This may sound unlikely, but I’ve just spent three days at an internal Oxfam meeting and I’m really enthused. The occasion was the first ever gathering of our ‘country directors’ following a big (and painful) internal overhaul, akin to swallowing a giraffe (in the memorable words of one director), which has seen all the different independent affiliates of Oxfam International (17 at the last count) pool their resources in each country in something known as the ‘Single Management Structure’ (SMS).
Most big international NGOs have been through similar restructurings in recent years, often opting for a tight federation that is in practice dominated by the larger members. Oxfam has opted for a looser ‘confederation’ that maintains the voice of smaller affiliates. The closest parallel is probably the EU, (OK not very encouraging right now, but pretty good over the longer term). Still awake?
The reason this matters is that it marks an essential step in improving our work in each country, and the country directors are increasingly being recognized as Oxfam’s key players, running new, expanded teams, doing a lot of high level advocacy with governments as we shift our focus more towards national level change (and relatively less on often-fruitless global summitry), and hopefully being more assertive in telling people in headquarters (like me) what to do.
And they’re an amazing, diverse and politically sharp group of people (see pic). The week has resembled a marathon of wonky speed dating, with ten minutes of expert insider buzz from Rwanda, Yemen, Tajikistan and Bolivia, and that’s just over dinner. I’ve got guest bloggers and case studies coming out of my ears. Beyond all these individual conversations, the overarching question of the meeting was ‘What do we want to be when we grow up?’ i.e. what comes after SMS? Here are some thoughts.
Once we’ve got the country programmes sorted out, the next phase should include identifying some cross-country initiatives, for example piloting new approaches, or doing comparative research (as we are already doing on the impact of food prices). We’re going to have to construct some kind of clearing house system/dating agency to allow country programmes to rapidly identify common issues and start work.
The country focus puts a premium on finding and keeping staff who are constantly monitoring and responding to their evolving political and social contexts. We need more of these ‘antennae’, and fewer heads-down project administrators grinding through the plan, whatever happens in the world outside.
It also means being aware that the constantly changing buzzwords of head office may not permeate to people in the field. If we want to be country-led, we need to stop bamboozling staff with new jargon. With the exception of ‘theories of change’ of course…… Lots of interest in how to do power analysis and improve our grasp of change processes, which bodes well for my next big project (a book on power and change).
In both advocacy and programming, we kept coming back to implementation gaps as the place where an NGO can have the most impact -situations were governments have passed laws, or created institutions, but nothing is happening. That often provides ideal bases for advocacy (after all, the government’s already halfway there) – research the gap, identify the blockers and get stuck in, or set up pilots to show how it can be done. Women’s rights and government decentralization processes provide particularly juicy targets.
Oxfam also wants to build a ‘worldwide influencing network’, but I don’t think we’ve fully incorporated an understanding of of complex systems into our thinking, which seems to be predicated on us knowing what needs to be done and getting out there and advocating for it – cue those shopping lists of recommendations at the end of every NGO report. That was always a bit dubious (are NGOs really best placed to reform global finance or carbon emissions?) but is even less convincing in complex systems where both the future and the impact of any given intervention is shrouded in uncertainty. So how can we do influencing when we don’t know what the response to an issue should be? Examples include highlighting the problems poor people face (going back to a more basic role of bearing witness/helping people communicate what is happening to them) or convening different groups of players to find solutions together, where we act more as a catalyst/match-maker than a policy maker. Any other suggestions?
The conversations were dotted with striking human stories: the Pakistani CD whose home village threw out the Taliban, and has been getting suicide bomb reprisals ever since; the humanitarian/emergency guru who went to the Nairobi slum of Mukuru and couldn’t believe his eyes - ‘worse than any refugee situation I’ve ever seen’, leading him to ask how the word ‘humanitarian’ somehow came to apply only to emergencies, not to alleviating permanent suffering; the engineer in Tajikistan who set up a ground-breaking forum to bring water to thousands of people, but then got made country director. When asked about his promotion, he replied wistfully ‘Honestly? I like water….’.
Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of coma-inducing NGO-speak (‘standing for sustainable transformative development will be very contested going forwards’ – a direct quote) but overall, this feels v exciting. Feels great to be talking more about ‘Oxfam’ rather than ‘Oxfam GB, Oxfam America, Oxfam India etc’. And for all those INGO watchers who want a real picture of what we’re up to (rather than academic parodies) here’s an excellent internal warts-and-all analysis of the most recent set of national ‘Joint Country Analysis and Strategy’ documents drawn up by each newly SMS-d country. It’s written for an internal audience, so a bit jargony, but I would argue all the more valuable for not being packaged for public consumption.