.

We also hosted the Diasporas and Afghanistan Forum in 2015 and the Diasporas in Action Conference in 2016. We’ve also seen the beginning of an exciting new initiative, the Diaspora Learning Network, which will continue to promote learning about the role of diasporas in peacebuilding, development and humanitarian response.

We couldn’t have done any of this without our fabulous volunteers. I’m constantly amazed at the work they do; DAA is lucky to have them.

AR: Any final thoughts?

DC: I’m a believer that the collective is stronger than the individual. I think that the work DAA has done — and continues to do — shows how we can do so much more together than separately. What we do is often not easy, but there are so many rewards along the way.

Posted by: Denise Cauchi with Amy Rashap