Engineering change at Oxfam

Uganda’s first female aeronautical engineer, Winnie Byanyima became executive director of Oxfam International in April 2013. According to Byanyima, her background as aeronautical engineer helped her develop strong analytical skills.

Prior to taking up her current role, she served as director of the UN

Program’s gender team and previously headed the African Union’s Directorate of Women, Gender and Development.

As an engineer, Byanyima is used to working in the “paradigm of optimization” and is adamant that a new roadmap will help make the organization both more efficient and effective. Indeed, she is confident that, under her stewardship, the implementation of a series of reforms will help the international NGO in its work to support active citizenship, fight poverty and tackle inequality.

Three months into the job, Devex caught up with Byanyima on a trip to Brussels to discuss Oxfam’s first confederation-wide strategic plan, the rollout of its single management structure and an ambitious set of “change goals” to counter poverty and inequality.

Here are some excerpts of our conversation with the new head of Oxfam International:

Oxfam has begun to implement changes to improve coordination among its affiliates and streamline relations with partners on the ground. What has this meant in terms of the effectiveness of day-to-day operations?

As you know, we’ve recently come out with our new strategic plan. It’s an exciting plan … that brings us all together behind the same development objectives. In the past, each affiliate had its own strategic plan, but for the first time the 17 affiliates sat together, listened to partners in the field, looked at how the world is changing — including the development challenges in the medium term — and came up with one plan. … We have some ambitious development goals and we define how Oxfam would contribute to fighting the injustice of poverty.

Now, the next question is how we align our resources — our people — in the most rational way to achieve the highest impact, to achieve these ambitious goals.

And how do you plan to do that?

In that regard, we continued to study how poverty itself is changing and shifting in terms of geography. We saw clearly that in the past 20 years, poverty has shifted from the low income countries to the middle income countries. There are more poor people in countries that have become rich in the last 20 years. India alone has twice as many poor people as the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, whose countries are climbing out of poverty and becoming middle income. So this informs how and where we will fight poverty.

Secondly, we looked at how power is shifting and how that is affecting global economic and political governance. Can we get decisions out of the United Nations? Look at the stalemate on climate change negotiations — the world is heating up, but we’re not anywhere near close to a treaty. So we ask ourselves, “Where should we put our big voice?” Should we remain campaigning at the doors of the UN, which has become paralyzed because power is misaligned? Or should we find other ways of influencing other centers of power?

So we’ve been looking at how we work, in order to achieve these objectives. Our analysis of how the world is changing tells us that we can’t continue doing development in the old way. And this is informing our own internal change process — or re-organization — to be able to deliver impact. …

For example, what we call our single management structure is a process where we are looking at how we deploy ourselves in the countries where we choose to intervene. So while in the past each [affiliate] organized separately to achieve its results, increasingly we now sit together … to plan and set up one team together: We have a joint program, we have an integrated team, we have one team leader and we deliver stronger impact together.

So communication is streamlined and decision-making more centralized?

At Oxfam, we don’t talk about centralizing, because we are a confederation. We are 17 autonomous organizations working together as a collective with our partners in other countries to fight global poverty. So what we have is a more cohesive approach and a more nimble, flexible team on the ground to deliver the strongest impact that we can achieve. So we’re not centralizing … but rather coming together more and coordinating our efforts better.

Cutting down on the duplication of efforts?

We have what we call our “change goals” — whether supporting active citizenship or the fair sharing of natural resources — and under each goal we come together and we agree who is going to do what. … We cut out a duplication but we also deal with gaps and we say “Where are the gaps? Is this funded? Is there anyone who is going to be doing or funding this?” just to make sure that we achieve all the objectives that we have put in our strategic plan.

So achieving better coverage while also streamlining your own internal operations?

Yes, absolutely. Our internal reform is really about collaborating more closely and collaborating better in order to achieve the highest impact. But we remain autonomous organizations that have come together as a confederation.

As an aeronautical engineer, are there any aspects of your former career that you bring to the table at Oxfam — does this help with the “nuts and bolts” of restructuring an international NGO?

I think what I get from my engineering background definitely is strong analytical skills. Being an engineer, you always think in the paradigm of optimization, you always think about what is the most effective or efficient way of doing things. What is the right sequencing that will help me achieve the best result? You never think in pure terms. Technology is not about pure science, but about applied science to find solutions for society. So I’m always approaching problems from that analytical perspective of what are the best arrangements to achieve the best result.

So helping Oxfam to “fly high?”

Well, the jury’s still out! I’ve just started and I’m hoping that yes, I’ll make a contribution to this really great and renowned organization to support it in the achievement of its strategic plan. I hope I’ll be able to deliver.

Some commentators observe that civil society is growing stronger, people are communicating more via social media and information has never been so widely available. What effects does such a phenomenon have on your work, for example when campaigning?

Well, I beg to differ. I don’t think civil society is becoming stronger. Yes, there was a time in the last 20 years that this sector expanded, but what we are seeing now is really a push-back against civil society and we’re seeing a closing of civil society spaces. … We’re seeing more and more countries coming out with laws to regulate the activities of civil society and to narrow the space for challenging governments and corporations. … But it’s true that social media gave us new opportunities and we are trying to harness these at Oxfam.

Digital campaigning is one of the new ways in which we can extend our voice and influence. But we have to be careful that we don’t see technological tools as an end in themselves, or as a panacea for influencing. The traditional ways of influencing will remain very important.

But I must say, that even with those new tools we have seen governments waking up and trying to find ways to control the use of the Internet. Also, the use of technological tools should not lead to a very passive kind of activism, where people just use a finger to tap on something and sign a petition but are not willing to stand up and be counted.

The new tools are giving us new opportunities for communicating, fundraising and campaigning, but traditional forms of campaigning will remain.

And that means face-to-face in the field through your affiliates?

Oxfam sees itself as a global network. Whatever tools we have at our disposal [among] the affiliates, we put at the disposal of our partners in the developing countries.

What challenges does the emergence of the so-called “new bottom billion” pose for international NGOs that depend on public donations?

There are two different issues here. One is that increasingly the old model of mobilizing resources in the north to solve problems in the south is becoming irrelevant. The issue is about addressing inequality wherever it exists, because inequality is what is hurting growth, efforts at sustainability, rolling back the gains we were making in terms of fighting poverty. So addressing inequality means working in India with Indian resources, [because] it’s not a poor country.

It’s about helping poor people to claim their resources, to push their governments and corporations to do the right thing for people living in poverty. … The same if you’re living in Kenya, a low income country a few years ago, that is almost becoming middle income. So it’s not a question of looking for resources elsewhere to bring to Kenya; it is about supporting Kenyan people to claim their own resources, to pay their fair share of taxes and to claim the services they need for themselves — education, health, the creation of jobs — to support them to exercise their citizenship rights.

This is a different way of supporting and fighting poverty and inequality. And that’s why we’re also changing ourselves, re-tooling ourselves and fighting inequality by supporting active citizenship.

And also advocacy for good governance?

Active citizenship is precisely that. It is calling for good governance, for democratic, accountable, inclusive governance. … That’s why you see that in our strategic plan that the first two change goals are active citizenship and gender equality. We are a rights-based organization and we know that whether we’re working on issues of sustainability, fair sharing of natural resources, or pushing for the provision of basic services for poor people. But ultimately, it’s about people themselves claiming their rights. And our strategic plan is really about this issue.

Are you encountering resistance to change from governments in countries such as China or India?

Not really, you see these countries have a very strong left-wing political tradition. So the political discourse is very much pro-poor, but you do get huge inequalities in those countries. So at the political level you may find that our message is not actually so contentious. But when we start challenging and asking that the policies translate into actions that are pro-poor and address inequality, then you get into a difficult area. For us, it is not our role to take on a contest in a country, but to empower our partners in that country to take it on themselves because inequality will not go away by just saying “please,” but by serious struggle.

So we empower people to take some risks, to challenge their governments and corporations and to bring them to account.

So it’s your job to open the door?

No, we don’t open that door, we support and give power from behind and they lead their own struggles. That’s what we do.

Originally published by Devex, 19 July 2013

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