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Gail Kelly mixes business with caring

Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac and CARE Australia’s ambassador for women’s empowerment talks to Donna Duggan about her involvement in the not-for-profit organisation.

Gail Kelly mixes business with caring

Despite being familiar with not-for-profit organisation CARE Australia, Westpac CEO Gail Kelly says it wasn’t until she attended a lunch held by the Governor General that she really got an understanding of what the organisation does and what its focus is. “It was one of the eclectic groupings of people where you come away feeling very enriched because you’ve learnt something new and you hear about these people doing amazing work,” she says of the event. 

CARE Australia’s CEO, Dr Julia Newton-Howes, also made an impression on Kelly. “I think Julia is fabulous with a tough mental attitude. At that time I was seeking a not-for-profit organisation that I could support in an ambassadorial way. I wanted [to work with] an Australian organisation where I had an emotional connection,” she explains. “I’m also very committed to the empowerment of women, particularly women who are in marginalised environments. I also want to work with people who I deeply respect.

During a visit to Africa, Kelly (who is now the ambassador for women’s empowerment within the organisation) was able to get a first-hand glimpse of the impact CARE has on developing nations. “I was going to be in Africa with my family for a holiday and I extended my trip for a few days to look at some of the projects CARE Australia do. I took my daughter. It was lovely having her with me. It was a powerful experience to see what work CARE was doing on the ground.”  

CARE has initiated a series of savings and loan schemes to help fight poverty. “It doesn’t involve CARE putting in any money,” says Kelly. “It involves CARE putting in a support structure. It’s fabulous to see these communities of women meeting every week, investing money into the basic things, standing up so proudly saying things like ‘I use to be poor but now I’m not’. It’s making a difference. It’s a healthier and safer place.” 

“The issues in Africa are very basic. And in Malawi it’s basically subsistence living. I spent one afternoon with the CARE team in Malawi, we then went out to one of the communities. When we arrived, there were communities of women and children singing in their lovely tradition, welcoming you. The leaders in the community also welcomed us. We had so many testimonials from women, which was quite moving. They would tell us their own particular story. It wasn’t about CARE, it was how the savings and loan program had helped.” 

“We also went to a school,” says Kelly. “Only half of the rooms had a roof, and most rooms didn’t have desks. [Talking to the students and teachers] you get raw, direct answers – like the girls get physically abused at schools, they get pregnant at school, or they have to work in the fields or look after family. There are next to no facilities, 2100 pupils, 10 teachers, 10 classrooms, no books and three holes in the ground that act as a toilet.”

Kelly’s last stop was another village where she met a woman who was able to buy four pigs through the savings and loan program. “What I also found fascinating about this community were all the children who were following us. Fifty per cent of the population in Malawi is aged under 15. There are no toys at all which is why the children are so articulate; they use their own resources to play. They tell stories, and sing and dance and play hopscotch. This village is also dedicated to improving their life with the savings and loans scheme. [The villagers] meet every month to see how they are progressing. I was very impressed; it was very business-orientated and effective. 

“One of the things they are doing is planting trees. I thought I would have to do something ceremonial like shovel some dirt, but no, I was given an actual tree to plant. There is nothing you are doing for the sake of it over there. Everything is for a purpose. There is absolutely no government support in Malawi, you do everything. You come away with a sense of how privileged we are.” 

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