Education and Arts

Hooked on Development

Madeleine Whitby knows exactly how lucky she is. "Poverty is a game of roulette, and by any other spin of the wheel, I could have been born into a brothel in India, a slum in the Philippines, or a refugee camp in Somalia," the 23-year-old said. "It's all a game of chance. No one deserves to be born into a life of poverty."

After finishing Year 12 Madeleine took a gap year and traveled to Africa. "Before that trip I knew the definition of poverty, but I had never really seen or felt it. I realised just how lucky I am, and also how unfair the global economic system is.

"The fact is I inherited my economic standing. I was born into a middle-class family in a wealthy country with a stable government. I didn't deserve it more than any other child around the world – I was simply lucky.

"I really believe in what Nelson Mandela said: 'Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings'."

Madeleine enrolled in ACU's Bachelor of International Development Studies. As part of the degree she completed an immersion experience in East Timor with Palms Australia – an organisation which recruits, prepares, sends and supports skilled volunteers to reduce global poverty.

"Palms is a volunteer sending agency, working in numerous countries, across a number of professions. For example, there are teachers in South Africa, medical officers in Zambia, nurses in Ethiopia and accountants in Timor-Leste," she said.

"They also offer encounter trips, which is what I did. Participants travel around East Timor, visiting Palms volunteers, cultural sites, museums and local development organisations. I was very excited but nervous about the encounter… I have travelled to places similar to Timor before, such as Ghana, Kenya, Indonesia and Thailand, but never to a country with such a recent and raw violent past."

Madeleine spent a month in East Timor and said it was one of the best experiences of her life. "I learnt so much about good and bad development during that month. I also learnt a lot about myself. The main challenge I had was constantly being around people I had never met before. I like my privacy, so spending 24 hours a day with people could be hard.

"The main highlight for me was the two homestays we did – the first in Dili and the second in Atabae. The families were so generous, kind and loving, it was extremely hard to say goodbye, and I shed more than a few tears." Back in Australia, Madeleine applied for an internship with Palms, and got the job.

"I have since been interning in the office for one to three days a week in a variety of areas. I manage the Facebook and Instagram pages, write content for the website and blog posts, and work on the logistics for future encounters," she said.

"It's an amazing place to work. The vibe is always one of positivity, fun and hard work. Everyone in the office is friendly and ready for a laugh, or cake, or an abundance of coffee. I hope to be able to continue volunteering here for many years.

"I really believe in what Palms does." Every volunteer commits to between one and three years in their placement, and they all have qualifications and at least five years' experience in their area. There is also compulsory pre-departure training for all volunteers which covers topics such as living and working cross-culturally, the importance of engaging respectfully with local partners and working in solidarity with all those involved.

"Good development needs local voices. We as outsiders do not know the real needs, desires, issues or problems of a community. Engaging with that community is pivotal in creating just, sustainable development."

This story first appeared in Insight, written by Caitlin Ganter .