Thinking things right – Glass talks to Sara Pantuliano of the Overseas Development Institute

Thinking things right – Glass learns about the new role of aid in the modern era, better methods for its delivery and how hair extensions are giving subjugated women their dignity back

Within two minutes of sitting down with Sara Pantuliano, Director of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) it becomes clear that her experience in the humanitarian field is immense. I compliment her on her jewellery, a beautiful, asymmetric necklace made with earthy looking beads. She informs me that it was made by her friend using beads from Sudan and this immediately leads to a conversation about how important it is for women to feel that they are presenting themselves as best they can.

She recounts the details of an initiative in Sudan, in the Nuba Mountains, “It was decided that we should be giving people cash to make their own choices to meet their needs as opposed to them being dependent on food and commodity handouts. There were complaints from certain departments as it became known that women were spending their money on hair extensions, perfume and other ‘unnecessary’ items, but when asked, the women’s reasoning for this was utterly understandable.

“They recounted how many of them had been raped by the military when going to collect water and firewood and felt dehumanised in every way possible. This was about making themselves feel human again, giving themselves their dignity back. And actually that was the best thing you could do in a war area, to restore a little bit of faith in humanity and allow people to feel human again. Not every colleague felt that way, but I always thought that was very powerful.”

The ODI was established in 1960 and is an international think-tank focused on global development and humanitarian issues. They are completely independent and advise governments and inform policy in many of the world’s regions, both developed and undeveloped, and are currently active in 35 countries.

Our public perception of aid and development is one of the West and North selflessly attempting to help the poorer South and East; but as Pantuliano reveals, sometimes it can be the most developed countries and aid agencies that follow a self-interested agenda.

Women sell sauces and pastas they have cooked from grainsWomen sell sauces and pastes they have cooked from grains, beans and peanuts in the Bandiagara market, Mali

What exactly is the role of a think-tank?
It’s a place where we try to get the thinking together to advise on how to improve policies, practice, how to do things better. It’s a place that gives us the ability to do some applied thinking, so it’s not pure academic research; the research is perhaps a little less deep, less long-term, but it gets to the issues in enough depth to be able to give informed advice on policies and practice.

How effective are you at being heard by governments, and how much do they actually listen?
I think it varies with different governments. We tend to be very effective in developing countries, increasingly in middle income countries and with some parts of developed countries. Our advice gets taken on, more often than not, by the aid department of a government. I think where we need to “up our game” is with the political masters of the technical departments of ministries.

I think we give a lot of advice to many ministries on their humanitarian and development policies, but if the political masters decide differently there’s only so much that we can do. So I think we need to be smart at targeting real decision makers in government. So that’s what we are trying to do. But we do have a very strong active role in the countries that are affected by crisis or where poverty is very much at the heart of the preoccupations of government. That’s where our advice is best taken on board at the moment.

I would have thought that it was the rich countries that would have been more on board to help with aid programs. I think the general view we have is that a poor country is generally poor because they have a bad government, and bad governments generally don’t want to listen.
No, on the contrary, there’s a certain rhetoric, I would say, among developed countries about the type of aid that we should bring, and we are set on trying to challenge the usual, quite cosy picture of aid that is delivered and how the aid structures should operate. I think we have a greater resonance with those that also want to see aid provided in a different way. Some of the aid structures are very obsolete and no longer tailored to the world in which we live today. A lot of the structures are very old, if you think about it.

A woman carries shallots on market dayA woman carries shallots on market day in Bandiagara town, Along with onions, shallots are an important source of income in Mali. in 2014 poor rains limited the number of cultivation cyles, which dealt a real blow to livelihoods

Were they ever tailored?
No, they were never really tailored. If you look at the aid sector, or particularly the development sector, the system is 70 years old. It was designed for a world that was very different, political weight had a different balance, and it has never been adapted.

So we’re still going about things without recognising that a number of countries have gotten stronger. Seventy years ago a number of these countries were still colonies.
Exactly. But we haven’t changed. Well we have, of course, to some extent, but the aid system is still largely the same, and until we really change the system and approaches to aid things won’t improve. I think we really see this in other developing countries or affected countries which are which really are taking responsibility for the response. There are all these big pronouncements, but when it comes to really contextualising and localising aid, not enough has really changed in practice.

So there are a lot of challenges. I don’t know if you’ve seen, there was a report done yesterday called Adapting Development: it’s really pushing for a different way of putting the politics into context, and to put the local response ahead of donor priorities, and make sure that local response is what drives the transformation forward.

I always say that there is no way an external body can change a society. You can inspire, guide, support a process but you cannot engineer or lead it from outside. You need to make sure that is an internal process. It comes from within. They must identify their own champions nationally. You cannot force change from outside.

Trader with one of his horsesA trader with one of his horses in the Malian village of Garoule. Livestock traders in the country are currently hard-pressed by the high price of animal feed and vaccines

As US foreign policy has shown time and time again …
Exactly, but we don’t really learn the lesson. We keep saying that we need to learn the lesson and then we do exactly the same thing the next time.

What about the new mantra of  “trade not aid” that many people are calling for? Is this kind of the model you’re trying to move towards?
There definitely has to be more reputable trade terms. There are a lot of imbalances in the way the trade exchanges are set up, but that doesn’t mean that there are situations in which aid is not required. There are certain areas where inevitably aid is still critical, especially on the humanitarian side, to and in situations of deep poverty – where even if you had better trade relations and if your balance of payments improved internally, it would still be a long time until people were not in need of aid. It definitely needs to be part of the equation, but it’s not an either/or.

Based on current trends it will take decades to bring help to the world’s most disadvantaged, and ODI’s latest theory is a radical departure from the approach of the millennium goals. What is this radical departure?
My colleagues are working against the idea that all you need to do is chuck more money at a problem and increase the volumes of aid, instead of thinking about what is really needed in different countries. Really it’s about contextualising the aid. Even in terms of public services, like education and health, for a long time the mantra was, ‘The more services you offer, the more you contribute to stability and the country will succeed’. But this is too simplistic: it doesn’t work that way.

You need to look at the politics, look at what is blocking certain processes. You may be able to pour a lot of money into education or health, but if you don’t have the structures, systems and institutions that allow teachers or nurses to be in place and to be paid regularly, then the project will fail. You need to start by looking at the specific situations and work out what is needed in that particular context. So having these big, sweeping pronouncements from aid agencies on global goals has limited value, unless they are deeply contextualised.

When it comes to assessing progress against development goals, there’s a lot of averaging, but behind these averages you mask critical details. You can have somebody who gains a lot and somebody who has nothing and then the average suggests that everyone has got enough, but clearly that’s not the full story. Certain indicators can be helpful, but you’re leaving a lot of people behind. By rough averaging and looking at the middle, it is the people who are most deprived, most marginalised and in need of support who lose out.

You said that in developing countries there’s a very good uptake of ODI initiatives.
It depends.

How do you know that there’s been an uptake?
Well, because we see it reflected either in policies or in relations, in the ways things change in practice, or because we get called back to provide more advice or to guide ministries because our services are requested. And we have seen changes that are reflecting our advice in a number of important places. The work done in Tanzania, for instance, where you see the advice has become part of the discussions in the country and in the government.

Shallot wholesalers in bandiagaraShallot wholesalers in Bandiagara market. During the conflict, many suffered from the trade
routes to the North being cut off; others had their warehouses burnt down

Can you tell me a bit about the work in Tanzania?
This work is being taken forward by colleagues in another part of the Institute, but I know that their work focuses  on land rights. A lot of this work is being taken forward at the highest level in the Tanzanian government, with discussion about how the legislation needs to change in line with the policy advice we’re offering. It’s not really my area, but I have heard a lot about the work that we have been doing.

Where have you personally seen results?
Probably the highest uptake has been with the cash transfers as opposed to the tradition in the humanitarian sector of “in-kind donations” such as food, clothing, etc. People always want to deliver food or deliver something tangible – drugs, and whatever else. But since about 2004, we’ve been doing research and analysis on the importance of cash, and giving people cash.

There was a lot of resistance to giving people cash, but this way people actually have a choice in what to buy, such as things that are available in the local markets, to meet their needs. And we’re pushing to dispel a lot of myths that they’re going to drink all the money, that they’re going to waste it on frivolous things. So it has been a long-term effort to put that on the agenda. But cash is becoming a mainstream response. More and more organisations are using it.

But the benefit is twofold because then they spend that cash in their local economy, thus stimulating local growth.
Absolutely, it’s a no-brainer.

… compared to when you send food – and the farmer who is already there can’t sell anything, because everyone is getting their food for free.
Exactly, but before it was a big no-no. It was not talked about, it was not discussed, it was really something that people had a problem with. You’re relinquishing power; you aren’t deciding what you think they need. You need to take the organisation away, to say, “You don’t need organisations, what you really need is money so you can decide for yourself what you need.” But cash doesn’t work everywhere.

Sara Pantuliano meeting late vice presidentSara Pantuliano meeting the late Vice President John Garang in the Nuba mountains, Sudan, 2002

Some people must be worried about the fact that we hear so much about aid being lost to corruption.
Of course, but we’ve seen over the years so much grain being sold in the markets and being monetised. You can bring ‘in-kind’ goods in and still have it be diverted, like food aid going to militaries or feeding the rebel movements; that doesn’t change. There needs to be a proper analysis of who you give aid to and how to make sure the targeting is as robust as possible, so that you’re supporting the people who really need it. But definitely with cash you benefit local markets.

And you give people better choices, which also means greater dignity in being able to decide how to use the resources that they’re given. You just need to make sure that the market is functioning and that the market is able to meet the needs of the people, because if you are in a place where there are no supplies, where there’s no possibility of buying goods that are essential for the family like food for your children, then of course money is not an appropriate response. But as long as there is a good market analysis, you would be surprised, there are very few situations where cash is not a possible response. But not for everything: for medical responses it’s less appropriate.

What has been your biggest personal success story?
I think my personal big success was when I worked in Sudan, and that was a very difficult country; a very complex and difficult crisis that generated so many different needs that it was almost unimaginable. I believe someone called it once ‘a humanitarian laboratory’, because there’s always a crisis and you’re always experimenting with something.

So I think I’m most proud of being able to develop a response during the war between the North and the South, in a central area of Sudan, and that brought together the government and the armed opposition when the conflict was still happening. It took a long time and a lot of work to persuade all the actors on the government side and the rebels’ side and all the organisations that were providing aid, both local and international, to come together to offer a response.

We put together a programme for the two official counterparts (government and rebels), nine UN agencies, 16 international NGOs and 90 local NGOs to get together to decide how to respond to this 80,000-square-kilometre region that had not received aid in over 13 years.

Aid had been allowed in the south and north of Sudan but no aid had been allowed by the government to reach this central region. So we broke the blockade. It took a lot of personal energy, but also the energy of a great number of people who believed in this and had worked in this country for a long time.

And I think it was extraordinary to see how people who actually had very different ideas and approaches could eventually be brought together to agree on how we would work, how we would handle responses, how as internationals we would take a step back to make sure the response was locally led and that it was an informed response from within. It wasn’t easy, it broke a lot of paradigms, but it was definitely the most rewarding thing in my career. At the time I was also pregnant so there were a lot of personal challenges, but I felt it was well worth investing the energy, in spite of learning to breast feed and everything at the same time!

Do NGOs and organisations work well together or is there a conflict of interest between different groups?
You know, there are always difficulties, especially as organisations become bigger and more established and a number of them have become almost like corporate organisations. It varies; you have a lot of really motivated, passionate people that are dedicated to their missions, especially those who are determined to do the best for the people that they are trying to support. I would say in headquarters that becomes a bit more far removed, and it really does vary depending on the organisation. There are still a lot who are trying to experiment, and try hard to think about new ways of becoming more efficient, more appropriate, and to rethink how they need to operate when the world is changing so much; others not. It’s a very mixed picture.

What was harder in Sudan: to try to get all the NGOs to work together, or the government and the rebels?
Actually it was trying to get the UN agencies to work together! The organisations had more commitment to what was happening, but there was a massive turf war between the UN agencies over who controlled which resources and where and how they would be used, and it took a long time to get the representative of the UN agencies to make sure this could go ahead.

Salad traders in GarouleSalad traders in Garoule, a village in Mali’s Goupta

But surely they were all there to do the same thing; they all had the same goal which was to make life better for the Sudanese people, no?
That was still the hardest part. I mean the fact that we did it was incredible. I used to work with the UN – I was a UN official at the time, the UN has the power to be able to do certain things – but sometimes you have to be able to break the rules and to risk your career, you need to experiment and you need to have the support from higher up to think outside the box. There has been a case study written on these things, and it shows that they have to be really willing to break the rules, challenge the status quo.

Personally, me and my boss at the time were not particularly interested in a long-term UN career; he was retiring – it was his last posting – so we were prepared to take risks. For me, the interest was making sure things got done: my commitment was not to a UN career, it was to helping the Sudanese people.

It could have gone wrong, it could have failed and been a total disaster, but I think organisations in these areas need to be prepared to take the risk and learn from failure. You have to take on the creativity and try to do things as best as possible. And I guess the donors don’t really help – accountability to the public has caused them to be more conservative about the risks they take, and actually if this is your mindset the change you achieve is minimal because you’re not actually trying, and it’s all about causing the minimal possible risk.

So you almost become a politician, trying to keep all of the agencies happy even though it’s not always the best for the long term.
Exactly, and so until we’re really prepared to say “Yes, you can risk it,” and if it doesn’t work, figure out why it didn’t work, and we can learn from this and next time try something different. But the trouble is donors saying, “Well, if you don’t achieve it now you don’t get any money next time; we pay for results.” Then people are almost incentivised to develop the results in a way that is about how many parts are dropped rather than asking, “Was it the right things? In the right place? With the right people?” That may be too complicated to achieve.

But it’s really hard to shift the big institutional donors in that space. Some of the large donors seem to be more flexible, more open. It would be interesting to see how long they stay that way. It’s not in anybody’s interest the way in which we’re working because in the end, with all the drive for value for money, you don’t achieve value for money. Likewise, a lot of the aid departments have been pressured to reduce the number of staff, but that means fewer people who can do this analysis of thinking.

What kind of inputs are we putting in place? What kind of projects? The incentive changes to being able to spend big money, rapidly in one goal, because you don’t have enough people to report on the smaller parts. Some of the smaller interventions and the tailored interventions are the ones that achieve the best results.

But we go for large disbursements because we’ve lost the number of people who can actually do the work at headquarters. So it may be sold to the public as the costs have been cut to the minimum, but the trade-off is the quality and effectiveness of what you do.

A woman sells rice in bandiagaraA woman sells rice in Bandiagara market. During the war, traders were largely unable to
bring rice from the North of Mali, which saw the heaviest fighting

Do the public really care about the running costs? Surely they give money because they want to help people, not because they want a cost effective management system.
With the public, there is narrative that has become common of “100 per cent or 95 per cent of our money goes directly to the work of the charity and not to pay staff wages,” but actually I would say that’s something to be wary of because if you don’t have the right people to be able to implement and spend the money, you don’t really know how the money is spent.

It’s really not about those percentages, it’s about the sort of programmes that you are implementing, and having the right people there. Some costs may be higher than the optimal percentages that donors and the public want to see, but the percentages are meaningless. Some countries need more, some countries need less, and sometimes there’s a greater capacity to disperse and implement. You need the right people at the top to make sure you get the changes you’re aiming for, otherwise nothing changes at all.

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt along the way?
I think along the way the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that of humility – that there’s a lot of big pronouncements in the aid sector like “we can change this and we can do that” and actually I think we need to question ourselves a lot about how much we can really do. We can definitely contribute, but our role is small and ultimately the changes will come from within, they will come from the people.

We can help stimulate them, we can sustain them and support them, but we need to be humble about what we can really do ourselves. And we really ascribe a lot to particular organisations in the North, institutions with a lot of successes, not necessarily ours. But I think it will come from people that struggle with this for years that bring the most knowledge, the most wisdom and analysis to the solutions that inevitably come only from within. That has been the biggest lesson.

I always try to think of how I would feel in that person’s situation as well. I’m Italian and I think if somebody came and sort of dipped into Italy for two weeks and then tried to tell the Italian public or the Italian politicians “you should change this and you should change that”, they would be kicked out.

So what gives us the arrogance to go into these countries and tell them what to do, on the back of the most incredibly superficial knowledge, or no knowledge whatsoever? So for me, that humility is fundamental. It’s about exchanging ideas with people without ever telling them what to do.

by Nicola Kavanagh

From the Glass Archive – Issue 21 – Belief

To subscribe to the print edition of Glass Magazine, please go to this link

Sara Pantuliano is on twitter here