He looks like a normal university student— young, well presented, laid back, confident with himself and the world around him. Yet if you look into his eyes and talk to him for a while, you can see that Hugh Evans is a man driven by his love for others and his passion to make a difference, to change the world one person at a time. As Young Australian of the Year in 2004, Evans is well on his way to achieving that goal.
Yet Evans’s list of achievements does not end there. At only 24, he has already lived in three foreign countries, founded an international youth aid organisation—The Oaktree Foundation— with projects in five nations. On top of all this, he is studying full time for a double degree in law and science at Melbourne’s Monash University.
Despite all the awards, including carrying the Olympic torch and receiving one of 10 outstanding Young People of the World Awards, at the Junior Congress in Japan, Evans stays grounded.
“What’s an award?” he says. “It’s just cool to get the message out there. So the more we can get the message out there, the better. I don’t think awards are ends in and of themselves. An award is a great encouragement. It can be a platform to share where we are taking the campaign and moving Oaktree forward.” Evans’s passion to help others began in his first year of high school. “I was 12 years old at the time, and a lady by the name of Bridget spoke at our school about the ‘40 Hour Famine.’ I was quite keen to see if we could make our school one of the highest fundraising schools in Australia.” So young Evans led the charge at his school and within two years, they were the highest fundraising school in Australia.
a night that changed his life As a leading fundraiser, World Vision offered Evans a trip to the Philippines to see how the funds they raised had changed lives. But the trip had changed his life. “One night in the Philippines really impacted my life to such a huge extent that I’ve never been the same since,” he says, his mind replaying the scene. “We were taken to a slum called Smokey Mountain, which is built on top of a garbage dump, where the whole infrastructure of the community revolves around scavenging.” He was placed in the care of another 14-year-old who brought him home for dinner. “I’d come from affluent Melbourne, and here is this guy whose body is covered from head to toe in tattoos, because he was about to become a gang leader.” They ate together and Evans slept the night on a concrete slab, surrounded by cockroaches and the smell of rotting garbage. It was a confronting experience that turned Evans’s life in a new direction.
In 2003, Evans became World Vision’s first Youth Ambassador. He went to the KwaZulu-Natal region, near Durban, South Africa, to develop a community resource centre and sporting field. Evans stayed at an orphanage for children orphaned by AIDS and developed a child-sponsorship program there. The program was then pitched to Oprah Winfrey, who came over to Africa and arranged for thousands of children to be sponsored.
“We set up some really exciting programs to provide young people in the community with access to educational opportunities. It was then that the vision for Oaktree began. When we were working on the resource centre, we asked people in the community what they needed in life, and they said, ‘I need education; I need a job; I need education; I need a job.’ Every time.” One in three people in the community where Evans was living in are infected with HIV/AIDS—mainly the middle-aged working class—decimating a whole generation and leaving many orphaned children.
Evans tells of a particular evening when they met some children by the road who had been recently orphaned.
The children were sitting around a pot of boiling water and a colleague of Evans asked them what they were doing. The eldest replied that he had not been able to provide any food for his brothers since his parents died, so they played pretend every night and walked around the fire until they fell asleep.
Evans has written a book on his African experiences, published by Lothian Books, titled Stone of the Mountain .
This was the name given to him by the local Zulu people, recognising his steadfast commitment, patience and determination to make the world a better place for those in poverty.
the Oaktree Foundation Our interview is interrupted by the high-pitched whine of a power tool.
“Sorry about the noise,” Evans grins, “and the mess.” The Oaktree Foundation had recently moved into its new Melbourne premises for the extra space it would provide. As I visited they were putting in a new wall.
Oaktree has come a long way in the few years since 2003, when Evans first joined with Nicholas Mackay to mobilise young people into providing educational opportunities for those less fortunate. From a core group of around 30 leaders, Oaktree has grown to an international development agency with more than 3000 volunteers worldwide.
In its first year of operation, Oaktree raised in excess of $A100,000.
But what is the Oaktree Foundation all about? And why the botanical name? “The imagery from an oak is that you have this locked-up potential, and we see that as the potential of a young person.
If you provide it with appropriate support, it can grow to become a massive oak, with a strong foundation of support and encouragement. In the same way Oaktree is all about educational investment in young people.” Oaktree is about three things: Young people—no volunteers older than 26; education—working in South Africa, India, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the Philippines; and peer-support programs—linking young people around the world in efforts to educate and support each other, as the most effective method of tackling the HIV/ AIDS pandemic.
So what is next for Evans if he can work for Oaktree only until he is 26? The associated Acorn program provides mentors for the young leaders within the foundation and is another way people can get involved. However, Evans has bigger plans: “I’m thinking of doing some postgraduate study; immediately I want to study economics, and in the future I want to continue to lead the country through politics, through other organisations. For me the journey is only just beginning. We’ve got some big plans in the years ahead of how we’re going to take the social movement— that is Oaktree and Make Poverty History— to a whole new level.” n In 2000, world leaders agreed upon eight goals to halve extreme poverty by the year 2015—the Millennium Development Goals. Five years later, Nelson Mandela launched the Make Poverty History (MPH) movement, declaring that while William Wilberforce and others like him campaigned against the evils of slavery 200 years ago, more recently, Mandela himself and the African National Congress fought the evils of the Apartheid system.
Today the story is different. “The greatest challenge of our generation is global poverty; let us call upon our generation to be great.” In June 2006, the movement was launched in Australia and the Oaktree Foundation has had a significant impact on the MPH movement. Foreign aid was doubled in Australia later that year and an Oaktree volunteer, Dan Adams, came up with the concept of the MPH concert.
“We ultimately got the message out there to some 20 million people worldwide through CNN and the BBC.” Fronted by acts such as Bono from U2, Pearl Jam, Eskimo Joe, Evermore, Jet and the Hilltop Hoods—the message was spread and the Oaktree Foundation won an MTV music award for the concert! Zero Seven The latest project Evans is working on is called Zero Seven. It will be a road trip for MPH ambassadors across Australia and will start on 01.07.07 and converge on Sydney for the climax on 07.07.07. “The artists who came on board the Make Poverty History concert, a lot of them are coming on the Zero Seven road trip.” The excitement in Evans’s voice is tangible. “At the end of the day, it’s not about a concert; it’s about creating a movement.” The artists will perform along the way before the main event, which will be covered by Channel 9, MTV, MySpace, Nova Radio and News Limited. “It’s going to be enormous,” says Evans with a laugh.
The question remains—is it really possible to make poverty history? Evans is suddenly serious: “It’s completely possible.” He is clearly ready for this question as he outlines the factors required by asking three questions of his own. First, you need a framework. Volunteers in every country and manageable, clearly achievable targets and the Millennium Development Goals show this is already in place. Second, you need money: “It would cost $US10 billion to provide universal primary education and that’s half of what the US spends on ice-cream every year. Yes, it’s possible.
“So we have the framework, we have the financial resources. The question is: do we have the will? And I think that’s the harder question. Not ‘can we?’— but ‘do we want to?’ On an individual level, Australians are some of the most generous in the world, but on a governmental level we are one of the stingiest.” Of the wealthiest countries in the world, Australia is ranked 19 out of 22 in its commitment to foreign aid.