What might a 100% experimental Oxfam Country Programme look like?

Oxfam GB’s new boss, Danny Sriskandarajah, starts in the New Year, but is already talking to people inside and outside

Meet the new boss

the organization about what a ‘Nextfam’ could look like. Here’s some thoughts from a chat with him and David Bonbright earlier this week.

The problem: Experiments and innovation at the project level seldom spread beyond the bounds of the project. I’ve been banging on for years about things like multiple parallel experiments in Tanzania, but it hasn’t exactly lit a fire. New ideas seem to spread more easily through startups (GiveDirectly was partly inspired through our cash for coffins programme in Vietnam) and spin offs.

But what could we do to promote new practices within Oxfam? One option is to take the whole organization off down some new path, but innovation by its nature carries a higher risk of failure, so turning the whole of Oxfam into an innovation hub would carry unacceptably high risks. So instead, how about something in between the project and the world? A sandpit country programme, where everything is experimental/different from plain vanilla aid approaches.

Which country? Two options: a stable low or lower middle income country with relatively predictable politics and an active civil society (eg Malawi, Cambodia) or a fragile/conflict affected state (FCAS) like DRC. Arguments for the former: easier to experiment, lower risks (e.g. violence) attached to failure; arguments for the latter: FCAS are the future of aid – that’s where poor people will overwhelmingly live in the decades to come, as more stable countries grow their way out of poverty. What’s more, traditional aid approaches fail more often in FCAS, so donors and aid organizations are likely to be more open to new thinking.

How to get there? If we want to give the country the space to experiment, we will have to find enough unrestricted funding (not tied to specific projects) and spend time identifying a country director with the right instincts and drive, then let them appoint their team.

What kinds of experiments they decide to try would depend on context and skills, obviously, and an extended inception phase of listening and incubating ideas with local partners before designing a programme, but some possible ideas, which could cover the three main areas of long term development, humanitarian response and advocacy, include:

Should we insist on a nothing boring/standard rule – i.e. innovation only?

If this is going to influence the rest of Oxfam and beyond, we would need to invest in rigorous, credible research and learning. That could include

  • real time accompaniment, eg by an independent local or international researcher, to document the experiments, successes/failures, the changes in direction etc as they occur (things always get airbrushed in retrospect, so no good waiting til the programme ends)
  • Commitment to ongoing, independent feedback channels from both individual beneficiaries and local partner organizations, which are used to adapt/redesign the work. That would include both feedback on the programmes, but also the quality of the relationship with Oxfam.

At this point, someone normally says ‘oh, we’ve been doing that for 10 years’ – feel free, and send links.

Otherwise, what other new/innovative approaches belong in the sandpit? Over to you.

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20 Responses to “What might a 100% experimental Oxfam Country Programme look like?”
  1. Nice post Duncan but does the thinking still not look too structured? I am reminded of what Robert Chambers used to say “even the best of participatory methods are not really participatory simply because we cannot keep aside our agenda”.

    How about going into a place we have never worked in before?
    How about NOT labeling a country before going in?
    How about putting in a team with diverse skill-sets of which contextual knowledge is the key, and spending 2 years in just listening. Truly listening. To different voices, loud and soft?
    How about learning about what competence / approach might complement what already exists?
    How about then reflecting on what that could mean for any future Oxfam program?
    How about accepting with humility that Oxfam may not be needed?

    Possible to do?

    • Love this response – my thoughts ran along the same lines

      Why a country at all, labelled or otherwise….at a time when borders are problematic, fluid and impacting unequally on the movement of capital and people….and at a time when we recognise (if we didn’t before) that poverty is not the problem of a single state?

      Yes, and doing all the listening and learning that Makarand proposes – but maybe also building on OXFAM’s global reputation to hold key states and institutions accountable – so definitely moving beyond project programming and working with the usual suspects – but to really challenging the corporate capture and calling out those who are really responsible for fragility/conflict (talking Yemen for example)

      and moving away from ‘poverty’ in its conventional conceptualisation to addressing discrimination and disadvantage in all its multifarious forms

      I believe the world needs a very different kind of OXFAM…..

      • Duncan Green

        Thanks Priyanthi, to me that sounds less like a new Oxfam, more like deciding to put more of our eggs in an advocacy basket (which I think has a lot of merit), but these are activities we at least think we are already doing (eg on Yemen or gender rights)

        • I think more of your eggs in an advocacy basket, especially advocacy in the global north, will certainly help to alleviate some of the structural causes of poverty and inequality, especially if you challenge some of the basic premises of the development agenda and international aid.

          And investing more of OXFAM’s country level programming budgets into global south based soical movements and civil society organisations would also provide more resources for people to have their voices heard…

          Maybe it’s also worth checking your perception of OXFAM with that of your global south constituency…. i.e. doing more of that listening that Makarand was talking about…


          • Duncan Green

            Definitely on that last point Priyanthi – one of the participants in the chat, David Bonbright, runs Keystone Accountability (http://keystoneaccountability.org/) which does precisely that (independent and rigorous partner surveys) for Oxfam and a bunch of other INGOs, but we also need to listen and respond to the findings when we get them!

  2. Sachin Gupta, Team Leader, Institutions for Inclusive Development, Tanzania

    Another thought provoking post – thanks Duncan. I would advocate for a few different perspectives –
    1. Innovation vs Results – is a false dichotomy. The idea that you need lots of unrestricted funding to innovate translates into little accountability for results, which really just translates into your managers having an easy ride to spend a lot of time and money talking and listening and then at the end of it all turn around and say ‘Well we learned a lot, and look how open to failure we were . . .’ I think of the conscientious old grannies and young children fundraising for you on the streets of the UK and I think you owe them more than that for their unrestricted funding – perhaps more than the taxpayer dollars that come from donors. How do you think big organisations like Disney Apple or Pfizer are able to manage and deliver innovation, under the fierce glare of shareholders and stockmarkets – My strong feeling is you need too get a little more structured and organised – not just spend more time sitting around navel gazing.
    2. Long inception phases – on the subject of navel gazing … I also think you learn much more through early experimentation and trial and error through approaches like Lean which generate real data from experience (see my comment earlier this month) than long Inception periods of studying, listening and analysis paralysis. Instead of spending lots of time ‘listening’ (and hence empowering and privileging your own interpretation of their ‘local’ perspectives) – why not seed money to local actors and organisations to try things out for themselves and watch and learn and make design & investment decisions accordingly? Again, I’m thinking of all those grannies donating their few pennies to charities for Makarand to have the privilege of sitting around for 2 years (really?!) talking and listening to people.
    3. Taking a portfolio approach – I agree with Makarand that you can’t pre-determine and label countries – that seems a bit crude and simplistic. Surely within each country (and within each programme) there is scope for delivering impact through some more and some less certain methods, and investing in the frequency of feedback loops and adaptation accordingly.

    • Fair Challenge to the ‘2 years’ Sachin. I don’t want to quibble on the time period but I do think that understanding and listening is important. We don’t do enough of that. I the rush to ‘do things’ we end up becoming inefficient and sometimes ineffective to the point that the investment of 2 years starts to make sense after all.

      We are coming up from different angles at this, perhaps both are valid approaches. You seem to be favouring the more structured approach and me the organic, emergent one.

  3. Jane Lonsdale, Strategy & Impact Director, Oxfam Myanmar

    Thanks Duncan, exciting to imagine the possibilities!
    To add to the already helpful comments:
    Does it need to be an entire country programme to succeed? Or could it be a large component managed separately and then what succeeds goes into the fundraising machine? You know, like unrestricted should have been for when there was much more of it around…so translating that at a more replicable scale, countries get rewarded with additional funding if they are already cost recovering at high rates (proving that there is a capable team in place) – but its decent amounts for decent lengths of time (none of these 12 month 25-50K pots with high transaction costs).
    I’m not sure about the merits of turning up somewhere we have never worked to do this, precisely because it takes 2 years to build relationships and trust.
    I think aspects of the old Oxfam Novib model of freely funding a large number of civil society actors had some merit, but with significant improvements needed: the accompanied learning, the accountability (I agree those grannies on Oxford St deserve the best and accountability and experimentation are compatible), a robust and regular model of decision making about what is and isn’t working and culling off or adapting (Chukua Hatua style).
    In terms of content, an endless list, and if you define it in advance you’re already shaping the agenda (but of course country staff will always advocate for decentralisation). I would say though that aside from the actual programming, experimenting and encouraging innovation on internal culture and processes as well could be fruitful and help inform Nexfam. Its as much about how as what, starting with ourselves.
    If it goes anywhere, count me in 😉

    • Duncan Green

      Excellent points as always Jane, esp on the time it takes to build/earn trust and the how as well as the what. The reason for suggesting a whole country is the need to insulate it from outside pressures, while having enough size for cross fertilization between programmes. Do you think that would really be achievable at a sub country level?

      • Jane Lonsdale, Strategy & Impact Director, Oxfam Myanmar

        Thanks. Well if we’re not doing sub-country, and we’re not going into a new country because of the time it takes to build and earn trust, that leaves going into an existing one and running down the restricted commitments, which would take a couple of years anyway and doesn’t seem like a cost effective approach? Also how do we ever insulate from outside pressures? Experiment on Mars? They’d still track us down with endless sametime and whatsapp…
        I agree the size and the team is key, and addressing another comment on borders, how about go for a big scale unrestricted experimental project entrusted to a fairly autonomous team that starts in one country and can expand if and when it made sense. That way you could compare and contrast along a stable-fragile spectrum. There’s no getting away from the permissions needed from an existing country programme though. Maybe something like a sizeable standalone Pyoe Pin or Chukua Hatua funded directly by Oxfam where we get to (accountably) experiment without worrying about the latest donor policy or key contact’s whim. There would be some negotiating about how to run such a model alongside an existing country programme, you’d maybe need some kind of project director reporting into a steering committee that includes the country director(s) and others following the model.
        Naturally some research built in as well- but the key is keeping it light touch enough that the team could still get on with the job and didn’t feel they were being constantly watched in an experimentation lab. E.g. tel cons and video recordings between key stakeholders that HQ then works with rather than heavy papers led by the team.
        I agree with the idea of trying a move beyond the project, but we still need to demonstrate impact however we are doing the work, so the MEAL around a post-project world would be super interesting and need significant investment. Managing on risk matrices would be a good starting point.
        Sitting with Oxfam, it feels that we’ve got loads of different parts on content, approach, new ideas moving in the right direction but the constraints are huge (let me not rant). The prospect of having a go at bringing it all together to see what’s possible is very exciting. No pressure Duncan.

  4. Robin Stafford

    Good piece which i think picks up the points Id emphasise:

    Needs to have a ‘fast feedback’ approach where there is a deliberate and conscious effort to track whats working and whats not, adapting and changing the approach – maybe week to week, not year to year. That takes extra resource in itself which is rarely allocated. No good reviewing a year later…

    Need then to be sharing the results as widely as possible – cross country, cross organisation. Not something the sector is good at

    There are lots of situations where broadly repeating a proven approach is perfectly sensible, though the fast feedback should still be in there somewhere. As I think you suggest Duncan, you’d probably want a balanced portfolio of more and less experimental.

    There’s also a risk management aspect here. Whilst it might sound exciting to try everything different in the most challenging situations, that makes little sense from a risk management perspective. Fine sitting in HQ or academia but these are peoples lives…. Maybe better to experiment with a few variables at a time – or least do iit on a small scale in a ‘containable’ situation.

    And finally – I think Millenium Villages could be said to have tried everything at once… Not a brilliant case study though to be fair you could argue they tried multiple conventional approaches

  5. Tracey Martin

    How about letting local civil society lead in identifying and developing innovative ideas and Oxfam’s job is to provide the support they need to do this and then to implement/test them?

    • Penny Lawrence

      Nice post …exciting stuff – not sure one country programme would do much but inviting ideas, supporting collaborative ideas development across teams that connect to how they think Oxfam can reinvent its relevance sounds good – inviting idea givers to outline ‘what would it take to make it real’ too – (I also don’t think its about unrestricted as much as time and support…different ways of financing are more often part of the innovation…but this would need testing)
      This post came on the same day as the publication of the civil society futures report. Julia Unwin led 2 year Inquiry that i think Danny was involved in too- concluding with a kick up the bum for UK civil society inhttps://cdn.opendemocracy.net/civilsocietyfutures/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2018/11/Civil-Society-Futures__The-Story-of-Our-Future.pdf. It challenges much of UK civil society organisations relevance and says charities need to ‘Shift power, bridge divides and transform societies’ Much of what I’ve read so far is as true for INGOs as well as UK NGOs – we need to connect to what communities are feeling and doing more – to listen to the people we serve. There’s much happening that we can support – innovation already happening that we can connect to, amplify, or support scale up….

  6. sam

    Dear Duncan,

    I love this piece, and will certainly come back to it, as I am working on the same kind of issues, and too often, innovation is something we don’t manage to internalise in how we work. Also, the innovation craze puts a cetrain class of “usual suspects” in the drivers’ seat.

    However, as we get pushed and pushed into innovation… Perhaps the biggest innovation would be to do “classic” work. Things that were seen as important in the sixties:
    – Unionizing workers and farmers
    – Maintenance of infrastructure and of organizations.


  7. Selena Wang-Thomas

    The vision for a more experimental country program is welcome, and your list of possible experiments is really interesting (and I love the meme!). I also appreciate the “country” lens because I think there is so much room for innovation and improvement around more holistic system solutions, and there is often too much silo-ed work that doesn’t fully account for the interdependencies between sectors, projects, challenges, etc. And of course it takes time to build this systems-level understanding before diving into implementation and “results”.

    A big question for me is how to share the learnings from experimentation. In some ways we already have a bounty of good ideas, interesting innovations, and promising techno-economic solutions for many of the development challenges organizations like Oxfam are grappling with. What will these experiments have to show and communicate, or show and communicate differently, that will compel other country programs and other organizations to actually change they way they go about their own business in a meaningful way?