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Gail Kelly on Why Care?
03 April 2012
Congruence is the state of agreement. In its more abstract uses it’s a state that implies similarity, a kind of equivalence: ‘children playing’ rather than ‘child labour’; ‘bicycles with wheels’ as opposed to those you see stripped bare and chained to telegraph poles; heads of banks making large policy decisions involving impossibly enormous sums of money. To hear the CEO of a major Australian bank passionately explain how a local Malawi Village Savings and Loans Scheme (worth 2000 kwacha or AUS$11.20) works, feels entirely incongruous. But there’s much more going on here than meets the eye.
In her new role as CARE Australia’s Ambassador Women’s Empowerment, Westpac Group CEO Gail Kelly might appear to have slipped into some sort of parallel universe. This is in fact being consistent with her own longstanding beliefs about how strong communities and cultures are built and why you must be true to yourself at every level if you are to remain authentic.
Despite any number of opportunities to get personally involved in philanthropic work, it was a luncheon encounter with CARE Australia CEO Dr Julia Newton-Howes that grabbed Gail’s attention. Not only has it inspired Gail to want to introduce people to what CARE does and build the organisation’s profile in the business and wider community, she has also committed to walking 10,000 steps every day for a week in April.
“I was at one of those wonderful events the Governor-General has where she invites eclectic people from all walks of life to lunch, and at which you’re guaranteed to have some really interesting dialogue. In this case the focus was more on Not-For-Profits and I was immediately struck by Julia [Newton-Howes, CARE’s CEO], by the quality of the CEO, the quality of her vision and the quality and the ability she had to articulate that vision and the purpose and the work CARE does,” Gail explains, seated in her office one recent lunchtime, sandwiched between the back-to-back meetings of another busy work day.
What appealed to Gail was how closely CARE matched her interests and made sense to her on a deeper core value level.
“Firstly, I absolutely believe that if you empower women you have a happier, healthier more empowered society,” she explains, her tone adding emphasis, in this case, to the passion she feels for CARE’s mission.
CARE is a non-religious and non-political charity with a special focus on working with women and girls to create sustainable outcomes in poor communities. More than 65 years of experience has shown CARE that women and girls suffer disproportionately from the burden of extreme poverty.
Most of the people who live in third world rural areas and urban slums have no access to financial institutions. Women, in particular, face difficulties in accessing formal credit because they have very limited property rights, have limited mobility and are less likely to participate in the formal sector economy.
Microfinance institutions and banks, while they might reach the urban poor, don’t go as readily to rural areas and the urban very poor because of the difficulties involved in servicing them. Microfinance institutions also focus on the provision of credit, which for the very poor can build liabilities rather than assets. These people prefer savings services, which is where CARE’s Village Savings and Loans Associations model has had such great success.
According to Gail, CARE has also learnt over the years that it is the women’s groups who are most likely to perform. The women are more likely to remain successful because they are more conservative, taking the step they know they can afford and building upon that rather than over-estimating their capabilities.
“I absolutely believe that women, and in particular where we are talking about very marginalized women, given the capacity will create an environment where their children are better off, where their children are healthier, better fed, have the opportunity to go to school and that in turn creates a more stable society for everyone. I have seen that in action. I have seen it in my own history and background,” explains Gail, referring to her South African roots.
“It was also very important for me to be involved with an Australian organisation. This is where I work, where I live. It is my home,” says Gail, indicating that CARE also matched her interest to want to make a difference at a grass roots level – “in how to improve the lot of people who are truly marginalized”.
“We spend a lot of time in Australia and especially of late, debating and talking about women on boards,” says Gail. “It is a very important debate. We need to have adequate representation of women on boards, because it tends to be a pull point through which everything else develops. However, when you’re talking about third world developing economies you would never be talking about the plight of women in this context. You are, however, still talking about creating a better basic environment for women to again ensure that pull factor is there.”
If ever Gail Kelly was to find her ‘perfect – philanthropic – storm’, CARE as an Australian organisation, under Australian leadership with Australian support involved in third world developing economies and in the area of women and empowerment and children, is it.
Earlier this year, Gail and her daughter, Sharon, visited Malawi to see how the CARE projects work on the ground, and Gail will visit a similar project in Cambodia later this year.
“We arrived from CARE Malawi’s offices to a sea of 600 faces,” says Gail, explaining her first days in the field, where women and children were sitting in the bush grass taking part in the welcome event before breaking into groups to do their normal activities.
“One of the CARE leaders asked for volunteers to tell their stories,” Gail continues. “You had to stop the hands, they were going up everywhere and the level of articulation was outstanding. Of course, we were listening to translation but hearing the stories and speaking with some of the women later, you knew these were bright women, women who understood exactly how their scheme worked and how to use its benefits.”
Gail is quick to point out that in her experience intervention programs rely on the organisation being in the place; their people and support provide the traction needed to hold the projects together. Once that support is withdrawn, which it often must be, projects can fray around the edges and within five years have often disappeared altogether. CARE’s Village Savings and Loans (VS&L) Associations don’t provide money. Instead, they provide a framework of rules and approaches to support the village owned savings scheme to ensure it and the people using and benefiting from it remain sustainable.
“Each country has a program tailored to what its people need. CARE’s programs invest in the people themselves, allowing them to engage and make it real for themselves,” says Gail.
CARE has launched 54,000 Village Savings and Loans (VS&L) Associations in 21 African countries, serving more than 1.9 million members, nearly all of them women. The scheme members receive a year of intensive training in money management. CARE’s experience shows that when the members have stabilized their household cash flow and are meeting basic needs, they are then prepared to take small loans from the VS&L to finance small businesses or income generating activities. CARE’s quarterly analysis of its VS&L programs shows loan repayment rates exceed 99 percent.
Gail came across one scheme that had been running for six years. The women involved in it were noticeably more prosperous and advanced. One woman had her own ‘tea room’, where she sold her own scones and her eggs.
In a typical case: groups form with an empty kitty, elect a chair-person and secretary to manage the deposits and loans. Each week, group members attend a meeting and contribute a small amount of their savings to a fund from which they can eventually borrow. Shares might range from 50 to 200 kwachas (50 kwacha is about 28 cents). In your first year as a member you might only be able to deposit around 2000 kwacha all up. At the end of each year, the money saved in the VS&L is shared out to group members – like a dividend and group members can then reinvest an amount they are comfortable with for the next year. Members borrow, usually to buy or get something that will be income producing.
“That was one of the things we really noticed walking through the villages,” Gail says of the experience. “There were children everywhere and absolutely – not even in the poorest villages – was there any begging. In South Africa when you go anywhere, the kids in their rags run up and down the road after you calling and shouting for food or money or something…
“I was also struck by the absence of things, the complete lack of things like toys. Not even a ball. I think someone had a paper ball, had rolled paper to make a ball. Sharon and I decided to draw up hopscotch on the hard dirt and take a turn. We were soon surrounded by laughing giggling children shouting me, me, me.”
One hop in Malawi has now led to 10,000 steps in Australia.
CARE’s wider fundraising initiative, known as ‘Walk in Her Shoes’, asks participants to earn sponsorship dollars by walking 10,000 steps a day for a week. The idea is to connect with the lives of those women and girls walking great distances every day for basics such as water, food and firewood for their families. Funds will be used to finance larger infrastructure projects to benefit poor communities, such as building wells or establishing closer freshwater sources. Eventually, it is all about allowing women and girls the time to do more: be educated, earn an income and save, nurture their families.
Gail loves walking and adds “Anything that gets you up and moving in the sorts of jobs and lives we lead has to be beneficial”
According to CARE, 10,000 steps are equivalent to about 6km. On average most people walk at about 5km/hour making the level of commitment to Walk in Her Shoes substantial and one that can be counted on to leave an impression.
“I’ve always been keen on sport. I was a sporty child. In fact my father used to have my brother and I out every morning to do exercises. There are hilarious videos of it,” says Gail, who also admits she was a very shy child, more interested in following than leading the games, believing herself to be less adept than others and terrified of letting herself or her parents down.
“I loved reading and still do. I’m a fast reader – 4 or 5 books a week. I am also very interested in people in watching their behaviour. It was really only in later years that I developed confidence and was more prepared to back myself and to take a risk. My mother was a big believer in backing yourself. Empowerment and self-empowerment are very important in that respect.
“It’s why once women are empowered to take part you get better decision-making and a better team based approaches to things. I am proud of how Westpac works with women in this country in so many different ways: championing them and investing in them and supporting them to take the next risk, the next step. It’s in our culture, in our DNA. Supporting women, in fact everyone with whom we work to be able to choose how they structure their jobs for work life balance is so important. I had this experience myself. I needed support to manage the different things I was doing at home and in my career as well. I firmly believe if you give people the opportunity to work things through, to receive the support they need to make decisions that work for them and their family, people give back in spades.”