Development NGOs must rethink their strategy says Oxfam adviser
2018-07-01 13:13:22 -

By Finn Hoogensen

Irish-based mission organisation Misean Cara welcomed Oxfam’s Duncan Green as a guest speaker at their recent AGM.

Green, a senior strategic adviser for Oxfam GB, gave a talk arguing the need for aid organisations to rethink their strategic approach to solving problems around the world.


Much of Green’s discussion was based from ideas in his book How Change Happens, which details his observations of patterns that have led to positive development and social changes.


“I think we have a big problem in the aid sector and the social change sector,” Green said. The problem, he argues, is that many aid and development organisations use inefficient approaches to address the world’s problems.


In the aid sector, to receive funding for a project, an organisation often must create a strategic proposal and is expected to closely follow the strategy to produce the desired outcome. Green calls this approach the ‘cake model’ and says it is inefficient because it uses a standard ‘recipe’ with ‘ingredients’ or essentially a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling problems.


“The cake model of project planning is completely unsuitable to most real-life situations. And I think that’s at the heart with some of the problems with aid,” Green said. “Everywhere is different and a problem has its own history, so you have to be very wary to [take] the best practice in Tanzania and take it to Honduras because actually the context is different and it probably won’t work.”


Green said it is important to understand the cultural and political contexts which make one place different from another, and therefore make one problem different from another. This contextual understanding should inform an organisation’s strategic approach and allow for adaptability when opportunities for change present themselves.


“Increasingly, what the aid business and the aid funders are looking for is proof that you are learning and adapting and improving and changing as you go. I think that is a much more systems compatible way of working,” Green said.


Related to problems in the aid sector, Oxfam has been dealing with the fallout from a sexual misconduct scandal earlier this year. The Times in the UK reported that Oxfam workers hired prostitutes while working in Haiti following the earthquake in 2010. Earlier this month, Haiti’s government officially banned Oxfam GB from working in the country.


Green did not address the scandal in his talk but responded through email when asked how it relates to the ideas he discussed.


“One of the lessons of living and working in messy, complex systems is to expect surprises and shocks, and to see them also as moments of change. Oxfam is obviously reacting to the sexual abuse scandal to overhaul its safeguarding procedures,” he said.


Green mentioned that since 2011, Oxfam has established a whistle-blowing hotline and a dedicated safeguarding team to prevent harassment and abuse.


“From my point of view, it is also a moment to revisit the traditional model for big international NGOs and ask whether it’s time for a shake-up and what that may entail – for example, moving power and resources closer to the ground. I’m talking to people in Oxfam about that,” Green said.


“The aim is to learn from the lessons of the past, and to act now to ensure Oxfam really is doing everything in its power to protect the people we come into contact with around the world.”

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