My first year as Oxfam’s head of research (and I may have a job for you)

June 20, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam’s not-quite-so-new head of research, Ricardo Fuentes, reflects on what he’s got himself into, and plugs a new job in his team. Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva

It’s been a year and few days since I joined Oxfam GB as Head of Research. People inside and outside the organization still call me the “new Duncan”. I have even started to introduce myself like that – I wonder if Duncan has ever been called “the old Ricardo”.  I’ve never asked him. Anyway, it’s a good time for a quick reflection and a pitch.

Before joining Oxfam, I had spent most of my career working for different international organizations (the IDB, The World Bank and the UNDP) and Mexico’s national government. This is my first experience in NGO-land. Over the course of the year, plenty of people asked me, why did you move from the comforts of international bureaucracy and an exciting life in New York?

My usual response is that my predecessors Kevin Watkins (my former boss in the UNDP’s Human Development Report Office) and Duncan have made the position a very high profile one. That is indeed something that attracted – and in many ways, intimidated and humbled – me. But there is more. The opportunity to speak your mind – much harder to do in the UN- coupled with a powerful vision is a huge pull. And from a research point of view, you are sitting on a gold mine – many researchers would kill for the chance to systematize the learning from Oxfam’s experience working in a large number of countries and use this to change and influence the organization and external audiences.

Oxfam is a flexible, malleable and ever-changing organization. It’s also messy and rather informal. It can be chaotic. The reporting lines and responsibilities of specific projects are often unclear. One has to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy figuring out who needs to be involved in any given decision. That can be frustrating but it also means the organization is open to change and new ideas if you are patient. As a colleague recently told me: working for Oxfam is easy, you just have to ask two questions: is this problem/injustice true? How can I help change it?

On a personal note, I’ve certainly enjoyed participating in public debates, representing Oxfam’s intellectual views in different venues and writing these blog posts. And it is definitely rewarding to outline a vision for the use of research and evidence in such an important organization and then making it happen. It’s what some people call agency and empowerment (though obviously not about income).

The comparative advantage of the Research Team within Oxfam is the use and collection of evidence and data. Our purpose is to use this evidence to inform and influence our campaigning and programmatic work and participate in the external debates on development issues. Take the discussion on income inequality, for instance. Over the last year I was able to focus on the indignity of rising income concentration – and how this process rigs political and social systems around the world. I’ve written different pieces about the trends and consequences of income inequality (here, here, here and here). Last week I attended the G20 Civil Summit in Moscow to present a brief chapter I wrote for the meeting and colleagues from different civil society groups and academia presented the recommendations to President Vladimir Putin to make sure inequality stays on the G20 agenda. Small steps given the size and complexity of the problem, but steps nonetheless.

happiness v researchersOn the programmatic work, Oxfam has started a series of “effectiveness reviews” to identify the impact of our projects. My former colleague Karl Hughes has explained them at length. Here’s a quick summary of the “ambitious plan of ‘randomly selecting and then evaluating, using relatively rigorous methods by NGO standards, 40-ish mature interventions in various thematic areas’. The results of these reviews are mixed (and I was very impressed that the organization decided to make them all public).

The effectiveness reviews gives us a sense of whether a project had the intended impact or not, but not the causes. We are working on that front right now. We are piloting a follow-up study about a disaster risk reduction project in Pakistan and will share our understanding of why this particular project had positive results. Research is pretty small beer in the NGOs (our team has 5 staff in Oxford and a small group of regional and country researchers around the world), so to increase our influence and reach, we need to partner with academic organizations. We recently published the first year report of a long term research project on the impact of changing food prices in the lives of people. This project is conducted with the Institute of Development Studies and financed by the UK Government. We are in the process of creating more partnerships of this sort, especially in the context of food security in a changing climate.

Now, if you thought I was only musing over my time in Oxford, think again. This is also a pitch for prospective job applicants. Our dear and influential colleague Kate Raworth has decided to move to greener pastures and explore her important work on building a safe and just space for humanity. This creates a big hole in the policy research team that we hope to fill with the best possible candidate. I hope this post has given you a better sense of what being part of the research team involves. Apply here before end of Monday June 24th if you are empirically minded, have substantial experience in policy research and share Oxfam’s values. The job opening is a great opportunity (would I say otherwise?). A year on, I am very happy with my decision to join Oxfam. I miss the excitement of New York and I miss the diversity of international colleagues but I don’t miss the comforts of international bureaucracy. I will not lie about the English weather though…

You can follow Ricardo on twitter on @rivefuentes.

June 20, 2013
Duncan Green