To aid or not to aid? That is the question.

Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, health this piece is by Nathaniel Ware, and an MBA student and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford.

Almost everyone – from the academic economist to the youth activist to the local grocery-store worker – has a view on development aid. Should we give aid? If so, how much? What form should it take? These questions often prompt strong, passionate responses. A point illustrated during the panel discussion on ‘Reengineering Aid for the 21st Century’ at the Skoll World Forum.

Some may question the objectivity of having a discussion on the merits of aid at a conference celebrating a non-aid way to achieve social progress. However, this ignores the real point of the panel discussion. It was not simply about judging whether aid is good or bad (although that certainly crept into the discussion) but more about applying the social entrepreneur mindset, with a focus on innovation and sustainable social impact, to the problem of aid.

No time was wasted in pointing out problems with the status quo. Andrew Mwenda (@AndrewMwenda) from Independent Publications made the case that aid is predominantly not given for altruistic reasons but out of self-interest. Bunker Roy, the Founder of Barefoot College, said that that “the sorry sorry part of aid is that it always comes with strings attached… for every dollar you get, you get $10 of headache.” Paul Boateng, Director of Akyem Law and Advisory Services, argued that the Millennium Development Goals have reinforced an unhelpful one-size-fits-all welfarist approach to aid. Economist Dambisa Moyo (@dambisamoyo) was the most critical of aid, saying, “Africa is achieving progress not due to aid but in spite of aid… it has to be phased out.” She also suggested that the space for democracy is restricted if the donor community does all the public sector delivery. Many people on the panel also argued that aid is predominantly not given for altruistic reasons but out of self-interest. The list of key criticisms could go on. As Dambisa joked, “it’s just so easy to criticize aid.”

The discussion then progressed from the easy task of pointing out problems to the harder task of finding solutions.

It was argued that changes are needed in the following areas:

–       The discourse on Africa: Andrew Mwenda claimed that the story of Africa needs to change from one of poverty reduction to one of wealth creation. This would improve Africa’s reputation and hopefully improve Western confidence in the region. Dambisa Moyo echoed the same point, arguing that the most transformational action Bill Gates could take would be to establish a major Microsoft Office in Africa.

–       The existence of an exit strategy: Maura O’Neill (Chief Innovation Officer of USAID) pointed out that most donors don’t have an exit strategy, but that one is necessary. We should think about the conditions that would make aid unnecessary and work to achieve these immediate goals. Aid should only be given if giving it in the short-term makes it unnecessary in the long-term.

–       The top-down approach: According to Bunker Roy, the biggest mistake people make is thinking that development can occur top-down. This is because top-down models make corruption more likely and transparency more difficult.

–       Attitudes towards risk: Governments and foundations are under pressure to guarantee a social return to tax-paying citizens and donors respectively.  As such, they often shy away from risk taking. Aid rarely goes to innovators. It was suggested that we need to embrace trial and error in aid in the same way we do with start-up businesses.

–       The duration of interventions: Dambisa Moyo argued that many interventions are long-term, which can lead to the distortion of public policy incentives and reliance by governments on donors. Short, sharp, finite interventions are better.

–       The priorities of donors: According to Paul Boateng, many donors have an obsession with working with the state while at the same time not building up the state. The building of institutions, including tax systems and legal systems that protect intellectual property, is not the first thing people think of when they think of aid, but it probably should be.

–       Asking the obvious questions: Many people on the panel pointed out that we often don’t ask the obvious questions. Dambisa Moyo stressed that we need to ask ourselves “What is the purpose of aid?” while Paul Boateng encouraged philanthropists to ask aid recipients “What are your priorities?” Obvious questions that may lead to unobvious answers.

To aid or not to aid? Insofar as there was consensus among panel members, the answer seems to be “to aid” but an aid that resembles the current model in name only.

This is a guest post by Nathaniel Ware, an MBA student and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford.

Water water everywhere

Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, this piece is by Sabre Collier, an MBA student and Skoll Scholar at the University of Oxford.

Before business school, I spent a fair amount of time in Angola, a country that is very close to my heart.  It is a beautiful, fascinating country where the air is infused with music and  crackles with potential.  It’s complex, oil wealth has virtually doubled per capita GDP in a decade  and yet  the country also has some of the lowest human development indicators in the world.  In Angola, nearly 1 out 6 children die before the age of 6 due to waterborne illnesses.

Can you imagine having 6 children and knowing one would likely die prematurely just because of something as simple as water??

At the Skoll World Forum, I went looking for answers at the panel session entitled Water, Water Everywhere.  Moderated by Gary White of, the panel featured Greg allgood (children’s safe drinking water, proctor and gamble), Phil Falcone ( harbinger capital), Sylvia lee ( Skoll global threats fund) and Luis Montoya (PepsiCo).

It may seem ironic to have two of the worlds biggest corporations in such a discussion but actually, I learned that PepsiCo and Proctor and Gamble are quietly among the major changemakers in this space.  For example, P&G collaborated with the CDC to create a municpal water treatment system in a packet, also known as the P&G packet- it combines a coagulant with disinfectant and reduces  diarrheal illness by about half.  Today, it distributes 120 mm packets a year,  thus providing 6bn liters of clean drinking water to vulnerable populations.

Likewise, given that agriculture comprises as much as 70-90% in developing countries, PepsiCo is working with smallholder farmers and cooperatives across its global supply chains to figure out to contribute to more efficient applications.  By the way, that means thousands of farmers, millions of liters of water and millions of dollars.

Still, I was searching for the business model that could provide safe water and make a financial return, without relying on government intervention. Phil Falcone mentioned that Harbinger had an Investee that generates water in places without a natural source by withdrawing humidity from the air.  Alas, I do not think this business model will be as relevant to places like Angola or Mozambique.
Because of these kinds of multilayered contingencies, Sylvia  Lee of the Skoll Global Threats Fund made the point that its unreasonable to expect this from government.  But I will keep hoping for a social enterprise model.

This is a guest post by Sabre Collier, an MBA student an Skoll Scholar at the University of Oxford.

Mapping: An Ancient Practice of Explorers Or A Modern Tool For Changemakers?

Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, ampoule this piece is by Meagan Johnson, store an MBA student at the University of Oxford.

Disruption, the theme of the 10th anniversary of the Skoll World Forum, can manifest itself differently and occur across many different ecosystems, but the common outcome is that the larger system or paradigm that we are all apart of, and accept as true, becomes untrue in some way, shape, or form.  If we are to take the view that no system is true, but rather that we are a part of a flow, we should then be able to choose a system that will nurture innovation and help to achieve a higher purpose.  How do we disrupt a system in order to move in this direction?

Richard Jefferson, innovation systems strategist and founder of Cambia, uses the history of cartography as an example of how to dismantle this dilemma.  When Portuguese maps were published in 1596, they served in de-risking the system of trade by becoming a global public good rather than private and this led to a massive investment in seafaring and mapping technologies that changed the system altogether.  Today, we are increasingly concerned with the trade of ideas and innovations rather than physical goods, but the system has never been so complex and interconnected.  Small disruptions can create large shocks and a cascade of unintended consequences if the wrong levers are pulled.  Where can we, as ‘changemakers’, intervene in the system? What are the right levers to pull?

Marshall Clemens, Principal at Idiagram and guest speaker at the Forum’s session on “Mapping Systems: A Key Steps Towards Driving Systems Change”, argues that the intervention is in fact the design of the system itself.  In keeping with Jefferson’s view, he encourages people and organizations to build maps to use as a tool to generate an effective conversation and understand the leverage points – the people and processes that make the system tick – in order to devise a multi-dimensional strategy to address its’ problems and define a new truth.  In essence, both Clemens and Jefferson promote the use of a visual tool, an artefact, which can serve in de-risking the unknown by providing a common vision as well as a more simplified understanding of the intersection of networks in the complex system.

For fellow panelist Gary Cohen, President of Health Care Without Harm, the map was created over the course of his journey rather than as an initial guiding tool.  Cohen acknowledged that he would have certainly arrived at pivotal outcomes sooner if he had better understood the lay of the land before embarking on this journey. However, the ‘learn by doing’ approach allowed him to create a mental map of the US healthcare system, in which he had no formal training, and use it to navigate foreign seas and discover new territory in the European healthcare system and eventually disrupt the global system, winning a global ban on mercury, a leading and preventable cause of harm within the industry.

The third and final panelist, Sarah Stevern, Senior Director of Stakeholder Mobilization at Nike Inc, provided examples of compelling visual maps created in collaboration with Greenpeace and select partners within the footwear and apparel industry designed to help solve the problem of hazardous chemicals in global supply chains.  By recognizing the interconnectedness of the system and acknowledging that elements such as production facilities are shared by many other brands, they were able to bring organizations together to create a coalition and nurture the concept of transparency.  By bringing policy makers, NGOs, media, business and even chemical companies into the map making process, we will hopefully start to see the open access mapping we did in 1596 with Portuguese cartography and, thus, experience the same level of disruption.

The map is a visual artefact that allows people to come together, have a conversation, share, learn and collaboratively identify the right levers to pull and the right people to initiate change. It is a tangible tool that can be replicated and scaled and, most importantly, provides a shared vision, a ‘social fiction’ as Muhammed Yunus would say, used to mobilize people and support champions that want to create systems change.  Map making should not be seen as the ancient practice of explorers, but rather as the modern tool for architects and designers of future systems, which breed open innovation and propagate greater social and environmental good.

This is a guest post by Meagan Johnson, an MBA student at the University of Oxford.

How Evaluation Can Make you Brilliant

Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, cheap this piece is by “Nicki” Carolyn Ashcroft, sickness an MBA student at the University of Oxford.

“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Caroline Fiennes, the Director of Giving Evidence, a consultancy and campaign promoting evidence-based giving, shared this quote as an illustration of how evaluating impact can be easily led astray. Measurement should lead to improved outcomes and show organizations where they can do better, but too often it turns into a box ticking exercise, done only to keep funders happy.

In the best case, however, evaluation allows organizations to invest in the most effective interventions. As Caroline emphasized, the beneficiaries of programs suffer directly from ineffective interventions. If your work could have prevented 700 cases of diarrhea, but instead you choose an intervention that only helps 300 people, you have failed 400 people. You may never see those 400 people, your donors might even consider your work to be successful, but better measurement would have saved more lives. Caroline’s sense of urgency was contagious. At one point, she asked the room how many people knew of programs that had been stopped because they weren’t having the intended impact – the lack of hands was extremely telling.

Throughout the session, we discussed the failures of the industry. Groups are unwilling to publish their results, either because bad results might jeopardize future funding or because good results might lead people to think that the problem is solved and jeopardize their funding. Lack of publication wastes organizations time and resources; without published date, they are forced to independently research outcomes or worse, choose less effective interventions.

The session also included an interactive portion that highlighted some of the problems that sometimes get glossed over when people talk about evaluation. We discussed four important questions:

What if n = 1 so there’s no control group?

What if it’s an innovative idea with no existing research?

Who should gather the data? Which data? Why?

What are the obvious problems with charity-generated data?

Should measurement and/or evaluation be proportional to the size of the organization or the grant?

Clearly, these were questions that people in the audience wrestle with regularly. There are no easy answers, or indeed, any answers to most of these. I found the question of data collection particularly interesting, because it ties directly back to Caroline’s framework for impact.

Impact = idea x implementation

Ideas can be evaluated using academic research. For example, researchers have studied whether giving kids breakfast helps education. Because the question has been studied, the organization proposing to provide breakfast should haven’t to re-prove the point – that is not their strength. Implementation concerns the logistics of the program – how many kids get breakfast, what do they eat, etc. In this case, the group should evaluate their implementation to make sure that they are meeting their goals, but they don’t necessarily need to evaluate their outcomes because the link between breakfast and education has been sufficiently explored.

Too often, groups are expected to prove outcomes for every piece of work. Sometimes, there is a reason for that – interventions that work in one location might fail in another – and sometimes organizations or funders are simply unaware of previous work.

I left the room newly aware of the complexity of evaluation and also heartened by the intelligence of both the speakers and participants.

This was a guest post by “Nicki” Carolyn Ashcroft, an MBA student at the University of Oxford.


Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, sick this piece is by Shauna Monkman, remedy a DPhil student at the University of Oxford.

Einstein once remarked, “Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler.” How do you do this in complex adaptive systems? By their very definition, they have multiple, interconnected levels and scales.  Actors across all levels and scales of such systems possess different perspectives, values, and interests regarding what is true, what is needed, what is right and what constitutes ‘a solution’.  Further, these perspectives and views are context-dependent and in constant flux.  As a result, complex adaptive systems are characterized by deep uncertainty.  Even for Einstein, full knowledge of these systems is therefore impossible.  Yet complexity, as Richard Jefferson reminded me on a street corner in Oxford this Friday, does not mean ‘complicated’.

Certainly, determining a precise recipe for understanding and managing complex systems is an unachievable grail quest.  Nevertheless, key ingredients -or levers – are discernible in systems.  For example, multi stakeholder engagement across all scales and dimensions of a system is known to be essential to system building.  This lever was discussed during Friday’s panel: ‘Can It Be Replicated? A Look at Rwanda’s Development Gains in Context.’ The panel discussion highlighted how the rights of the poor and vulnerable are linked to the broader issue of how to improve cross-system, multi-stakeholder engagement.  The context for this conversation was the role of human rights in state building.

Addressing Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, moderator Matthew Bishop of The Economist asked, “To what extent, given your history, do you think we should stress human rights more?”  Robinson replied, “It becomes more and more important to realize that it’s not just about tackling corruption, but about having a vibrant civil society.”  Dr. Paul Farmer, co-Founder of Partners in Health and Harvard University Professor added, “Civil society is often code for non poor people. It means people like me and you and human rights groups.”  Tying these comments back to Rwanda and her experiences as Minister of Health for the Government of Rwanda, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho stated, “To build civil society is about community, so that [Rwandan citizens] can be leaders in community health.  Giving a voice to the population, and building a civil society is [very important] to me.  [Rwandans] know their problems better than me.”

Too often, however, the voices of the poor are left out of dialogues regarding their needs and futures.  The potential of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) tools to transparently engage disenfranchised groups, such as the poor, in participatory multi stakeholder dialogues regarding complex social issues represents one hope for more inclusive governance.  Paul Farmer emphasized the importance of ICT as a bridging mechanism stating, “Go out and listen to what [the poor are] saying.  In my experience they’re only too happy to talk about their problems.   The mediation between the poor and the world is probably going to get better because of information technologies.”  Dr. Farmer’s statement was interesting given his rather florid record of public statements attesting his personal aversion to digital media.  His statement Friday was the first time I had heard him publicly acknowledge the potential and importance of ICT as a means of equitable and accountable system governance.

My entire professional career has taken place in the digital media industry.  An early proponent of the Internet in the 1990s, I swam delightedly in the gold rush that was the heyday of the early digital swell.  Post-bubble I chose to weather the simultaneous contraction in investment and confidence in the industry.  I remained upbeat about the potential of ICT and wanted continue to be a part of what I perceived as an ‘Information Revolution’.  It was a naysayer-rich time.  Family members loudly lamented that they had paid for college.  One of my bosses, after hiring me to run the digital side of his business, went so far as to say ‘make it go away’.  ‘It’ was ‘The Internet.’  These days he blogs and Tweets more than I do.   Although perhaps puerile, I feel gratified.

Today, I remain a staunch advocate of ICT and digital media, and the power of these mediums to positively impact our world.  This optimism is not, however, devoid of caveats learned from hard knocks and deflated experience. Despite the tremendous potential for ICT to promote and safeguard an equitable civil society, time has shown the Digital Divide to be real and formidable.  Much heralded movements such as MoveOn.Org, the ‘Mobile Phone Revolution’ in the Philippines, and the Arab Spring obscure hard facts and figures regarding equality online.  Overall, digital media has entrenched elite power structures, and enhanced socio economic divides.  In the online world, there is a big difference between who is seen online versus who is heard.  For example, top political bloggers in the United States are overwhelmingly white, male, and educated at elite institutions.  As a cohort, they hold more PhDs than top op-ed columnists in major U.S. newspapers (Hindman, 2009).

In recent years, the Rwandan Government has implemented a number of progressive ICT solutions and services for its citizens.  Mobile payments are now possible via the Central Bank.  Government ministries engage with constituents via Twitter and social media. Dr. Binagwaho has her own blog entitled ‘Dr. Agnes,’ and holds ‘Ministry Mondays’ via Twitter, an open forum in which she directly answers Tweets by any and all Rwandans. While these examples represent forward thinking strategies, they do not guarantee that the voices of the poor will be heard.  The use of social media by government, while novel, is an extension of existing communication channels and the power structures that underlie them.  As such, it is not an innovation that will seriously empower the poor – at least not as a stand-alone measure.

This is particularly glaring when viewed in the context of Rwanda’s mobile phone and Internet penetration rates.  Despite the fact that 55% of Rwandans have mobile phones (RURA, 2013), only 7% have access to the Internet (UN DESA, 2011).  This says nothing of Internet literacy and whether people know that they a) have Internet access via their phones and b) know how to use the Internet.  The reality of these numbers paints the above- discussed Rwandan Government ICT strategies in a new light, and reveals their current limited potential to positively engage with the country’s poor and vulnerable.

I do not share these facts in order to espouse a doom and gloom outlook for Rwanda.  Rather, I wish to first sound a note of pragmatism in response to overly optimistic expectations for ICT, and second to galvanize policy makers to craft sound innovation strategies that will realize the true potential of digital in Rwanda and beyond.  As a late adopter of ICT and digital media relative to the rest of the world, Rwanda is presented with the opportunity to leverage lessons learned from developed nations.  As a result, it could leapfrog the pitfalls of the Digital Divide and become a true innovator across Africa and globally.  One area in which Rwanda could lead is in ICT that fosters interactive, adaptive governance.  If Rwanda is to realize its potential as a leader and innovator in this arena, it must continue to grow Internet and mobile penetration to 100% of its population, and find ways to ensure access to all of its citizens who desire it.   Simultaneously, it must educate its citizens on how to use the Internet, and create education centers and innovation hubs that will spur and incubate ICT design and development.

Equitable and transparent multi stakeholder engagement represents one tried and true ‘simple answer’ to the complex riddle of development.  The question remains, will Rwanda buck the current trend of inequality online?  Will it walk its talk of inclusive governance and democratic nation building in order to craft truly innovative digital solutions that bridge all levels of its society transparently, equitably, and ethically?  I certainly hope so.  The world watches and waits.

Shauna Monkman is a doctoral student at University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.  She holds an MPA from Harvard University and has over 13 years of professional experience in the digital media industry.  Formerly Vice President of Global Online at the Financial Times Ltd., Shauna is currently Founder and CEO of Sooth Corp, a social enterprise dedicated to understanding and finding solutions to hunger via innovative ICT tools.   


Productive innovation – a balancing act

Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, this piece is by Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Chairman of the Zahnräder Network and a Doctoral Scholar at the Said Business School, University of Oxford.

Making science useful
Academia is far too often removed from practice. Thousands of books and articles are written about innovation and practitioners feel inclined to ask: so what? Johanna Mair, Professor of Organization, Management and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance and Academic Editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review and Christian Seelos, a visiting scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society who previously directed the IESE Platform for Strategy and Sustainability, feel and understand this frustration. In a session on the balancing act of innovation and scale at the Skoll World Forum they engage with the audience as a step towards bridging these diverging worlds: by intervening more productively in the world in a scholarly way.

From innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process
Much scholarly attention concentrates on the creation of social ventures neglecting established organizations and the question of how to innovate continuously. Mair and Seelos stress that innovation needs to be seen as a process, not an ideology: “Innovation is not the holy grail.” We often overrate the value of innovation, undervalue the importance of failed innovation and underappreciate the difficulty of innovation. Innovation is a complex process and a long and continuous development from idea over evaluation to experimentation. Along the way organizations face many pitfalls. Ideas often never get started; or end too early. Reasons are, for example, a strong target focus, power struggles, fearing punishment and potential failures, a homogenous workforce and too much distance of managers from the frontline.

Productive innovation
Andrew, a Skoll World Forum attendee, comments: “The ideas are there, but opportunities are not.” Many heads nod. The remark hits one of the core problems that Mair and Seelos convey: Organisations need innovation routines and processes. Ideas are normally not enacted by individuals. They require groups and both formal and informal engagement. Innovation consists of idea generation, evaluation, experimentation and enactment. Within this difficult and complex process, organisations should artistically balance innovation and scale by exploiting past and targeting future innovations given the availability of resources – in a process of productive innovation.


Ali Aslan Gümüsay is Chairman of the Zahnräder Network and a Doctoral Scholar at the Said Business School, University of Oxford.