27 September 2011

How ONE Will Address Agriculture and Move Past Simple Stories

With 2.5 million members around the world, the advocacy group ONE is, if anything, a loud voice in the sphere of awareness creation and lobbying. With strong financing, ONE does not request money, rather it uses the members in combination with high level influencing; a campaign strategy that new CEO Michael Elliot calls ‘grassroots and grass tops.’

Last week, I had the opportunity, to sit down with Elliot in a small group to discuss ONE and the steps the organization will be taking next to advocate around the Horn of Africa (HoA) drought and Somali famine.  A former self-described policy wonk for the British government and Editor at international magazines like Time International and the Economist, Elliot came into the leadership role only last month.

We are strong advocates for effective aid in the developing world. We understand that transparency and good governance are extraordinarily important…and make the case it is smart and effective aid to transparent governments that works best,” explained Elliot to us as he touched on the favorite aid buzz word ‘transparency.’  Tom Paulson asked Elliot to characterize ONE saying that they are not quite as edgy as other organizations such as Invisible Children.  Elliot responded without disagreement pointing out, “We recognize that there are certain interventions that have been particularly effective, such as vaccinations.  So, we have been a tremendous supporter of places like GAVI.”

This cycled back to his previous idea of supporting what works best.  Though slick campaigns could be produced, throwing full supporting getting nations to promise funds to support vaccines through GAVI is not terribly edgy.  It is practical and that often means boring.  Though he promised edgy stuff to come out this week, it is likely that the new campaign by ONE on agriculture will not be too exciting.

The ongoing crisis in the HoA can be boiled down to issues of governance and food security.  Sure, there are other contributing factors that should not be ignored, but there is a significant difference between how the drought has impacted Somalia verses other countries in the HoA. Elliot explained,“One of the stories of the crisis in the HoA is that societies that have done investment in agriculture and planned ahead have been able to surf the waves a little better that those who have not.”

A new campaign will launch, that Elliot made sure to say was already on ONE’s radar well before the current crisis will be to advocate further investments in agriculture as a long term solution.  Regardless of why, it is good to see that ONE is going to take up the issue of food security.  Groups like the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) are already working towards this goal, but raising the profile of the efforts is very good.  That will still not provide immediate support for those in need of assistance right now, but it is appropriate to act on solutions that will also prevent this from happening again.

Not missing the opportunity to ask about how ONE activates its members beyond simple messages, I asked Elliot about his thoughts on that challenge and what ONE plans to do about it. He responded by saying, “It is one of the questions I have spent a lot of time thinking about.  Yes, you need the catchy messaging. You need the edgy messaging to get people interested, involved, and engaged. Saying that agriculture is a terrific investment for donor countries to make in poorer countries is a complicated story.  It gets you into the importance of new strains of seeds and irrigation which then gets you into water use.  This is not simple straightforward stuff.”

He seemed to appreciate the question saying, “You are absolutely right in challenging organizations like ours to make sure you can migrate people’s interest,” but I wanted to know how these discussions were moving towards action.  I asked him if these were ongoing or newer discussions.  His reply framed it in the context of the current agriculture campaign which seems to indicate that it is newer for the organization, but he did rightly say that the media has a role to play in this.

“This is where you are the true mediators.  You can help explain this is the solution to the problem, but here I was doing reporting from Kenya and I can tell you that although investment in agriculture potentially has a fantastic payoff there are all sorts of complicated questions that need to be sorted out before we move from the investment to the return.”

Hopefully media and ONE can collaborate in this way.  Hearing Elliot offer this challenge was well needed, but it will now depend on how the messaging from the organization can supplement reporting.  As this campaign rolls out, I encourage you to keep an eye out to see if this transition is in fact taking place or is still an obstacle to overcome.