Winnie Byanyima believes it is high time to come up with fresh thinking in the world of politics and economy. But first, deeper self-criticism is needed across the board because all fields, including the NGO sector, are affected by a lack of trust from citizens.
Winnie Byanyima is executive director of Oxfam International. She served eleven years in the Ugandan Parliament and was director of gender and development at the United Nations Development Program.
Winnie Byanyima spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero on the margins of the Institute for New Economic Thinking conference held in Edinburg (Scotland) on 21-23 October.
This event is about bringing progressive thinking to the economy. The starting point for any progress should be self-criticism. But economists in this conference did not speak up during the years before the crisis, despite their influence or their positions. This self-criticism is also needed in politics, journalism or the NGO sector. Are we missing more collective self-criticism to really move forward?
Yes, you are right. Even us, in the NGO sector, are being disrupted. We also feel the lack of trust. The mistrust in the institutions is across the board. Citizens don’t trust politicians, don’t trust business, don’t trust media, don’t trust NGOs. It is all of us. We all have to be self-critical. In our case, we shifted our approach. We realised that citizens are not even responding to the evidence we bring.
They are responding with their emotions. We are engaging with citizens more, using an emotional angle, talking to them, speaking from the heart. Not just the hard evidence that we know so well how to research and produce. We must shift ourselves away from being policy influencers back to be social mobilisers. We realise it is more important to engage citizens and profile their own voice. So we engage more with the public, more than we used to.
As you said, trust is key. In the case of development aid, it was seriously damaged by the reports of the high salaries paid to NGOs’ top executives. Is there a problem there or do you consider it was an attack orchestrated by NGO critics to question their role?
There was a problem. There are some NGOs that pay very high salaries. They have their own reasoning. They say they are very big companies, if you can use that word. We have grown so big. My own organisation is a 1.5 billion dollar organisation. Some of them argue that, in order to run something of that size, that is global and comparable to a global firm, you need to pay high salaries to attract the best talent to manage the people, the resources and the programmes.
What about Oxfam?
We don’t do it like that at Oxfam. We don’t pay market value. We try to align our values with our pay. Most of us who work for Oxfam are paid 75% less than the sector on average pays. So we are among the lowest pay. But when the attack came, it was against the whole sector.
And I must say it came from those political groups that are anti-aid. The Cameron administration made the commitment to fulfil the 0.7% of GDP of spending in development aid.
They made a law but they never achieved it. Some parts of the conservative party, not Cameron himself, were against it. So they were using particularly the Daily Mail, but also other sections of the media, to attack the NGOs because we are part of the channel for aid delivery.