Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Interview: Oxfam and Gates Foundation Discuss How We Change the Conversation About Aid

February 04, 2013

Job Creator? Beltway Outsider? What images do these phrases conjur? Oxfam wants you to re-imagine these buzzwords and hopes their new campaign highlighting “Effective Aid Champions” will help. When we saw the new Oxfam campaign, featuring powerful images of community leaders, change makers, and advocates in developing countries, who have used foreign aid investments in their work, we were impressed. In February 2012, under the direction of Tom Scott, Director of Global Brand & Innovation here at the Gates Foundation, we launched a new challenge making funding available to anyone interested in telling a new story about foreign aid. The premise? If we, as a global community, are to succeed in ending extreme hunger and poverty and improving the health of the poorest, we must find ground-breaking ways to gather and share stories of aid working well. We must bring the data behind those stories to life

What follows is a discussion between Tom Scott and Gregory Adams, Director of Aid Effectiveness at Oxfam about why a new vision of aid is critical.

Tom Scott: If we are really going to change the debate about aid, new, creative campaigns–like Oxfam’s newest aid campaign–will certainly help. What was the insight that led you to embark upon this type of campaign?

Gregory Adams: The light bulb popped on during some focus groups we were doing on aid and country ownership early last year.  Inevitably, at some point during the group conversation, a participant would bang their fist on the table, and declare, “I don’t want to GIVE a man a fish!  I want to TEACH people to fish.”  Which, of course, made those of us standing behind the one-way mirror tear our hair out, almost screaming:  People have been fishing for 400,000 years of human existence.  They don’t need us to teach them how to fish!

 Aid no more cures poverty than a hammer builds a house or a shovel digs a ditch. PEOPLE do that; someone has to pick that hammer up and wield it artfully, and put force behind it.

Once we calmed down a little and started to think about that, however, we realized that fishing cliché was the essential insight missing in our US conversation about aid: they—poor people—know how to get out of poverty; they just need us to be a good partner, to help them overcome obstacles. 

Tom: How do you hope this changes the conversation about aid and aid effectiveness?  

Gregory: Too much of the US conversation about aid is built around the idea that aid should ultimately be a transfer of resources.  The fallacy is that poor people are poor because they don’t have enough “stuff”, and if we generous Americans just give them enough “stuff”—bednets, hybrid seeds, latrines—then they won’t be poor anymore.  Of course that stuff all saves lives.  But the stuff alone cannot deliver human rights, better incomes, and accountable governance.  In fact, poverty is more often a deficit of rights rather than resources.  And the solutions to poverty are about supporting the power of people to change their communities and countries.

Instinctively, I think Americans get this.  This is the source of most of the frustration with aid.  Americans think, “we’ve been sending those people bed nets for years, and they are still getting sick; we’ve been giving them food, and they’re still hungry.”  And they conclude, “aid must not work; it all must be getting stolen or wasted.”

So ultimately what we’re trying to do is change people’s perceptions, and expectations, about aid.  We are trying to change the measure of success.  Let’s not measure our success by counting how many people America saves with bed nets; let’s measure our success by how many people Malawian Health Advocate Martha Kwataine is able to save when she successfully gets the Government of Malawi to expand access to rural health services.  In short, let’s stop talking about what America can do; let’s talk about what Martha can do, and how America can help her get it done.

Tom: In the initial blog post unveiling the aid campaign, on your web site, Jennifer Lentfer writes, “Aid need not be seen as the solution, but rather as one of many tools for those at the forefront of change to use.” What do you want people in the United States to understand about aid, from this campaign?

Gregory: We’ve got two major objectives we are trying to accomplish here. The first is specific and relatively straightforward.  It’s right there in our tag line: “Don’t cut aid; it’s working”.  The point is that our aid has a measurable impact on improving lives and fighting poverty and injustice. 

Our second objective is a little more complex. As mentioned before, we are trying to shift the debate by redefining who the protagonist is.  It’s not the aid dollars.  Aid is a tool.  Like any tool, its impact depends on who is wielding it.  Aid no more cures poverty than a hammer builds a house or a shovel digs a ditch.  PEOPLE do that; someone has to pick that hammer up and wield it artfully, and put force behind it.  And if your hammer isn’t useful to your carpenter—or if you’re standing over your carpenter’s shoulder, trying to direct how she swings the hammer—the house she builds won’t last long.

By putting our Effective Aid Heroes front and center as the protagonists of the development story, we are also trying to get people to invest intellectually in their success.  We hope that leads to a conversation about how the United States government invests tangibly—financially, technically and politically—in their success as well.

Tom: What does success look like? What’s next?

Gregory: Success first is avoiding cuts this year to US development assistance.  We want to first make sure the US does not pull the rug out from under our existing partners who are already relying on our support.  Over the medium to long term, we hope this leads to more thoughtful investment of US aid dollars, giving leaders in poor countries—activists, government officials, entrepreneurs—more influence, if not direct control, over how our aid gets invested.

USAID is already trying to do this.  They are working to change their approach to work more directly with local partners in the countries where they work—government officials, civil society leaders, journalists, and entrepreneurs.  But they are getting some political pushback from vested interests here in DC.  The ads are designed to help reframe the debate around who actually causes development to happen, and how we help those people—citizens and leaders in developing countries—get the tools to be more effective. 

 
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