Oxfam’s mission, to work with others to overcome poverty and suffering, is a huge and ambitious one, and any organization that sets its purpose out so clearly must start from a strong value base and culture that sustains that purpose. What effect do such strong beliefs and passionate commitment to a cause have on organizational culture and space for learning?
Our conviction that we’re doing the right thing can make it hard for us to hear discordant views, while the pressure of running a big organization that is so much in the public eye means that opportunities for learning are at a premium and sometimes neglected. On the other side, we’re acutely aware that success depends on our taking such opportunities. It can be a difficult balance to strike.
In our experience, strong beliefs and commitment can be both positive and negative in effect. Because the essence of the organization is value-driven – the way we see the world and the way we act in it – the values are not something applied ‘out there’ but internalized. ‘They are so strong that you couldn’t defeat them,’ says Chief Executive Barbara Stocking.
Are strong beliefs good for learning?
But is this entirely a good thing for learning, which demands that the organization is open at all levels: individually, as groups of staff, and organizationally through the way decisions are made, priorities are agreed, and the processes and practices that govern how the business is run are adopted?
It’s a mixed picture. Our role in the world involves campaigning, with passion, focus and a well-argued case, for things to change, and for people with power to take responsibility for addressing the many failures to recognize and realize poor people’s rights. This means believing that this is the right thing to do and arguing against other positions. If we adopt these attitudes, then it’s very hard to listen to what others say and recognize what they bring to us. It can prevent us from hearing fundamental challenges to our way of thinking and doing, or dismissing them because they don’t harmonize with our views.
And some of these challenges can go deep. What, for example, to make of the way China has brought many people out of poverty? Does this present us with an example that contradicts our beliefs about how change should happen, and if so, what are the implications for our ways of working?
We have to be very aware of the potential for ‘group think’, the building up of a layer of interpretation of events and messages that reinforces and protects the organization from difficult or contradictory information. Our capacity to be aware depends upon our organizational culture, and there are some key features that we’ve come to realize help or hinder being open to experience.
Incentives for learning …
There are incentives and disincentives for learning in Oxfam’s organizational culture. The key incentive is the belief that if we learn to do something better, then we will improve our performance and this will in turn lead to the outcomes we desire, such as protecting civilians in crises, or changing double standards in world trade rules. This desire is found everywhere among staff and stems from the fact that this is a highly motivated group of people. Put another way, the willingness and effort necessary for learning are ‘hard wired’ into the organization through its people.
The rewards for this attitude differ within the organization: at country level, the experience of making a difference is much closer and more real than it is when working at one remove. Seeing, for example, how providing separate facilities for women in Kashmir camps enables them to wash out their sanitary clothing really brings home how much that matters to someone’s dignity in such conditions. But not everyone in the organization has such immediate, direct experiences.
… and disincentives
And there are disincentives, such as the pressure of work, which prevents people from taking time and space to reflect, to bring in different perspectives and to set up processes for learning with partners and with poor people themselves. We know people learn from these kinds of events, but we do not always give them priority over implementing projects or doing the necessary paperwork to support reporting to donors. And so time for learning is crowded out.
There are mixed messages too: how far do we practise what we preach when we say that we want staff to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them? Reporting bad news takes courage and people respect this. However, sometimes the organization’s ‘self talk’ tends to adopt a ‘not good enough’ tone and the response to mistakes can be very critical. This is the other side of the coin when the mission is so demanding.
Working with partners
Much of our work is done with and through others – NGOs, community-based organizations, coalitions and allies. Working effectively with partners implementing programmes means knowing when and how to support their development and encourage them to go further and when to challenge or confront poor practice. It means being aware of the interplay of different kinds of knowledge in that relationship and the power that goes with knowledge. Using knowledge wisely requires skilled, experienced practitioners. As in any large organization, in Oxfam there are variable levels of understanding, skill and performance at this level.
Processes, procedures and working habits
Oxfam raises and spends approximately £280 million a year in pursuing its aims. Keeping track of expenditure and of the 6,000 staff working around the world, sometimes in disaster situations, and maintaining the information flows needed to govern a large organization necessarily takes time, and systems to process and review the data. Unless a close eye is kept on the number of reporting requirements, formats and links between the different systems, staff can be swamped by the demands of reporting, thus taking away precious time for implementation. The stress on systems and procedures both establishes what people habitually do when they come to work and subtly reinforces messages about the purpose of that work. We have to take care not to over-regulate, and to get the balance right between doing things effectively and doing the right things.
A global organization: our accountability to others
Oxfam ran a campaign called Be That Change, which reminded all of us working for Oxfam that change really starts with us: how we see ourselves, how we see others, and what our role in the world is. Nowhere is the debate about ourselves and our relationships with others more alive than in our current work on accountability in the organization. Because engagement with issues like poverty and suffering cannot be a superficial one, we understand there’s a lot we don’t know, and the only way to find out is to listen to others. We can come to a deeper understanding of impact and how we act in the world to bring about change in policies, practices, ideas and beliefs only if we see what others see in us, and reflect on what the challenge they are posing might ask us to change about ourselves.
Key in this for Oxfam is listening to poor people and partners. This is easier to talk about than to do. Our change philosophy is to fundamentally shift power in the world, so we’ve got to be prepared to apply that to ourselves. And yet we know that making ourselves more accountable to others is a sensitive, risky process, partly because it is difficult to be open and admit mistakes in an environment where there is a great deal of suspicion about institutions and loss of faith in many of them, and partly because power affects how we relate to and empower poor people to hold us to account. We need to do this in ways that do not disempower and do not produce tokenistic or superficial engagement.
At times, because of Oxfam’s history and our ‘critical voice’, heard in the way we talk among ourselves as well as directed externally in lobbying and arguing for change, work on being held to account by others seems an obvious and natural step for us to take. At other times, it feels like we are learning new ways of perceiving and behaving. Chief Executive Barbara Stocking’s view is that we need to go much further in learning to be open. ‘It won’t destroy us, although it’s very hard to be passionate and at the same time hold an enquiring mind. We can do it.’ Synthesizing different experiences and perspectives is essential for integrating learning into Oxfam.
Belinda Duff is Head of Programme Learning & Accountability, Oxfam GB. Email belindaduff@Oxfam.org.uk
Oxfam GB is a development, relief and campaigning organization that works with others to find lasting solutions to poverty and suffering around the world. We believe that everyone is entitled to a life of dignity and opportunity where resources and power are distributed more equally and where everyone’s rights to a livelihood, basic services, protection from violence, and a say in their future are upheld. Oxfam GB is a member of Oxfam International, a confederation of 12 organizations working together with over 3,000 partners in more than 100 countries.