Recognizing Leaders: Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International

Winnie Byanyima is Executive Director of Oxfam International. She served 10 years as a member of the Ugandan parliament. A recognized women’s rights advocate, she founded the still-thriving civil society organization, Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE). Ms. Byanyima served at the African Union Commission and as Director of Gender and Development at the United Nations Development Programme. As part of her drive to bring women’s perspectives into core development issues, she co-founded the Global Gender and Climate Alliance and chaired UN-wide task forces on gender aspects of the Millennium Development Goals and climate change.
GlobeScan co-CEO Chris Coulter recently interviewed Winnie to gain insight on the value Oxfam puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

What do you see as positive developments in the world today?

There are a number of important and positive developments occurring in the world today. We are seeing strong growth in developing countries across the global South resulting in a large number of countries that are about to move from the low income category into the middle income category. This is very good news in itself.
What is also positive is that the world has become more interconnected: new technologies brought about by the digital revolution allow for change to happen more quickly, for learning to happen more quickly and for adaptation to happen more quickly. Knowledge flows much more easily across borders and as a result, we see innovations around development and poverty reduction happening faster than ever before.
What is also positive is that there is growing awareness of planetary limits and a growing understanding that we can’t keep producing and consuming the way we currently are. It is unsustainable. Governments, businesses and citizens are becoming more aware of these limits

And what about negative developments in the world today?

There are a number of challenges that concern me. First, although there is strong growth in many areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, we are also seeing a shift in the geography of poverty – there are now more poor people in rich and middle-income countries. This means that the challenge of poverty is really about economic inequality. The widening income gap is a critical issue, with rich people running away from the rest of the population with all the growth. We need to do something about that within countries, as well as address historical inequalities between countries.
A second challenge that I am seeing is that we are witnessing a more fragile and volatile world, where more frequent and intense disasters are occurring and also the advent of more prolonged conflicts like in Syria and Congo. In addition, there is greater volatility in prices of important necessities for people across the world, including food and energy. The result of which is that a significant proportion of the population is moving from being able to barely survive to not surviving. So the speed of technology is rapid, but the speed and scale of change and volatility is equally rapid and often challenging.
Third, we also have the challenge of global governance. We continue to have a polarized global governance system that is unable to strike agreement, to regulate production and consumption in ways that allow us all to live safely and with dignity on one planet. This is very sad and requires a shift in power. Global governance arrangements, such as the UN system, are all from the post World War II era and reflect how power was exercised at that time. But now we see the emerging countries such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa that have huge populations, enormous wealth, regional influence and technological capacity. Yet these powers continue to have a weak voice in the global governance system and the poorest countries have very little voice in global decision making. The consequence is that on important issues, such as climate change, where we all are aware of the challenges, we are unable to reach global agreements in part because of our constrained global governance system.

Given these challenges, do we need a new type of leadership to make progress?

Yes, we certainly do. There are some enduring things about leadership that remain relevant today – for example, having a very strong and clear vision of the future we want. The importance of vision will always be true in any context. Having strong values to support this vision, however, has become increasingly important. Values-driven leadership is critical – we now need all leaders, including businesses, governments and NGOs to have values-led leadership.
We also need leaders to have a stronger connection with the people they work with and this means having empathy and understanding. Having the emotional intelligence to create conditions and environments to help people be as happy and creative as possible. We need leadership today to enable creative environments that facilitate the ideas and changes the world requires. The world is so complex and moving so fast that it is not about leaders having solutions themselves, but of having a vision and enabling the conditions to foster a better world.
We also need leaders who are comfortable with complexity. Look at the sad situation in Gaza. We are constantly adjusting our policy and adjusting our messaging. No one is sure what is going to happen tomorrow or the day after. We need leaders to be able to better manage and live with complexity and take decisions that are refined as you go.
This represents another way of leading. When we were growing up we learned the rules of the game and won by sticking to the rules. Being a leader often meant not deviating from a plan. Today you have to be much more flexible and open yourself up – you have to accept that you won’t know everything and have the humility to be able to change your approach. You need to be able to stand before your team and accept that your decisions were wrong, and given changing circumstances, ask to change course. Being adaptable, flexible and humble is all part of being a leader today.
The new leadership is also about being more open to the influence of new ideas and being very multi-cultural. We are now all working in a more collaborative global context with businesses, governments, and NGOs and need to be able to engage with people from different cultures and religious backgrounds. Unless you are able to absorb, enjoy and thrive in a multicultural setting, it is difficult to be an effective leader today.

How is this view of leadership being manifested at Oxfam International?

I am leading an organization that is embarking on a reform to become more global. That means really opening ourselves up to a thousand influences. I have a clear vision of just how much more powerful Oxfam will be when we move in that direction. How much more influential we will be when we have in our DNA our European-ness fused with Asian-ness, African-ness and Latino-ness.
Inclusivity will help drive our impact and getting the results we want. I am confident we will have more impact because our ultimate aim  is to  influence development policy and  to ensure people have better lives. We aim to influence governments and businesses and all those who hold power. To be effective in this area, we need to be highly relevant and engaged in the culture and politics locally. We need the knowledge and skills on the ground and to be a part of the national context in order to influence it.
Being influential in Nicaragua is so different from being influential in Bangladesh. Being multicultural is not just about political correctness or the human right of inclusion, but it’s important that it is about achieving impact. Our impact will be come from influencing power where power is.

What are you most excited about at Oxfam these days?

What is exciting me today is the campaign against economic inequality which we launched recently. We are seeing a broad consensus  emerging on inequality. I was encouraged that when we launched the campaign, the Pope also said inequality is the root of all social evil. We have seen both President Obama and Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the IMF, say inequality is undermining economic growth and social progress.
I am encouraged by the growing consensus that is bringing businesses, governments, faith communities and civil society together to address inequality. I am very pleased that leaders from many sectors can work together to make the world fairer and safer.