There and Back Again: An International Development Worker’s Tale

Isabel Robinson, as told to Josh Solomonsz

I first went to Papua New Guinea when I was 19. Before then, I had lived a somewhat sheltered life – I grew up in Middle Park, went to a private school in St Kilda, and my only overseas experience had been a school exchange to Tuscany in Year 10. I left school and started a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, but after so many years of study, I think I was tired of the theoretical. I was reading all these articles about aid and development and environmental damage and globalisation, but had no practical experience of what this looked like. After a year and a half of Arts, I took a leave of absence and volunteered in PNG, where I was confronted with a reality very different from my own. Life in the villages was full of joy but also difficult, particularly for women. Women my age might already have several children and spend most of their time tending their gardens, cooking, cleaning and collecting water. I realised that travelling, going to university and pursuing a career was not, in fact, totally normal, but a privilege that I must use and use well. 

Isabel and local people in PNG 2008
Isabel with locals in Papua New Guinea, 2008

That experience made me determined to pursue a career in international development. When I returned to Melbourne after 18 months overseas, I studied international studies at RMIT, and returned to PNG in my final year, interning at an aid agency that worked with HIV-positive people in Mt Hagen. It was an intense and exhausting experience. Even though PNG and Australia are geographically close, they are worlds apart in term of health and education. Simply by accident of birth, I had all these opportunities that would be unimaginable for many of the people I met there. It felt so unfair.

My interest in international development, and PNG in particular, took me to Sydney, where I worked for an aid agency managing programs in PNG, Vanuatu, and China. International development is an attractive career option, people often want to do it for the opportunity to work abroad, myself included. For the first few years I loved the regular travel, but it was difficult to belong to a community myself when I was constantly away. I also began to question the building blocks that underpin the aid ‘system’, rich countries sending money to less developed countries with strings attached. It’s problematic. I found myself wanting to be more grounded in my own local place.

When I was 8 years old, my dad attended a community meeting about building a playground in Albert Park. People unanimously supported the project, but no one wanted to lead it. Dad didn’t want to lead it either, but saw that if no one else was willing to step up, it wouldn’t happen. He took on the responsibility of organising the local community to build the playground, and it’s still loved by families from across the city, my own included. 

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Stephen, Leo and Isabel in St Kilda 2018
Isabel with partner Stephen and son Leo in St Kilda, 2018

‘Decisions are made by those who show up’ – it’s a line I remember from the West Wing, and Dad showed it to be true. If you don’t take a seat at the decision-making table, you can’t sit back and whinge when the things you want to happen don’t happen. You have to do something! Small actions can impact many people – even if you just influence your immediate family and friends, who knows how far that ripple-effect can spread? Human beings are highly impressionable; we are influencing each other all the time. After several years in Sydney and another in China, I moved back to Melbourne. I wanted to start a family, and focus on showing up for and developing connections in my little patch of the planet.

I now work for Port Melbourne Neighbourhood Centre running an inclusive theatre company called the City of Voices. It brings together all sorts of people, many marginalised, and we connect and grow over a shared love of drama and creativity. It brings out the best in people, as we get to know one another and explore our creative selves – I love it. I now feel much more grounded in my local community – working for this group almost feels like a localised version of the international development programs I used to run across the Asia-Pacific, except one where I understand the community I’m working to develop. It’s my community, after all, and the one in which my little boy is growing up in.

To me, community development is about bringing people together in order to enhance everyone’s sense of belonging and wellbeing. In big cities like Melbourne there are all sorts of micro-communities. Communities aren’t naturally formed between neighbours anymore but are created by people with shared interests and experiences. You don’t need a title to engage in local community development – anyone can improve their local communities, whether they’re large or small. I do think having a child changes the way you see things. You want that network of friends and allies to exist, for your child’s benefit as much as your own. Suddenly the local feels more important than ever.  

The world is changed on many different scales. I learnt so much from the experiences I had working on an international level, and while I haven’t left that profession entirely, for now I’m excited to be dedicating my energy to my local patch.

Isabel Robinson is a writer (http://www.isabelrobinson.net/), consultant (http://leanganookyarn.com/) and community development worker. She volunteers as a member of the Port Phillip EcoCentre Committee of Management.

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The EcoCentre acknowledges the Kulin Nations, including the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung language group, traditional custodians of the land on which we are located.

We pay respects to their Elders past and present, and extend that respect to other First Nations and Elder members of our multicultural community.