Can Oxfam do the Doughnut? A conversation with Kate Raworth

June 21, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Kate Raworth came in last week to present her new book, Doughnut Economics (see my earlier review here or SimonDoughnut Economics cover Maxwell’s thoughtful summary/critique) and discuss its implications for Oxfam. After writing the initial DE paper while still at Oxfam back in 2012, Kate left to turn it into a book, so there was a definite air of the prodigal daughter returns.

Given that I’ve already reviewed the book, I’ll concentrate on a few of the highlights from a wide-ranging brainstorm on its implications for Oxfam. Although we have done quite a bit already – see our Human Economy paper for Davos, the Humankind Index and efforts to take the doughnut to national level in Wales, Scotland and South Africa – Kate’s book goes deep into a broad critique of traditional economics, and the discussion followed suit:

How do you work on the Commons? Kate argues that we need to get away from the 20th Century state v market Punch and Judy show and think about the Commons, a la Elinor Ostrom. I think I get what she’s on about, but would like to talk and think further about how an INGO ‘does’ the Commons. There’s clearly a role for shifting norms, whether by celebrating resources held in common (land, ideas, knowledge, maybe even wisdom and solidarity), pushing for new kinds of commons like Open Access (are you listening ODI?) and opposing their further enclosure or destruction.

I suspect there’s also an element of rediscovery – while Oxfam HQ (especially in advocacy) may frame things in terms of states v markets (and how campaigners influence both), a lot of our field staff and partners are already there on the central importance of the Commons on issues like access to land. But what else?

The What v The How: Kate’s book is unabashedly a Big Vision book. She sets out a bright, convincing and fundamentally optimistic view of how the world could/should be. In my review I asked ‘where’s the theory of change?’ and lots of the questions at Oxfam were about how can you get from a → b, who were the drivers and blockers of change, what to do about financial capital etc etc. Kate’s response was very honest: ‘books that set out the big vision don’t usually tell you how to get there’, because the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ tend to attract different minds. I realized that I’m definitely a How person (see Brian Levy’s review of How Change Happens), and I really would like to see a theory of change/action for how DE might actually come about, but that’s not the job of Kate or her book. Fair enough.

new improved DoughnutAs far as a theory of change goes, Kate is a natural friend of positive deviance – she identifies legions of exciting outlier experiments in new economics that illustrate her big themes and her book seems to be inspiring further experimentation popping up in local councils and other places. Another approach would be deliberate seeding – Oxfam spends some money funding a bunch of DE-based experiments and sees what works. The least attractive action (Kate is big on systems thinking) would be traditional and linear – we decide on the best project in advance, then fund it.

The Dark Side: Asked what of the many conversations had caused her to go back and question herself, Kate said it

But what about optimism of the intellect?

But what about optimism of the intellect?

was the dark side. What if instead of the 21st century question being ‘how do we get into the doughnut’, the 21st century reality is now inevitably outside of the doughnut: what then is the fate/aim for humanity? I would add to that her instinctive preference for a single human ‘we’ – not in the sense that people are all the same, but in the assumption that humanity wants to find collective solutions to problems. What if there is no ‘we’, and millions of people are condemned to be sacrificed to an unsustainable economic model? How should progressives respond to that nastier reality? Clear parallels with David Kennedy’s critique of How Change Happens there.

Then there’s Kate herself and the whole question of ‘thought leadership’. What if she hadn’t left Oxfam? Would she have ever written the book or got her thinking as far as it is today? Interesting to compare our two trajectories. I stayed at Oxfam, she left. We both wrote books, but had to raise funding to enable us to do so – me from the Aussie Government, Kate from the Kendeda Fund. Should/could Oxfam be more deliberate about this, trying to spot and back future Kates either in our staff or our networks? Perhaps play the same role as the Kendeda Fund and support them for a year or two to capture the big idea, a bit like the MacArthur Genius Grant? Where would we find the money for such an effort?

Finally, when it comes to communications, is Oxfam big C or little c? Little c runs something like ‘write your paper, then roll out the comms – exec sum, infographics, maybe a youtube video’. Kate is an example of a different, big C, approach. Spend time (quite possibly a lot of it) shaping the narrative of your Big Idea – get the diagram or the strapline right, then test it and improve if necessary. Only when you’ve nailed that do you work outwards from the big idea, whether to text, visuals, video or whatever. Maybe we should change the way we generate ideas and materials to more consciously pursue Big C Comms.

Great stuff, and thanks to all the colleagues whose ideas and questions I have nicked for this post. Kate is going to keep helping us think through this stuff – can’t wait.