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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE
08/12/2010
Australia's relationship with the countries of Africa

CHAIR —Welcome. Thank you for your submission and your attendance this morning. I see you are appearing in a private capacity.

Mr Wheen —I am here in a private capacity. I am a member of the community who has developed an interest in Rwanda and has been spending time there over the last four years. I am not a member of any organisation as such.

CHAIR —I indicate that, although the committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, if at any stage you wish to give evidence in private you may ask to do so and the committee will consider your request. We do not require evidence to be given on oath. But all witnesses should be aware that these hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and therefore have the same standing as proceedings of the chambers themselves. In other words, your evidence should be truthful to the best of your knowledge. I now invite you to make some opening remarks and then we will proceed to questions.

Mr Wheen —I have been working as a volunteer in Rwanda and wish to propose that Rwanda be one of those African countries in which major AusAID funded, Australian volunteer service providers can work. In particular, I propose that the remit of the Australian Business Volunteer scheme should include Rwanda. Let me give some brief background about my involvement with Rwanda, about why I consider Australia should include Rwanda in the country where its programs should operate and about the Australian Business Volunteers scheme. I have made five visits to Rwanda over the past four years and will visit again in 2011. I was initially engaged by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development to work with it and the Rwandan immigration service to develop a migration policy for Rwanda and then to plan its implementation.

During my initial visits, my wife and I recognised that we could make a modest contribution to building capacity in the Rwandan public sector and in particular in the immigration service. As in other developing countries, the quality of public administration is crucial to the country’s future. Australia has people with expertise and experience who can make a positive contribution. Working in close partnership with the Rwandan Director-General of Immigration and Education, we have developed a program to expose staff to new work and life experiences, to inform and stimulate their learning and to give them new skills to make them more effective in the workplace.

My submission exemplifies some of the work we have done. Our current priority is to have experienced trainers visit Rwanda to run workshops on leadership, on management and on intensive English language training. Most of the training is not immigration specific but the emphasis has been on areas such as planning, working in teams, time management, ethical behaviour, client service skills and so on. Our focus is on taking trainers to Rwanda because it is a cost-effective way of reaching numbers of staff. It also has the advantage of assisting to ensure that training is provided with a local context and tailored to their needs. And it gives opportunities to provide other support and advice whilst the trainers are there. For example, on our last visit trainers not only led training activities but also worked with individual officers in developing a code of conduct for the organisation, a communications strategy and we reviewed aspects of client servicing arrangements and gave advice on development of a new HR policy. Since our return, we have responded to other issues where our advice has been sought. Training priorities and content are worked out in close consultation with the Rwandans. In deciding who will attend, the Rwandans have endeavoured to ensure that amongst those will be staff who can lead training locally, often using materials which we have provided. But it is important to note that people with relative training skills and content knowledge are few.

Why should Australia extend its volunteer programs to Rwanda? Firstly, Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world and Australia has a stated priority to aid the least developed countries. Rwanda and other sub-Saharan countries are amongst these. In the latest United Nations human development index, Rwanda ranks 152 out of 169 countries, the 17th poorest. In comparison East Timor ranks 120 out of 169 and PNG 137. Secondly, it is a country in which Australia has invested significantly through its military peacekeeping operations in the immediate post-genocide years 1994-95. Thirdly, it is the newest member of the Commonwealth. Fourthly, Australia has skills and expertise which are highly relevant, for example public sector management, agriculture, mining and English language as Rwanda is moving from being part of Francophone Africa. Fifthly, we have an existing volunteer infrastructure in our aid program, for example the Australian Business Volunteer scheme, within which volunteers could operate. We have people like my colleagues willing to give of their expertise. Finally, and most importantly, Rwanda seeks this assistance and has the capacity to make effective use of the assistance offered. I would not keep going back to Rwanda if I did not see on each visit notable and sustainable progress.

It is no coincidence that Rwanda was ranked by the World Bank in its latest world index of doing business at 58 out of 183 countries. By comparison, East Timor ranked 174 and PNG 103. Transparency International in its index of perceptions of corruption ranked Rwanda at 66 out of 178, East Timor 122 and PNG 154. Rwanda is regarded by the UN as being one of the success stories in terms of progress towards meeting its MDG goals. Australia has a range of government supported NGO volunteer programs. Although I stress that I have no authority to speak on behalf of the Australian Business Volunteer scheme, my focus is on that program because it contributes to development through the transfer of knowledge and workplace skills using volunteers with relevant expertise and experience. It is part of a consortium with Austraining but the AusAID guidelines do not currently permit it to work in Rwanda.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Wheen. Could you expand a bit on the ABV program, particularly how they recruit volunteers, how many have been involved, particularly the one you have referred to on the work you have done in Rwanda, but also pick up the point that you made in your comments and also in your submission that the ABV brief should be extended to include Rwanda and other selected African countries. What other countries would you suggest? As you acknowledge, there is a matter of cost here.

Mr Wheen —I start by again emphasising that I cannot speak for ABV. I have a member of the community who has been looking for somewhere within the structure of Australia’s NGO volunteer programs where the sort of work that I have been doing could be picked up. ABV is the most logical. There is also AVI, but ABV seems the most logical. The information I can give you about it is information which I have drawn from their website and from talking to them. Last year, for example, they had 305 projects for which they provided an expert, all in the Asia-Pacific region. They are an organisation which has been running since 1981. It used to be called AESOP, the Australian Executive Service Overseas Program, and a lot of Australians over the years have volunteered their services on projects within the Asia-Pacific under the aegis of ABV. I can leave you a copy of their annual report which they gave me.

CHAIR —I am intrigued by the acronym, actually.

Mr Wheen —Australian Business Volunteers?

CHAIR —No, AESOP.

Mr Wheen —The Australian Executive Service Overseas Program—I do not know whether you are a Greek scholar.

CHAIR —It was a fable; we know that.

Mr Wheen —Their brief is such that they focus on the private sector. They see business as being the engine of growth and their focus is there, but they also pick up projects in the public sector and within civil society. It is my view that in places such as Rwanda—but I am sure it applies in other sub-Saharan countries—the role played by the public sector is vital to the country’s future and that we should do what we can to contribute not only to private sector development but also to building the capacity of the public sector. What was the second part of the question?

CHAIR —It was just if you had any other specific African countries. You did say the sub-Saharan countries.

Mr Wheen —If Australia is fair dinkum about our focus being on the least developed countries and we are moving as we are to work more widely in Africa, Rwanda is the 17th least developed country in the world. There is only one other country on that list which falls below Rwanda, which is Afghanistan and that is not a sub-Saharan country. For me, the attraction of Rwanda, apart from my selfish personal involvement, is that it is a place that is really making progress. It is a place where the government and society have a demonstrated commitment to lift themselves from the absolute tragedy that they experienced in 1994, which of course was merely the climax of 50 years of unbelievable tragedy for that small country. They are welcoming. I work with the Rwandans because they are keen for us to come, and they put their money where their mouth is. My volunteers—my wife and I and our colleagues—pay our own way but they offer to pay for our accommodation. They are committed to the extent that they draw on their training program funds and say, ‘We will pay for your accommodation.’ The program that we deliver is one that is negotiated closely with them, and they are involved in all key phases along the way. I know that there are other areas of the Rwandan government outside of the immigration service which have some interest in doing, and in participating in, the sort of work we are currently doing.

Dr JENSEN —On Rwanda, you were talking about the tragedy of 16 years ago and the fact that it was the culmination of 50 years. What is the situation now between the Hutu and the Tutsi? What are relationships like? Are they working effectively together or is there still smouldering resentment underneath it all?

Mr Wheen —As a visitor, as someone who has spent almost a year there over the last four years, I do not see evidence of smouldering resentment. There is evidence, clearly, that people work together. The Rwandan immigration service is an organisation of several hundred people. There has to be a mix of people of Tutsi and Hutu backgrounds. I could not tell you which is which; there is no obvious tension. There are extremely active reconciliation programs operating across the country. The Gacaca system which, if you like, was something akin to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appears to have been operating very effectively and has now come to an end. The international tribunal is finishing its work this year, I believe. So, on the surface, one does not sense any sort of tension. Internal security is one of the other issues which it is a positive for Rwanda. I operate in Kigali, as I would operate in Sydney or in Canberra, although there are some things you are careful you do not do. During the day my wife travels anywhere around Kigali on public transport without any concerns whatsoever.

Dr JENSEN —You were talking about Rwanda, in African terms, having a relatively good placing as far as corruption is concerned.

Mr Wheen —Yes.

Dr JENSEN —What mechanisms are they putting in place to reduce corruption even further?

Mr Wheen —They have, again, a very active public education campaign. It is a campaign which is directed not just to the general public but to sectors of the economy, to business and to the public sector. Perhaps I could give some exemplification of that. In the leadership program that we ran last time for two groups of senior staff from the immigration office, we had a module about professional and ethical behaviour, for which we were able to draw on some very good material provided from the Australian immigration department. But the Rwandans themselves invited along their ombudsman. Their ombudsman is a person with powers much greater than ours has. He has responsibilities in relation to maladministration by not only officials but also ministers, and he is also the anticorruption commissioner, so he is an extremely powerful person. He came along, and we asked him if he would speak for 45 minutes. He spoke for two hours and he really gave the staff a burst on the issue of the importance of values and the importance of ethics in leadership within contemporary Rwanda. They take it extremely seriously—people who are caught, according to what one reads in the press, suffer very severe penalties—and that includes quite senior people, certainly in the public sector, some of whom I have met.

Ms PARKE —Thank you, Mr Wheen, for your submission and your evidence today. I do agree with you about how remarkable Rwanda is in overcoming its terrible history of genocide. I understand that Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world—

Mr Wheen —Yes.

Ms PARKE —at about 56 per cent.

Mr Wheen —56, yes.

Ms PARKE —And clearly the genocide played a part in that. But I also understand that women parliamentarians of all ethnicities have come together in a cross-parliamentary group to combat gender based violence, and I think that is a fantastic example to other parliaments in the world. My question is about the ABV program. Does the AVI program cover the public sector?

Mr Wheen —The AVI program does have people in the public sector as well, yes.

Ms PARKE —And AVI is in Africa already?

Mr Wheen —It is, yes. It is in a number of African countries, not Rwanda.

Ms PARKE —So why would the AVI program not be the more appropriate one to do these sorts of programs?

Mr Wheen —The AVI would have some attractions, but the reason that I have zeroed in on the Australian Business Volunteers scheme is that it is about taking people with real experience. It used to be, as I said, the Australian executive service. It really draws on people with substantial experience in the workplace. That is the sort of profile that I believe that we need, because, if you are really going to influence particularly people at senior levels, you have to show that you have the credibility, that you have done it. The AVI has amongst its programs, for example, the Australian youth ambassadors scheme, an excellent program, but these are young people, many with skills, who have not yet got the experience—

Ms PARKE —The business experience.

Mr Wheen —and the subject matter knowledge to be able to persuade and influence in a way that I think people with a bit more grey hair may well have.

Ms PARKE —Do you think the language would be a barrier in Rwanda, given that it is a French-speaking country?

Mr Wheen —It has not been a barrier. I only speak English. Yes, French is still the second language, but English is certainly moving up. There are ways in which you can work around that. For example, one of the tools we used a lot in our training programs was group work. This is something which is relatively new to Rwandans as a training activity. We used group work. We used case studies. Therefore, as they work in groups and on case studies, they can talk in Kinyarwanda, they can talk in French or they can talk in English. And yet, when we come back together, yes, we talk in English. I have run training programs there. Again, sometimes I have used some of the trainees themselves to draw on their language skills to make sure that a couple of the French speakers really understand what is going on. There are techniques that you can use.

Ms PARKE —Okay. Has ABV ever been in Africa before?

Mr Wheen —No. They would like to be, they say, but they have not.

Ms PARKE —So it has only really operated in the Asia-Pacific region?

Mr Wheen —Yes, that is right.

Ms PARKE —And since when?

Mr Wheen —Since 1981, in various forms.

Ms PARKE —Okay. Thank you.

Senator TROOD —Thanks for your evidence, Mr Wheen. I am interested in what sort of cost is involved here, if you can quantify the funding which would be required to undertake this program in Rwanda. Do you have any idea about that?

Mr Wheen —Rwanda is not an expensive place to live. If the Rwandans are able to continue to provide accommodation, then the only other costs are fares, travel insurance and what have you, which are not great if people volunteer their time.

Let me take a slightly different tack. With the generous help of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, we arranged for one of their senior people to come and spend six weeks on a study tour in the department here. The cost to the NGO that assisted us with that program, for that person to be here for six weeks—their living costs, fares and what have you—was $15,000. For $15,000, I can have two trainers run a two-month program in Rwanda; and whereas I can reach one person through a study tour—and it is very valuable to have those people come here—I can reach 40 people by running those sorts of training programs. If I can get really experienced public sector trainers here, people with real professional skills and knowledge—and I am not one of them, but I can complement the work of a professional trainer—who will give a month or two of their time, I can certainly do it in a much more economical fashion. So $15,000 gives me, certainly, two people: two volunteers for two months in Rwanda.

Senator TROOD —So, in the scheme of things, it is not a lot of money, obviously.

Mr Wheen —We are not talking about big bickies at all.

Senator TROOD —Is it an area of activity which is currently occupied by other countries? Are there other aid programs of a similar nature?

Mr Wheen —Yes. The British are there in quite a large way. Their Voluntary Service Overseas program, the VSO, is active. The Americans are there with their Peace Corps. But the thing that I find quite striking is that, in my time working there, apart from a small number of people who have come as representatives of international organisations, I only came across one other NGO, if I can say that, which was supporting volunteers working within government, particularly within the policymaking-program administration areas of government. VSOs would be there as teachers and nurses, but there were not people within what I would call the core of government, working to build the policymaking and program administration capacity of the Rwandan staff. For example, when I went there, I was the first outsider to ever come and work within the immigration service post the genocide.

Senator TROOD —So you have worked with immigration, but your argument is that there are needs in other portfolio areas. Is that right?

Mr Wheen —Absolutely. If I could again just give you an example, on my last visit but one, I early on ran into a former Australian Treasury official who now works for the World Bank. Over coffee he asked my wife what she was going to do during my four months there, and she said she was looking for something to do. He said, ‘Can I mention that to the Minister of Local Government, with whom I work? I know he is looking for some help with English language.’ My wife is an English language teacher, amongst other things. He was on the phone the next day, and my wife—a former HR manager in the Commonwealth Treasury—spent most of those four months working with their HR people to implement a new HR policy they had, along with providing English language tuition and working with the minister’s staff in looking at ways they could streamline some of their relationships—between the way the minister’s office operated and the way the department operated.

I have another small example. In Rwanda, part of their processes are that no piece of correspondence going to another government agency can leave the organisation unless it is signed by the minister or the CEO. Lots of correspondence goes out and people get the correspondence but they do not know who to contact to find out about it and they cannot keep ringing up the minister all the time. My wife suggested that they might follow the sort of practice we have in Australia and have a contact officer with a phone number. All these are quite basic but small things for people with experience and expertise to be able to suggest to Rwandans.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr Wheen, obviously you are very passionate about Rwanda as, I might say, was a former senator and colleague of mine, Dr John Herron, who spent some time there in the difficult periods and was very moved by the people and what he saw. I assume that France and other European countries are helping in doing the things that you are talking about. I wonder, given your wide experience in immigration, international affairs and otherwise, if you would indicate to me this on a cost-benefit analysis. Would Australia be better putting its resources—and they are quite finite and limited in the foreign office and aid areas—into South-East Asia, Indonesia and perhaps the Pacific, areas where the European countries and even the Americas are not quite as prominent?

Mr Wheen —Certainly as for France, no. Rwanda has only just re-established diplomatic relationships with France in the last 12 months or it may be less. But other European countries, including the UK, are active. There is a lot of guilt associated with the genocide and many NGOs and government sponsored organisations are active in Rwanda—no question about that. In terms of where Australia should put its priorities, I approach this from the point of view that the government has announced that it is looking to enhance its relationship with Africa. That includes its development assistance to Africa. If the government is going to go in that direction, then my view is that one of the places in which it could effectively invest—and invest with positive results—is Rwanda, because Rwanda is at a point in its development where it is ready to absorb that capacity-building assistance effectively. I certainly would not quibble that there are others but I would not like to sit here and suggest a list of other countries. But if you look at the sorts of things that Rwanda has done—given that list of where Rwanda is now positioning itself in terms of a place to do business and a place where corruption is really being tackled in a serious way compared to some other places, including places in which we invest heavily through our aid program for good reason in our part of the world—you see Rwanda is a place where we can get good results for the buck.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thanks for that answer, and I appreciate what you say. I was really looking to your wide experience in the world. I accept that you say you propose these because they are the government’s priorities. I was really inviting you to pass an opinion, from your wide background and experience—notwithstanding your passion for Rwanda—as to whether perhaps our focus is misplaced in view of the fact that other nations are heavily involved in that part of Africa, whereas some places closer to home do not quite have the same sort of international support.

Mr Wheen —I cannot say that our focus is misplaced. We have a national interest in our region but if we are taking it further, and if I could put my old immigration hat on from some years ago, I think there are grounds for us taking a greater interest in what is happening in southern and eastern Africa on the movement of peoples. Not only have we in recent years taken substantial numbers of refugees from Africa, which has been very welcomed by the people there; perhaps there are people whom we need to know a bit more about who are active in that part of the world. As Australia’s links grow, it is worthwhile keeping in touch with that. I think that is something which is worth exploring and I think that was mentioned by the immigration officers when they spoke to the committee.

CHAIR —Can I pick up on that last discussion with Senator Macdonald and get your comment on a couple of points. Firstly, the evidence to this committee so far—and it is certainly not disputed—is that a large part of the history of our aid to and our humanitarian involvement with Africa has traditionally been through the non-government sector. What we are now seeing—and I am not being political about this because previous governments have picked up on this as well—is that there is a role and reasons for governments to focus on Africa rather than leaving it for NGOs, churches and religious based groups.

Also, you mentioned France. The history of colonialism has meant that there are difficult relations with some European countries, notwithstanding the obligations they feel they have and the work that they do. It seems to me that, at the end of the day, Africa is the continent of the 21st century where there is a huge focus not only on humanitarian issues and an acceptance internationally of some responsibility to be involved in conflicts—and that has long been Australia’s tradition; we have had representation in peacekeeping forces all around the world—but also on economic and development issues and opportunities. All of that seems to fit with an increased focus.

Mr Wheen —I agree. If we really believe we are a medium sized power with an opportunity to influence then Africa has to be on our agenda to some extent. The extent is something which there can be debate about. You cannot move in Rwanda for the Chinese. The Chinese government is there in a very big way. Rwanda, at this stage, as far as I can work out, does not have much by way of minerals to offer China, but they are still there in a very significant way. Australia does have links to offer. If I could just go back to my initial involvement when I was asked to work with UNCTAD and the Rwandans to develop a migration policy. After I started on the task I asked them, ‘Why did you approach me?’ The answer from the Rwandans was: ‘Australia and Canada have the best migration policies in the world. We wanted one of them who knew about policy development and program administration. We found you.’ Australia is well-known. In agriculture and mining—two other areas of real strength to Australia—there are real opportunities for us to provide advice and assistance in sub-Saharan Africa which will be welcomed and which will have some pay-off.

Ms PARKE —Looking at the respective merit of scholarship programs versus programs like ABV, I think we are set to offer up to a thousand scholarships a year to African students in the next few years, which has tremendous value for those students, and for those countries provided that the students go back to those countries. The benefit of the ABV program is that you would be reaching many people in the context in which they work. You would also avoid the risk that students come to Australia on a scholarship and decide to stay, which is a very good thing for the students themselves but not so good for the country which loses out on those skills. Is that something you would agree with?

Mr Wheen —Yes. I think we need to have a menu of things, which we have. There are things that you cannot really do by taking a trainer to Rwanda that you can do via postgraduate study; you can bring people here for appropriate postgraduate study opportunities. But there are lots of other things where I think you can be much more effective by taking your expertise and experience into the local environment and working there. So I think there is a whole menu of things and it is something on which we need to get a balance. I am arguing for this because it is something which I am involved with and I see a real opportunity for us to take it further. If the government were to decide to allow organisations like ABV or AVI to have some of their volunteer programs operate in Rwanda then they would get a real return. The programs would be well received and I think that the volunteers from Australia would make a significant contribution.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, thank you, Mr Wheen, for your attendance this morning and your submission and evidence. We appreciate it very much. Thank you also for the good work you have obviously been doing.

[11.52 am]