It’s been a year since Daniel Wordsworth took over as CEO at Christian child-focused aid and development World Vision Australia.
     The 55-year-old, who was born in Tamworth, New South Wales, came to the job after spending the past 25 years working in the world’s conflict hotspots including with US-based Alight (formerly known as the American Refugee Committee) and Christian Children's Fund. 
     Wordsworth, who attends Ashburton Baptist Church near where he lives in Melbourne, spoke to Sight about the challenges World Vision has faced during the pandemic, the concept of ‘belief fatigue’, and how his job is about bringing the Kingdom of God to Earth now…

It’s been a challenging couple of years as humanitarian aid agencies like World Vision have had to navigate COVID-19, its impacts and restrictions around the world. What, over the year you’ve spent as CEO of World Vision Australia, do you think has been the greatest challenge?
“I think World Vision as an organisation has its feet in two worlds – it has its feet in Australian society, with Australia people, and it has its foot in Indonesia, India and across Asia and across Africa and across the Middle East. And we’re always trying to be engaged in both of those areas but yet we have our teams working from their dining room table. So I suppose the challenge is how to you engage with Australians in a way – when they’re struggling in their own lives with the impact of COVID – to care about what’s going on around the world and to find meaningful ways to engage with them.”

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Daniel Wordsworth, CEO of World Vision Australia. PICTURE: Courtesy of World Vision Australia.

So, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a tendency for people in countries like Australia to look inward rather than outward?
“Well, actually, that’s what we thought would be the case when the pandemic was breaking out. I think we always have this story about human beings that they’ll look for any excuse not to do good. And actually it’s the opposite. Humans are looking for an excuse to do good. When I was interviewing for this role, I got told – and I’d been away for 25 years – that Australians were different, that they’re not as compassionate as they were when I was here and that they’ve turned more inward and care more about what happens within their own borders. And then I was asked 'How would I change that?' And my answer was that I don’t believe that’s true. And I got told there’s this thing called ‘compassion fatigue’ and that people are tired of being compassionate. And I said again, that’s just not true.
     “What you have is belief fatigue – you have [people] wondering whether their lives, their money and the organisations they support can make a difference. And the bigger and more catastrophic problems appear, the more we are tempted to lose faith and lose [the] belief that actually you, alongside others, can make the world better through your own contributions. So...when the pandemic happened, people thought that the same thing would happen but actually we’ve seen the opposite. World Vision, in a way, is a thermometer of generosity for Australia – because of our size we get donations from every suburb, town, city, state, across the whole country. And so we are a good read on whether any of this is true. The great news is, it turns out it’s totally not true – Australians were more generous during COVID than they were in the years before. We were seeing double digit growth in every state in child sponsorship, for example…”

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So do you think the pandemic has brought people a new realisation about what’s going on in the world?
“I would have said a few years ago [that] what we’ve been seeing around the world is a real push back against globalisation…and what I think the pandemic shows us is, [it’s] too late, we are all connected as human beings and the pandemic is an example of…how dependent we all are on one another. What we now know, for example, is that even during the pandemic, if you were to ignore certain countries then you [would] see variants explode in those countries. So you can’t....In the past when a country like Somalia was melting down in the Nineties, the world could basically turn its back…people would suffer tremendously and refugees would go just over the border into Kenya or Sudan or somewhere. But largely the rest of us were unaffected…Then Syria happens and a million refugees go into Europe…The world is just reminding us constantly, we’re all connected, what happens in one place can affect another place, and I think people are just realising this.
     "I think…the pandemic has given us a moment where we have had a shared human experience and that’s never really happened before, ever in history…Everybody has the same fear in the morning – will I get COVID, will my parents get COVID, will my kids and what will happen to me? And will the systems that exist in my country be strong enough to care for me? And that’s an experience that’s new for us. Whereas, if you live in Africa, it’s not new. So now we understand what it’s like to live with anxiety and fear, fear not just for own health but the health of our family and whether we will have the ability to actually [access] care. So we have a shared human experience…
     “[World Vision’s] job is that when an Australian wants to do good in the world and be idealistic, World Vision is there to help them do it. So we’re thinking, how do we show up to Australians so that they can engage in the world in a meaningful way and keep building on this moment..of shared human experience? And then bring it to bear on things like climate and our own First Nations people and what’s happening with kids around the world and then [also] in crisis place like in Afghanistan. How do we keep creating moments of meaning where Australians feel like they can do something and the world can be better but [also that they] need to step into that?”

You mentioned the idea of ‘belief fatigue’ before. One of the things that many agencies have reported is that there have been setbacks in the progress of development in a multitude of areas. Is that something that you’ve seen and is it going to be many years before we return to the stage we were at prior to the pandemic? Or shouldn’t we be thinking that way?
“I think we’re meant to be learning a lesson and I’m not sure that we are. And poverty’s a great example of that. We kind of think of the world in this sort of developing way – step-by-step things get better, step-by-step, things progress. And certainly when you look at things like poverty, we were, step-by-step, getting better - all the time. And it began feeling like it was a kind of linear bridge that we were all walking over; we just had to help each other get over the bridge. I think what we’ve realised now is that it’s more fragile – I think that fragility is the new poverty. I think we used to see the world as ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ but now we see the world is not really like that, the world is like shifting stones and we’re trying to jump across and, instead of having a bridge, we have these shifting stones that we need to leap across and sometimes they sink and wobble…
     “The world has been set back over the past two years – any gains that we’ve made have been set back. For example, hunger has reared its head across the world and the impact of COVID will be more felt through hunger and famine than it was through the infection itself, through the virus itself, in most of the world. But the new way of thinking is to realise we live in a fragile world and how do you navigate in a fragile world? How do you build for the future in a fragile world? We have to think about things differently because fragility doesn’t stop. Just because you feel good for two or three years, doesn’t mean something won’t happen and you won’t be plunged back into something else. And I think we’re realising this in a COVID world, that we may get through this pandemic, but what will happen next?”

Will benchmarks like the Sustainable Development Goals still play a role?
“I think it changes the way we think about many of those…I think the SDGs are useful because they galvanise the world around this set of targets and aspirations. What we’ve got to do is put in place a way that helps the world navigate and hold those targets when we reach them. That will be the challenge and that is the challenge that we’re seeing -we thought these were mountains we were climbing but now we realise it’s a much more complicated environment.”

Benchmarks in the environmental area were talked about recently at COP26. Firstly, how big an issue is climate change when it comes to development and, secondly, what’s your take on the outcome of that conference?
“Climate change is one of the main drivers of suffering and the fragility that exists around the world. It’s where poverty and climate change meet [that you] see the most suffering of kids…It’s always useful for the world to get together to talk about this issue. I think we have framed this is such a catastrophic way for so long and we have given so little [in terms of] concrete examples of what we can all do to change it, that that’s what needs to change...[World Vision] have committed to a massive program of regeneration of forests around the world…Our view is: enough talk, let’s get going, let’s apply the resources we have and let’s bring it to bear and go for large scale change for the positive. [Let's] stop haranguing everybody and instead find ways for the world to come together to actually bring about change. And for us, forest regeneration is a key way that we can move on that, we’ve already been doing it.”

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Through the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) approach, women groups empowered by World Vision in northern Kenya are on the race to save the Marsabit forest from destruction and degradation so as to avert the adverse effects of climate change such as long droughts in their community. PICTURE:  Courtesy of World Vision Australia 

Given we’re talking about concrete examples, is it just about someone giving money to World Vision to help with that? How does an individual become involved with that process of forest regeneration?
“Australia has one of the most exciting technologies for forest regeneration that exists [known as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration]. It was started by World Vision...and I think the whole country needs to get behind it. And so that means politicians, corporations, foundations and the general public…I've done this work for a long time and when I came here and saw what they’ve got, it’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen in the climate space for years. Far and away. It’s incredibility exciting and…we’ve already regenerated more than 120 million hectares of forest…So I would say, yes, join with us, get involved with that – for now we’re trying to create this coalition of Australian organisations, corporations, foundations that will regenerate a billion hectares…That’s the size of China. The world has been focused on planting trees, what we’ve got to be focused on is regenerating forests.”

I wanted to ask you a bit about your own journey as well. I understand that you were started off the navy but you were called out of it to create a crisis shelter in Sydney?
“What happened was that I read the Sermon on the Mount on a ship and I just realised in that moment - I’d become a Christian [earlier] but I didn’t know what it really all meant – that God was on the side of the poor and the marginalised and I felt that call to be on the same side. So the calling for me was that a life well-lived is a life that is lived in service to poor people. I had an unsophisticated view, I didn’t know what any of that meant, I just knew I had to go and do that. So one of the things we did was, yes, we opened the house up and…said if you’ve got any poor people, people out of prison, people on the street, send them to us and we’ll care for them. That was just like the natural thing to do – 'I’m meant to help poor people, OK let’s open a house and take them in'. That was the starting point and now I’m here many years later.”

Since then you’ve spent a great deal of time overseas and you’ve worked for a number of organisations like Alight [formerly the American Refugee Committee] and ChildFund International, and that work, I understand, has taken you to everywhere from Afghanistan to Somalia and the DRC. Going to those sorts of places, what’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt?
“I learnt the opposite lesson to the one everybody would think that I learned. I have had the privilege of spending the last 25 years in what I think most people would say was the poorest...most conflict-affected places on Earth…Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, El Salvador, Colombia, the tsunami. I’ve been to every major refugee camp that exists including the largest one in the world that has some 500,000 people in it – the Rohingya – in Bangladesh. I think that what people would have expected that I’ve learnt over that time is how poor the world is, all that I could learn about evil and I would wonder if the world could be made any better. Yet I’ve learnt the opposite, that the world is surprisingly abundant and remarkable and there’s more everywhere than you think. Even in those places, you’d be surprised what you can find.
     "[W]hat I’ve discovered is that people are shockingly good. It does come down to what you believe and what you choose to see – it’s that point that I made earlier that we believe people are looking for excuses to do wrong but in fact it’s the opposite. Often we don’t know what to do or we’re afraid that if we do something, it will do even more damage, so we’re a little bit frozen. And people, if you can help them, they’ll do amazing things and this is true even in the refuge camps – people want to help one another and will find ways to help one another and you can help accelerate that. You truly can do good and change things for the better on a daily basis if you set your mind to it and if you do it with others. We’re not powerless in the face of all of these things. So the lessons I learnt were the world is more abundant than we think, that people are better than we think and that there’s more we can do than we think.”

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Daniel Wordsworth (fourth from left) on a trip to the Northern Territory in May to visit World Vision's Australian First Nations Programs (AFNP). PICTURE: Courtesy of World Vision Australia.

A question I often ask people such as yourself who have been to so many places where there’s tragedy unfolding is how you cope with it, how you get though those times without getting overwhelmed? And I wanted to ask how important your faith is in regard to that?
“My faith tells me that every person I meet is sacred and wondrous and through Jesus it teaches me how I show up then with them. So it gives me a perspective on the world. You know how when you read in Matthew where Jesus is teaching us to pray and He says ‘Your Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven’? – I think we’ve all forgotten that sentence. I think we’re all thinking that the Kingdom can never come on Earth; that it’s all meant to wait to Heaven. I’ve noticed that in the last 10 to 15 years, it’s like we’ve given up on Earth…but no, the point is to make the Kingdom come now. So that’s my job, my job is to make the Kingdom come on Earth now. And what does the Kingdom look like? It looks like peace, it looks like freedom, it looks like the sick being healed, it looks like the prisoner being set free. I think sometimes we say ‘Well that’s all spiritual’. And I think spiritual, yes, but it’s more than that. There are really sick people and you help them get healed. That’s why I love World Vision…and that’s what I’m doing in my job, I’m trying to make [the Kingdom of God] come now. It’s not enough that a person suffers and they suffer for decades and we tell them that it will be OK in the end. No, no, no. My job is to help them be OK now.”

So as we come into Christmas – it you looked at the world objectively, you’d see a place in turmoil as we’re still navigating through the pandemic, we’ve got wars going on, we’ve got famines going on, yet I would gather that you’re still optimistic?
“Yes, I’m a learned optimist. I didn’t start off optimistic, I’m a learned optimist, meaning I believe the Kingdom can come now. There’s more things possible than we believe and we get stuck. So what would I say at Christmastime to people? I believe that the Christmas lunch for Australians is a very special ritual, a family ritual, and what we’ve experienced over the past two years [has been] the separation of family and fear for family. So I think this Christmas we’ll sit together and look at one another and realise how fortunate we’ve been…And we’ve depended on each other and we depended on our neighbours and on our communities and everybody was there and I think in that moment I hope people can feel gratitude and not feel guilt about other things that are going on around the world and doubt and all of that stuff. I would hope they realise that gratitude is a growing thing and that it likes to be shared. And so you can be grateful for your family and enjoy your lunch and also realise that you can contribute to make life better for someone else – it’s all the same thing.”

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A previous version of this article appeared briefly on the Sight by accident and was briefly removed for some final edits before being published. Apologies for any confusion.