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

November 22, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

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

November 22, 2018
Duncan Green