Aaron Bartnick is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Prior the MBA he led several ventures in US politics, and most recently helped develop the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick on a 2012 Obama campaign rally
What are we doing to make the world a bit better for others?
At first glance, it seems like a pretty uninspiring mission. In a world where everyone is out to “change the way we think about X,” “revolutionize Y,” and, above all, “make the world a better place,” who is going to get fired up about just making things a little bit better?
But it’s not our job to tell people what a good world looks like. And it’s not our responsibility to get them there. It is, however, the solemn responsibility of every public and private institution to give people the tools and opportunities they need to build that life for themselves.
That’s what originally attracted me to politics, and why I spent three years in Manassas, Virginia and Salem, Massachusetts when so many of my peers went to places like New York and San Francisco. In too many places at home and abroad, opportunity is concentrated in just a few places and available to an ever smaller number of people. And how far you go in life seems to depend more on where you’re born than what you can create out of circumstances beyond your control.
I’ve been lucky to work with and for a couple of incredible political leaders. But no individual is going to restore economic opportunity to the millions around the world who have seen it slip away in recent decades. We have to change the system.
Aaron Bartnick with former U.S. President, Barack Obama
Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been fortunate to work on some fascinating systems challenges. I’ve worked with governments around the United States to bring their processes into the digital age. I’ve observed entrepreneurial ecosystems in a dozen emerging markets across South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. And in Iraq, I got to spend six months working with an international coalition of government, VC, and entrepreneurial leaders to propose much-needed economic reforms while helping the American University of Iraq build what we hope will be the Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick giving a presentation at the American University of Iraq
But this is far from enough.
If we are serious about expanding economic opportunity across the globe, we must harness the leverage of both business and government to enact changes that will flow from the highest and most complex systems down to the smallest local businesses. That’s why I’ve chosen to augment my political experience with an MBA, and why I’ve chosen to do it here at Oxford. Oxford Saïd is serious about business. I’m taking finance classes that would have made a younger me run for the hills, and am putting together presentations that will be viewed by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. But Oxford Saïd is more than just a business school; it’s a school that talks every day about business in the service of a higher social good. And you can see that calling reflected in just about every one of the 330 peers with whom I am lucky to share this year.
Finally arriving at the University of Oxford
The MBA is a chance for me to hone the quantitative skills I will need to be successful in my career. It is a chance to explore some of the systemic challenges I’ve observed, like the massive financing gap between microfinance and private equity, through extracurricular activities like the Oxford Seed Fund and the Map the System competition. And it is a chance to broaden my perspective by taking advantage of the incredible multidisciplinary opportunities that only a place like Oxford can provide.
All of this is made possible by the Skoll Scholarship. I am humbled by the opportunity to explore some of the world’s biggest challenges in one of the world’s preeminent academic settings. I am excited to gain a better understanding of how we can build a more inclusive economic system that expands opportunity and helps make the world even a little bit better for others. And I am ready to get started.
This was the question that drove me to apply for the 1+1 programme, studying Water Science, Policy and Management for my MSc and continuing to the MBA this year. While there are many facets to unpacking this question, I chose to focus on understanding the financial barriers faced by people living in poverty, particularly Kenya and India.
What have I learned over the past two years? It’s (unsurprisingly) complicated.
There are usually two broad areas of financial barriers to water access.
First are the capital costs of purchasing water infrastructure for the house (such as utility connections, tanks, filters, etc).
The second are the recurring fees to purchase water for that infrastructure. This could be per litre charges from water utilities but may also include purchase of water from vendors, local taps or water kiosks.
I wanted to understand the factors driving the amount of water a household would purchase every day, so focused my research on the recurring expenditure. Using detailed records of all household expenditures from 298 poor Kenyan households over a year (data sourced from FSD’s fantastic Financial Diaries Project), I tried to understand trends in water purchase behaviour, and try to distill broader understanding about water affordability.
This different pattern of purchasing behaviour has implications for how we think about water affordability. We have set affordability thresholds using Western norms – as a percentage of total household expenditure. In Kenya, water expenses are clustered over a few months – while overall water expenditure may be low, this clustered expenditure can represent a large proportion of household income during the dry reason, resulting in acute affordability issues.
Why is this important?
The Millennium Development Goals were instrumental in shaping international policy, particularly how water and sanitation was thought about, measured, and delivered. Water quality, reliability, and affordability were not measured and the majority of the data collected were on what hardware was used to access the water (such as a pump, bucket and rope, or piped water system). This misses all the harder to measure indicators critical in water service delivery, such as if the pump is actually working, if the water is safe to drink or if people can afford to pay for the water. These metrics are now being re-evaluated with the Sustainable Development Goals.
We currently have an opportunity to influence how the international community thinks about water access in developing countries, and ensure that those who were excluded from the MDGs can be included in SDG approaches.
2016-17 Skoll Scholar, Ashley Thomas, has spent her career designing clean water and energy technologies to improve the lives of marginalised communities.
She spent seven years working in East and Southern Africa designing, manufacturing and selling products for bottom-of-the-pyramid customers. During this time she has developed and sold over 200,000 products, providing clean water and energy to over 2 million people in 7 different countries.
Not only does Ashley hold an Oxford MBA, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, and has completed a MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, also at the University of Oxford.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Avery Bang, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School, shares her insight from the Skoll World Forum session “Global Goals for an Uncertain World”.
The buzz of the Skoll World Forum is something any attendee is not soon to forget. I look forward to this week every year with excitement for the flood of new ideas, and dread for the lack of sleep and inevitable FOMO (not familiar with FOMO? You clearly haven’t yet studied at Oxford Saïd).
One of the sessions I most looked forward at this year’s Forum was Global Goals for an Uncertain World, moderated by Susan Myers of the United Nations Foundation. I entered to session with a genuine curiosity of how she would lead a conversation about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a diverse panel including a Skoll Awardee, a Deputy Minister and an Oxford social entrepreneur. When the session started with a 90 second, dance-move inspiring animated video Turning Plans into Action, my FOMO melted away and I knew I had found my people.
For those who are not familiar, the Sustainable Development Goals (officially known as Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development) are a set of 17 targets to fight inequality and tackle climate change launched in 2016. The SDGs were announced as the United Nations wrapped up the 15-year cycle of the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and launched the even more ambitious plan to banish a host of social ills by 2030. For those of you that skipped the video animation above, the MDGs got us half way over the last 15 years; the SDGs will get us the ‘rest of the way’ over the next 15.
I personally love audience participation, and really appreciated that the afternoon discussion weaved in each of the panelist’s favorite goals, invoking an audience-wide inquisition of our own (mine is #9 – comment below with yours!). I walked away with a much greater appreciation for a range of issues – access to justice for building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions (goal #16) in particular jumped out. Vivek Maru of Namati, a 2015 Skoll Awardee, painted a story of a world with access to social justice through ensuring all people ‘know law; use law; and shape law’. The panel conversation also shed light on how close several goals were from being cut, and how the world will truly be a different place in 15 years because they weren’t.
Susan framed the session with three main discussion points; how to sustain momentum for the SDG release, particularly in a time of political turnover; how to empower social entrepreneurs to work on SDGs; and how to empower action across all levels. Throughout the conversation, it became clear that there has been a fundamental shift between the MDGs and SDGs – a shift towards aligning international commitments with those right at home. Elissa Goldberg, the Assistant Deputy Ministry of Global Affairs for Canada shared her government’s commitment to develop their national plan using the SDGs as a framework, and it occurred as something of an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me – how incredible is it that we are all one, operating under one global framework, all aligned towards one (or 17, in this case) common goal. By aligning our domestic agenda with our investments overseas the global community is speaking loudly that there no longer can be an ‘us’ or ‘them’.
One common goal – one common framework – and one incredibly inspiring conversation. After another, after another, after another. With a new common vocabulary that we all can work towards, and within, I believe the SDGs will continue to ensure that social entrepreneurs, policy makers, private sectors players and everyone in between continue to contribute one common direction.
Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.
MBA student Neil Yeoh gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Post-Paris: A New Era in Global Sustainability?’.
It has been just over five months since 195 nations signed the UN Paris Climate Change Treaty – a pivotal step towards global sustainability. However, doctor as every month passes and the champagne stops flowing, people scratch their heads as they consider “the real issue – how do we get there?” – framed by Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres.
A panel made up of the most distinguished climate leaders of today including former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Mary Robinson – discussed this very issue. And amongst the dialogue, five overarching themes emerged:
Changing the conversation – a bigger mindset shift is needed
Pushing for policy change – the world will not self-correct
Enabling access to finance and technology – developing countries cannot do it on their own
Inspiring a larger movement – communities can achieve change
Managing industry change – the transition from dirty to clean will be challenging
Far from the detailed implementation plan everyone was hoping for, the audience may have left dissatisfied still debating how we will get there. However, these feelings and thoughts reveal the true complexity of the challenge that lies ahead to make the treaty a reality. Climate change touches countless nodes of the world’s ecosystem and will need unprecedented global coordination and cooperation to alter course.
But I believe there is hope! If the world’s leaders were able to find common ground on the urgency of global sustainability, the rest of humanity – activists to sceptics – will surely find common ground in the fact that climate change is a real threat to our children and grandchildren. I, as I’m sure many others, can relate to and be compelled to act on that.
From left to right: Dipender Saluja – Managing Director, Capricorn Investment Group (Moderator); Mary Robinson – President, Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice; Thom Woodroofe – Climate Policy and Communications Advisor, Independent Diplomat; Mindy Lubber – President, Ceres; and David Blood – Senior Partner, Generation Investment Management.
The spotlight focused on how organisations operating in the social sector can enhance responsiveness and accountability to its clients. But what does “client” really mean? Are we talking beneficiaries, stakeholders, funders, partnering organisations? How do we make sure we are “accountable” to each of them, and all of them collectively, but which “them” do we put first? This seminar was designed to explore and unpack precisely these complexities, and sparked some lively discussions.
Whether you are a social entrepreneur or policy maker, I think we all agree the field of international development, let alone achieving good governance within it, is complex. However, there is hope. The seminar not only got folks talking, but went beyond providing food for thought and unveiled an effort to take action. It put academics and practitioners in the same room and started to identify gaps and possible solutions/practices that need to be explored further. These areas are being evaluated as we speak and a call for papers to address gaps in the existing literature is forthcoming (with a £20K stipend slated to go to the winner).
Of course a simple call for papers won’t solve the complexity of governance, but it is a start. And it will serve as an impetus for the conversation until the second annual seminar next year.
It’s not a topic you would usually think elicits much inspiration. (Nor be a fitting topic for a discussion over lunch!)
But last week, order Albina Ruiz opened up our eyes to the incredible potential of leveraging this dirty business into transformational change.
Albina Ruiz, ailment the Executive Director of Ciudad Saludable, buy visited us from Peru. She shared valuable insights on how Ciudad Saludable has helped small micro entrepreneurs build a community-based waste management system whilst improving the social and environmental status quo of communities.
So what is the key to their success? Obviously, there are many factors. But her main insight: you need a holistic approach.
Almost a decade ago, Albina and her team saw a large problem: public- sector solid waste disposal services in Lima were not functioning. But they realized if they could flip this gap into an opportunity, they could create employment for local citizens whilst providing a public service for the community at large.
Today, Albina works across the board with social leaders, local and national governments, waste collectors, teachers, the media, and communities at large. (And of course don’t forget the ever important change agents at even the smallest levels, e.g. mothers.) In the process, Ciudad Saludable has changed national policy around sanitation and waste collectors rights, provided educational training (about waste, health and the environment), and generated serious profits, for government and families alike. What started as a small initiative in Peru has now been scaled to several countries in Latin America and most recently in India.
With an approach like this and tremendous results in scaling successfully, it’s no wonder that Ciudad Saludable has won several international awards. It’s a model, I believe, that has the potential for even greater adoption. As mega-cities around the world continue to boom, Ciludad Saludable shines a light on how to build sustainable cities, in terms of its public, environmental and financial health.