Practical Visionaries:
A Study of Community Aid Abroad

Susan Blackburn

Melbourne University Press 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
A readable history of one of Australia's oldest aid agencies, Practical Visionaries will interest students of development as well as those associated with Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam Australia). Blackburn interlaces chapters on CAA's overseas program work with chapters on developments within Australia, chronicling the organisation's response to changing theories of development and changing circumstances at home and abroad.

Community Aid Abroad began in the 1950s as the Food for Peace Campaign, organised by Anglican priest Father Tucker. Its original and distinctive basis lay in autonomous local groups, but growth, changes in funding sources, and a greater professionalism have changed its organisational structures. There have been ongoing debates about whether it practiced what it preached on issues such as grass-roots involvement, women's participation, decentralisation, and self-evaluation.

The 1970s saw two major issues contribute to the politicisation of the organisation. The first was East Timor, where CAA ended up taking a strong stand in support of independence. The second was the Light, Powder, and Construction Works, a controversial experiment in development education. And the 1980s saw CAA take on a broader advocacy and lobbying role, especially in regard to foreign aid policy; it has also channeled increasing amounts of government aid money.

Overseas, Blackburn devotes the most space to Community Aid Abroad's work in India, where its earliest projects were located: she traces the history of some of the key Indian staff and partner organisations. Relationships with the latter have changed over the years, as they themselves have changed and as CAA has responded to the "debate" over development and a growing awareness of its complexities. In the 1980s an attempt was made in Sri Lanka to operate a unified program at a national level, but even without the unexpected and disastrous effects of communal violence, problems with this approach were apparent. The 80s and early 90s saw CAA running large scale disaster relief projects, mostly in Africa; these have often involved working with local governments rather than with non-government organisations.

Note: I used to work for Community Aid Abroad as a volunteer, maintaining their web site.

March 1999

Related reviews:
- books about Australia + Australian history
- books about social justice
%T Practical Visionaries
%S A Study of Community Aid Abroad
%A Blackburn, Susan
%I Melbourne University Press
%D 1993
%O paperback, b&w photos, notes, index
%G ISBN 0522845622
%P xvi,390pp