Meditation, Mindfulness and Mental Wellbeing

Building knowledge and capacity for policy change is the vision of Power to Persuade. But policy work is difficult, time consuming, on-going, hidden and often with limited success. Burn out in this space is quite common and therefore it is necessary to remind ourselves that self-care and mental wellbeing can also be considered par for course of policy change! This week’s blog posts will begin with reflections from a social policy researcher, Isabella Saunders, based at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW. Using her experience of an extended road trip around Australia, she provides life hacks to ‘break free from the metaphorical prison that is “routine”.’ Isabella’s has expertise in qualitative and mixed-methods research experience in the fields of employment, young people and disability, both in Australia and overseas. This piece was originally published on the Croakey website on 30th April 2019.

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We need tomorrow’s teachers today

Is Australia’s education system adequately developing our children for the jobs of the future? Incept Labs’ Dr Robert Kay argues that under the current system, our children will not prepared for the next wave of workforce changes that the World Economic Forum’s Professor Klaus Schwab has dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution.’ His solution? Education 3.0 and a new mindset for the teachers of tomorrow.

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Why government agencies forget

Scholars have, for decades, suggested that organisational amnesia can negatively impact the effectiveness of government agencies. So why do they forget? Maria Katsonis has summarised the findings of Alastair Stark (University of Queensland) for why public institutions may be unable - or unwilling - to access and/or use past experiences to help deliver better public outcomes.

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Policy talks while the elephants walk! Time for the academy to employ and promote more scholars with disability

Despite universities spruiking disability inclusion mantras the reality is that academic institutions are failing on recruitment of scholars with disability. Based on a recently published paper that draws on the experiences of researchers with disability, lead author Damian Mellifont discusses barriers to university employment of people with disability and ways universities can move forward to institute changes so they can finally start to practice what they preach with regards to disability inclusion.

Nothing about us without us. This is the disability inclusion mantra that is echoed in university policy. Ask any university Chancellor if they support these five words. I would be astonished if any of these highly distinguished persons would reply with anything but a resounding ‘yes’! So, how can it be that Australian universities are tending to fail scholars with disability who are seeking employment in the academy?


It is easy to spruik feel good words about disability inclusion. Clearly, it is quite another thing to put these words in action. The possible risk here is that on the surface, Australian universities might be saying all of the rights things. But do a little digging and you’ll find that they tend to be doing nothing or next to nothing to recruit more academics with disability. If Australian universities practiced what they preached about disability inclusion, scholars with disability would be in high demand in the academy. However, Equal Employment Opportunity data that is publicly available paints a very different picture. And we are left with an outrageous situation whereby research about disability continues to be dominated by non-disabled scholars.


Barriers to the greater employment of scholars with disability in the academy

Some employment barriers confronting academics with disability are physical. These include obstacles such as a lack of wheelchair access. Still, others are insidious in the sense that they are founded in prejudices and ignorance about disability. Under influences of ableism and sanism, the abilities of scholars with lived experience are readily dismissed. These ‘isms’ have potential to contaminate recruitment processes. They might also threaten job retention by refusing to provide reasonable accommodations where these might be needed. 


Ways forward

Research has been conducted that draws upon the personal testimonies of four researchers with disability from The University of Sydney. This study offers valuable insight into the many practical measures that endeavour to get more scholars with disability working and advancing in the academy. Our recently published research recommends that faculties and departments support the following actions:


·         Undertaking independent accessibility and accommodation audits.

·         Promoting the benefits of lived experience led and co-produced research.

·         Adjusting fellowship scheme assessment criteria so that lived experience is recognised and valued.

·         Advancing a culture that welcomes and respects academics with disability.

·         Ensuring that scholars with disability are not exploited.

·         Requiring staff attendance at anti-sanism and anti-ableism workshops.

·         Holding university leaders responsible for shortfalls in disability employment policy performance.

·         Encouraging lawful activism to advance a greater inclusion of employees with disability in the academy.

·         Using language that advances disability pride.


Crucially, our research also reveals another key action that university leaders are challenged to embrace. This is the measure of affirmative action. Properly implemented and monitored, quotas would ensure a greater representation of disability in academic and leadership roles. And while not all will need or desire access to quotas, for those who do, the option should be there. As for any university ‘leader’ who might refuse to consider introducing disability employment quotas, the question becomes – is ableism or sanism influencing their decision? Ethical universities must have zero tolerance for ableists or sanists regardless of the position that they hold or their academic stature.


Time for a more diverse and inclusive academy

The time for actively supporting the recruitment and career development of scholars with disability in Australian universities is now! It is the hypocrite of the worst kind who talks the talk about diversity and inclusion, but who allows the ableism and sanism elephants to walk their destructive walk throughout the academy. In contrast, it is the genuine leader who calls out and rounds up these elephants to allow space to be created for affirmative action and other disability employment support measures. Here is my message to any university leader who might think that they can continue to be dismissive of the recruitment and career development of scholars with disability. Academics with disability will not let you keep pushing them to the employment sidelines. Make no mistake, advocates will act lawfully to ensure that the days of dithering around disability employment in the academy are fast nearing their end. And when change arrives…and it will…history will not look kindly on you.

Damian Mellifont is an Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow at The Centre for Disability Research and Policy, The University of Sydney. This blog post is based on the recently published paper:

Mellifont, D., Smith-Merry, J., Dickinson, H., Llewellyn, G., Clifton, S., Ragen, J., Raffaele., M. & Williamson, P. (2019): The ableism elephant in the academy: a study examining academia as informed by Australian scholars with lived experience, Disability & Society, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2019.1602510

How the Sustainable Development Goals can help change the way we evaluate Federal Budgets and election platforms

Election season is on us again, and Twitter feeds and daily news updates are full of potential elected leaders making policy promises and giving warnings about how the opposing parties won’t be able to bring us the Australia we need.

But how do we know what the Australia we need is? Depending on political leaning and personal values, this is going to vary from voter to voter. But when deciding on which policies to support, it can be useful to try and have a framework by which to evaluate platforms and the societies they are wishing to create. Megan Weier suggests that, if we want an Australia in which there is a ‘fair go for all’ (the classic Australian dream), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a useful benchmark to look to.

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Planetary health and the philanthrocapitalist paradox

A great deal of work and advocacy has been done by research centres and advocacy groups that would remain un(der)funded if not for the contributions of philanthropy. Global health problems, in particular, have captured a share of philanthropic funding, usually because of personal experience or passion for the topic. In this post, originally posted on Croakey, Professor Colin Butler turns attention to how the money for these philanthropic missions is generated - and whether that is in fact good for our planet.

Colin Butler writes:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Source: Flickr/szuchichen

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Source: Flickr/szuchichen

In March 2019 the journal Challenges published my paper “Philanthrocapitalism: Promoting Global Health but Failing Planetary Health”.

Focused on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the world’s most influential and generous health charity, it explored the relationship between philanthrocapitalism, economic history, and global and planetary health, which I defined in my paper as the interaction between global human health, social systems and adverse global environmental change, including to the climate and other elements of the Earth System. For some years I have also argued that conflict must be recognized as an important element of global and planetary health.

I have also repeatedly argued, since 2000, that adverse global environmental change has the capacity to undermine civilization. I am now even more firmly persuaded that all the progress that has been made towards improving global health is vulnerable to failing planetary health.

For example, the Global Report on Food Crises 2019 reports rising reliance on food aid, driven by conflict and adverse climate events, in an alarming range of countries in several continents.

This rising reliance on humanitarian assistance also reflects and reveals other profound deficiencies in the dominant approach to global health, including the Gates Foundation-promoted reliance on technology and vertical (single disease-focused strategies), rather than at least equal attention to health systems and the strengthening of “soft” social and cultural determinants of health.

My paper also discusses the Wellcome Trust, chiefly in the context of planetary health and its investment strategy.

It argues that in the last 40 years (roughly since the election of Margaret Thatcher) there has been an increased preference for market-based approaches, often called neoliberalism, particularly in the US and its allies (including Australia). This has generated greater inequality in high-income settings, and weakened the norm of taxation and public goods, including Health for All and comprehensive primary health care.

In turn, this shift towards self-interest has provided a milieu in which philanthrocapitalism has flourished, including the BMGF.

The latter has in turn become an important actor for global health, partially (along with other charities) balancing the adverse consequences of neoliberalism.

The philanthrocapitalist paradox

There are now many critics of philanthrocapitalism, including Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

But there are far fewer critics of the relationship between philanthrocapitalism and health, perhaps in part due the fear (justified or otherwise) of being blacklisted in the highly competitive struggle for health research funding.

Here, I focus on two paradoxes.

Although the Wellcome Trust has recently made funds available for ecological health research, it continues to invest in fossil fuels.

The Wellcome Trust director, Jeremy Farrar, defends this, arguing:

It is more constructive and effective to take a case-by-case approach to investments in the energy sector.

We consider individual companies on their merits, including the extent to which they meet their environmental responsibilities, when we decide whether or not to invest or stay invested.

All companies engaged in fossil-fuel extraction are not equal.”

In support of this nuanced strategy, the Wellcome Trust was reported in 2015 as selling a £94m stake in ExxonMobil, a company revealed as systematically misleading the public over the risk of climate change for over 40 years.  And, the Wellcome Trust’s 2018 report shows, that of its top ten investments, only one (Royal Dutch Shell) is primarily a fossil fuel company.

But Shell has been accused of long obstructing climate change action. Another of the Wellcome Trust’s top ten investments is JP Morgan Chase, which was called by Oil Change International, in 2019, as “the world’s top funder of fossil fuels by a wide margin”.

Yet, Farrar also argues that the Wellcome Trust “uses our access to boards to encourage them to adopt more transparent and sustainable policies that support transition towards a low-carbon economy”.

At least in the above cases, this strategy appears to be failing.

The Mother Teresa defence

All philanthrocapitalists, by their nature, have accumulated and maintain their wealth by their involvement in the tangled, impenetrable world of global business, sometimes veering towards legal but morally dubious tax evasion.

They all use variants of the “Mother Teresa defence”, that it is legitimate to use funds obtained by dark (or at least grey) means to promote the light. But where are the limits?

Leading universities including Cambridge once accepted research funds from tobacco industries. The social licence for this has vanished, at least in the UK and Australia.

Fossil fuel companies and avaricious bankers do not (as far as I know) directly fund health research, and so the analogy with tobacco does not fully hold.

However, as climate change worsens, the tenuous social license to which the Wellcome Trust clings, seeking to justify its most egregiously unethical investments, is likely to weaken, and may not long survive.

My chief argument is that if the Wellcome Trust genuinely understood the risk to health from failing planetary health — not just harder-to-control infections and worsened nutrition but the possibility of global catastrophe — then it would surely reduce its tacit support for fossil fuel investments.

This would send a powerful moral signal, and they might even do better financially.

The Gates Foundation now surpasses the Wellcome Trust as the leading source of funds for global health research.

Unlike Wellcome, the BMGF is reported to have fully divested from fossil fuels, but its reasons, unlike those of the Rockefeller Foundation, are unclear. (In fact, Bill Gates has been reported as calling fossil fuel divestment a “false solution”).

Also unlike the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation provides no (or minimal) funds for ecological or planetary health. This is the second paradox.

Both of these major philanthrocapitalist organizations claim to genuinely understand the leading threats to global health. But do not actions speak larger than words?

Their generosity and skill partially compensate for the decline in attention to global health driven by market-preferring solutions, but each remains insufficiently proactive in the face of the immense dangers associated with declining planetary health.

Colin Butler is an Honorary Professor at the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra’s Health Research Institute, and Principal Research Fellow at the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, Flinders University

Colin is also a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia’Scientific Advisory Committee


ParentsNext - Activating why? Activating how?

In today’s post, Dr Simone Casey takes a close look at the underpinnings of ParentsNext, a widely-criticised program that aims to encourage eligible parents to plan and prepare for employment by the time their children start school. Dr Casey is an Associate of the RMIT Future Social Services Institute and this post draws on her research into resistance in employment services and the construct of the welfare subject

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Universal Basic Income could be an opportunity to re-think our relationship with work

Social policy influences our perceptions of the world. It determines which and how we address human needs and challenges. With a Federal election around the corner in Australia, this post looks at Universal Basic Income – one of the three main policies of a U.S. 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate – and asks: could it be an opportunity to reconsider what work means to us? This post was written by UNSW Scientia PhD scholar and Power to Persuade moderator Axelle Marjolin.

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