Julia Newton-Howes travels overseas about six times a year, but it’s rarely for a holiday. As chief executive of international humanitarian aid organisation CARE Australia, she regularly finds herself on the frontline leading the fight against global poverty.
“It’s been a great privilege to meet many, many people in my life in different countries who have almost nothing and yet they’re so similar to me … people’s basic instincts are the same and what it has taught me is that money offers you freedom but it’s also a huge trap,” she says, pointing to the consumer-focused societies we often immerse ourselves in.
“I really focus very hard on how I’m so lucky to have what I have and I don’t need more.”
Poverty is something that left a lasting mark from an early age – Newton-Howes was born in India and grew up in Zimbabwe.
“We are always influenced by our parents’ attitude … my parents were both born between the two world wars and grew up in levels of austerity in Europe which were very strong. So as a child I was taught, particularly in a developing country, that waste was wicked and not just wrong because we weren’t terribly wealthy, but wrong because it was consuming more than we needed. That sort of ethic is something I want to live by… we need to know when we have enough.”
While her early career involved scientific research at universities, she soon left for a more interesting role at AusAID in 1992, which included a posting in Vietnam and a two-year secondment to the World Bank in Washington. “It really was a step sideways and downwards in my career but it was to do something that I really found very fascinating and I’ve never regretted.”
As well as leading CARE Australia since 2007, she is now vice president of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and last year was named Telstra ACT Business Woman of the Year.
The work of organisations such as CARE and ACFID and the global community is having a positive impact. While 21 per cent of people remain in extreme poverty (defined as living on $US1.25 or less a day) that level has more than halved from where it was in 1990, according to World Bank estimates. Nonetheless, approximately one billion people will remain in extreme poverty by 2015, even if the current rate of improvement is maintained.
Poverty particularly impacts women, who are often denied loans but tend to use funds more productively for their families and the community than men. CARE has helped set up microfinance programs in many countries, where groups of people pool small amounts of money to enable them to take out larger loans. One major supporter, Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly, saw the benefits while on a trip to Malawi with Newton-Howes in 2012.
“One women brought some plates, some cups and a tea pot and she said, ‘I have never been able to afford plates and cups before and now I can even afford to put milk in my tea like a rich person’ – those sorts of stories are very moving.”
Newton-Howes says Australians are generous donors, but it’s an important message to reinforce, particularly among wealthy Australians who have lagged their peers in the US where supporting charities is expected.
“Let’s be generous-hearted about money. I think that does mean recognising when you have enough and that really almost everyone in Australia can afford to give a little bit to someone who is worse off.”
Brendan Swift is a business journalist based in Sydney.