All posts by Jennifer Lentfer

Jennifer Lentfer is Oxfam America's Senior Writer on Aid Effectiveness. As the creator of, she was named one of Foreign Policy Magazine's "100 women to follow on Twitter" in 2012. Lentfer has worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade.

Coming to a billboard near you: A very different portrayal of aid

Who are the real drivers of progress in the developing world?

I can tell you one thing—it’s not us.

But most international development organizations will not tell you that. Some will portray those they are trying to help by victimizing them, i.e. “look at these poor, suffering, devastated people.” Others will romanticize the poor, i.e. “despite having nothing, they are so happy” or “an entrepreneurial spirit is what keeps the poor alive.”

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These reductionist perspectives may momentarily make us feel something, but without enabling the empathic concern to take the next step, they easily can do more harm than good. Many of my fellow aid bloggers have written over the years about the stark contrast between what their organizations have in their marketing campaigns and the complex reality of programs on the ground.

Aid need not be seen as the solution, but rather as one of many tools for those at the forefront of change to use. So we asked here on Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness and Creative teams, what would our depiction of effective aid look like then?

This week we embark on an effort to show what we mean to policy makers in Washington D.C. In DC’s airports, metro stations and publications, ads superimpose DC-insider buzzwords such as “job creator” and “beltway outsider” with decidedly non-DC imagery—people surrounded by fishing boats in Ghana, a plant nursery in Tanzania, a roadway in Malawi.

By showcasing community leaders and advocates in developing countries who have leveraged US foreign aid investments in their work, we tried to create ads that would have dramatic effects. But more importantly, we also aim to send an important message. The ads aim to highlight the measurable impact that can be achieved when the US partners with local leaders, changemakers, and champions who are engaged in fighting poverty and injustice in their own countries.

The ads feature Emiliana Aligaesha, a farmer in Tanzania, Manuel Dominguez, the mayor of a Peruvian town, Martha Kwataine, a health access activist in Malawi, and Nana Kojo Kondua IV, chief of a Ghanaian fishing town—all people who are turning small aid investments to create a sound future for their nations and their communities. They are not just nameless faces, but people we respect on the Aid Effectiveness team, and people who have all agreed to be a part of the ads and helped shape it.

“We’ve forced [a] logic of passivity deep into our basic story…We need to put the people and decisions that create poverty at the heart of our narratives,” said Martin Kirk, writing for development professionals in the Guardian UK at the end of last year.

This is what we have attempted to do. Here at Oxfam we believe that when aid dollars enable folks like these four people to obtain the resources they’ve identified as necessary for success, the ownership, collaboration, and mutual respect described by so many as necessary for sustainable change, becomes possible. And that can only happen if poverty-focused foreign aid is protected in the US Congress.

“People like Martha, Emiliana, Manuel and Kojo are having dramatic impacts in their communities with the US as their partner. What they lack are the well-heeled lobbyists to fight for their interests in the ongoing budget battle,” said Gregory E. Adams, head of Oxfam America’s aid effectiveness team, in our press release.

An Oxfam ad at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.
An Oxfam ad at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.

Few Americans would disagree that our aim in foreign assistance must be to help people help themselves. This means handing over the control of resources and allowing those on the receiving end to make the decisions on how those resources are utilized. The four people in Oxfam’s ads demonstrate that this can work.

Paul Bomani, Tanzanian Ambassador to the US, urging the US government to act on South African apartheid in 1978, said “The notion that Africans are incapable of determining for themselves what is good for them is not only silly, but smacks of the old colonial paternalistic…And we resent it.”

Aid and our portrayal of it must never be an injustice to the enormous amount of creative problem-solving skills that individuals and local groups in the developing world employ. Thus we tried to create ads that those on the receiving end of aid would not resent, but that would also send a striking message to policymakers and the US general public.

Seems when the actual change-agents are the protagonists at the center, this may not be so hard after all.

If US policymakers see local capacity in existence, will they be more willing to invest in it? Only time will tell. But you can tell us if we succeeded in our aim of portraying local leaders with dignity and agency. Take a look at the ads, read the stories, and tell us what you think.

Jennifer Lentfer can be reached at 

This is a cross-post with Oxfam America’s First Person blog.


Games in International Development: Fad or Innovation?

People have been playing more games these days in Washington D.C. And I don’t mean the strategies of the Obama and Romney spin teams.

Two recent events suggest games’ growing popularity in D.C. aid circles: this one I attended at the World Wildlife Fund earlier this month and this Tuesday’s upcoming event hosted by the Society for International Development.

Games in international development is a pedagogical approach intended to provide experiential learning opportunities that break down complex topics into easier-to-understand parts for adults, thereby serving as more effective “thought and dialogue stimulators.” In my experience with games, they have been used in place of or alongside more conventional training to help people affected by climate change to understand it, especially the concepts of risk management and adaptation.

There are many reasons to like games: 1) those of us in aid work have had to sit through too many horrible trainings and workshops to count, 2) games are a step closer to putting the “right” people in the driver’s seat of change because they are built on an assumption of agency and rational choice, and 3) they are fun! (Not to diminish anyone’s suffering in the world, but we aid workers might stand to benefit from taking ourselves a little less seriously.)

The natural comparison with games for me is participatory rural appraisal (PRA) or participatory learning and action (PLA). The key differentiation is that PRA/PLA tools can end up as a mechanism to only derive information from communities, whereas in a game, people are engaged and they “gain” the experience of having played and can relate what they learned to their own lives, regardless of what happens next in a project or program.

Skilled and experienced facilitators are needed to ensure the success of both approaches and in the context of a project or program, both PRA/PLA and games must to be supported by sound management to ensure that they are linked to action and support an overall process of development. Both approaches must also be wary of slipping into a lazy (and ignorant) perspective that uneducated people are considered “simple.”

There remain some key assumptions that need to be tested when using games within programming, namely 1) that games are a quicker and/or more effective way for organizations to engage communities, 2) that the resulting dialogue is more productive than with traditional community engagement processes, and 3) that this can “trigger” more and/or independent actions/activities at the community or individual level.

As needed in all development programs, it is vital that game designers ground themselves in the local gaming culture. We cannot only be developing and playing games from our ivory towers in D.C., but also (and perhaps more importantly) developing means to share key concepts of game design widely that would enable local nonprofits to develop games to match local contexts and purposes.

The true measure of the aid world’s success in unleashing the potential of games and sports will not be seen simply in their proliferation, but when we determine the extent of their contribution to improving community engagement and ownership within the projects and programs we support.

A Rising Tide: The Invisible Grassroots “Movement” for Children in Africa

The author, with her great grandmother, in the U.S. state of Nebraska in 1977.

Growing up, my family life was not easy. My father drank and it weighed heavily on my mother, who did her best to maintain as much normalcy for me and my brothers as possible. Looking back, our home’s “culture of silence” was often the most difficult part for me to bear, more than the yelling or the financial stresses or the unpredictability of my father’s behaviour. As a child I had so many overwhelming feelings inside of me that simply had no place to go.

Since the 1990s, the crisis of millions of children infected and affected by HIV in sub-Saharan Africa became well documented. It was during this period that I traveled abroad to Zimbabwe at the age of 19, hoping to get as far away from home as possible. I then went on to become an aid worker, and it is no wonder that I was drawn to children’s programming in sub-Saharan Africa. Even though I was from middle America, from another culture and upbringing, I knew what it was to feel that loneliness, shame, burden, and vulnerability.

Both scholarly literature and policy papers told us at the time that the extended family – the traditional source of support for African children without parental care – was the primary safety net of care for children infected and affected by HIV. It was understood, at least by some observers, that most children were getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major international programs. Rather, those who survived and thrived did so because of the local efforts of people who organised their communities to keep children in school, mobilise and assist foster parents, and provide psychosocial support for children grieving or caring for ill parents.

Building on Tradition

Assistance to children and families affected by AIDS and poverty within their immediate communities builds on long-standing African traditions of community-level sharing of agricultural labour, assistance in times of drought and other calamities, and shared child care, much like the rural, farming area where I grew up. In fact, across Africa, the poorest and most vulnerable people set up indigenous, resilient, and often informal coping mechanisms such as self-help groups, church groups, burial associations, grain loan schemes, and rotating credit and loan clubs. Most of these community initiatives grow out of the concern of a few motivated individuals who work together to support vulnerable children. They spring from a sense of people’s obligation and desire to care for those in need.

I know intimately that it is this sense of obligation that can give children the care they need to become healthy and happy adults. My own family did not exist in isolation either. The proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” was no cliché, but my lived experience. Even when things were hard, I now realise how much that love, care and protection existed around me and strengthened me.

Communities ARE “Turning the Tide”

According to a 2004 survey by the University of Kwazulu-Natal, there are at least 50,000 community-based organisations (CBOs) in the South African non-profit sector alone, which contradicts the dominant image in the aid and philanthropic sectors that services are mainly provided by formal and professionally-run NGOs. In Malawi, a CBO mapping exercise identified over 1,800 CBOs focused on orphans and child protection. A Ugandan study for the Joint Learning Initiative on Children in AIDS in 2007 revealed that the prevalence of community-level initiatives for children affected by HIV was one per 1,300 people. Most were independent groups or linked to local churches, schools, or clinics. While these figures may vary in other countries, there is evidence that many CBOs are assisting children needing protection by extending emotional support and social services into areas and communities that are often not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.

Today with the support and love of family members, friends, and trained professionals, my family has done a lot of healing and I am so grateful for it. In its ten years since its founding, REPSSI has worked with over 100 non-profit organisations and government agencies in almost 2,000 projects across southern and east Africa so that every child has this same chance. There are 5 million children and their families and communities who I know are also grateful.

REPSSI (The Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative) will be celebrating its 10th anniversary throughout Africa this year and at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. on July 21st.  The theme this year is “Turning the Tide Together.”  To enhance the social and emotional well-being of children in southern and eastern Africa, REPSSI develops easy-to-use and culturally appropriate capacity training, tools, and technical advice, including a distance-learning Certificate Course in Community-Based Work with Children and Youth©. An African-initiated and -led organisation, REPSSI works to place psychosocial support firmly on national and international social development agendas.

This is a cross-post here with REPSSI’s blog.


Why I support isolated aid workers across the globe and so should you!

Rich countries delivered $3.2 trillion of aid to poor countries between 1960 and 2008. Yet only 36% of aid workersthink projects achieve their intended impact.

It wasn't that long ago that I was a "budding" aid worker. Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe 2003

Aid recipients agree, calling for a change in aid’s business model—from that of delivery of goods and services to one focused on relationships.

I have experienced the impact and potential of alternative funding and support mechanisms that could serve the conservatively estimated 1,000,000+ local groups and grassroots movements operating across the globe – see, for example.

A major obstacle to this, however, is the estimated 595,000 aid workers (ALNAP, 2010) who are rarely called to examine the bureaucratic rigidities that govern their day-to-day work and that deflate and/or marginalise local activists and changemakers. Cynicism, burnout, and jadedness on the prospect of any “real” progress can seriously compromise the hopefulness that many workers had when they entered the aid industry (see discussions with Satori Worldwide and  Mindfulness for NGOs, for example). Much of the time, the needs of aid institutions and philanthropies overshadow the needs of grassroots-up initiatives, with SO much being lost in the over-technicalisation of aid work and grant-making.

Yet in my experience as a loudspeaker for “local changemakers,” I’ve seen a growing cadre of skilled professionals that openly, bravely, and constructively question “business as usual” in the aid industry. And they are so needed. Connecting aid workers who want to instill and/or re-cultivate a sense of public service and downward accountability within their roles is the first step to change.

Imagine if just a small percentage of the large-grant aid resources are “unlocked” for grassroots-up initiatives. To re-direct even 0.01% of industry resources for local changemakers would be a tremendous win.

By supporting and encouraging dedicated and self-identified change agents within aid institutions to create more trust, equity and mutual accountability with those we serve in the developing world, the system-wide reform needed becomes possible. Like you, I no longer want to see local civil society organisations as the lowest common denominator of international development assistance. It’s time to recognise local initiatives and indigenous organisations as vital to supporting demand-driven development that can genuinely challenge power asymmetries, and unleash social change.

I support‘s initiative to build an international support network for isolated aid workers because I think this effort could help share the good practices and actionable insights about how to better serve local partners, from within the system and outside of it. Now is the time to be corrective and imaginative, shifting the cognitive frameworks with which we talk about international aid.

No matter how you relate to your role in making the world a more equitable and peaceful place for its people to share in its prosperity, you have to do the internal work to know yourself first. In order to “be there” for anyone else, whether it’s your partner you sleep next to or the partner to which you give money, your own sense of well-being is the first thing that affects how effective you are in relating to and supporting others.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we will have to “flip the aid system” to put more local and national actors in the driver’s seat of development. I, for one, want to make sure the next generation of aid workers is ready.


You too can support whydev’s campaign to build a support network for aid workers across the globe here.

Career advice: If I had only known…

I was invited to speak at my alma matter last month. In preparation I jotted down some bits of advice for international development students and aid career seekers. Here’s a collection of those thoughts…


When I came out of grad school, I was programmed to think macro, think sustainability, to think that development economists had a clue (do they?). In other words, to think, think, think. Nothing in my training prepared me for what I would feel as an aid worker.


The mantra “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind. And the trauma, the vicarious trauma, the loss, and the isolation that aid workers can face indeed may make you stronger. Unfortunately, what makes you stronger might also make you less sensitive, hardened, more disconnected, less caring. Thus with all of our conditioned tendencies to avoid suffering, self-critique and self-compassion must be your constant (and sometimes adversarial) companions.


The over-intellectualization of professional aid work is staggering to me at times. Yet I still often find myself wondering, in relationship to various projects, “What were they thinking?”


No matter how self-aware you come into this work, most people in the beginning will be operating from a worldview in which change in poor people’s lives is possible with our help and that it was something that can be “managed.”

In my mind, the jury is still out on this.


When I first saw this graph, I thought, “Gee, this would have been helpful” as I worked to discern my ‘calling’ from what the aid industry was requiring of me, i.e. think-think-manage-manage, and what was actually happening on the ground. The difference between helping, fixing and serving presented below is intended for health care providers, but I think it has real relevance for aid workers and do-gooders alike:


A quote I always keep nearby:

“If you believe if you’re going to…change the world, you’re going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.” (Chris Hedges)


Even when real changes in people’s life conditions are not imminently possible, our role can be to enable hope in the face of adversity.


What is required of aid workers to serve rather than help, is illustrated further by a concept my friend Silvia brought to my attention, that of “cultural humility.” She works in hospice in California, working with healthcare professionals to offer more appropriate and compassionate care to the Latino community. In healthcare settings, cultural humility involves active engagement in self-reflection, bringing power imbalances into check, relinquishment of the role of expert, becoming the student, and seeing a patient’s potential to be a full and capable partner in their recovery.

The most effective and inspiring development practitioners I’ve ever worked with embody cultural humility.


Do you have the courage to battle the modernist viewpoints, privilege and racism at the roots of international aid, as well as to question your own personal prejudices, stereotypes, and agendas? Be prepared to go deeper to examine your own beliefs, values, assumptions, and biases. Karen Armstrong describes the “hard work of compassion” as constantly “dethroning” yourself to challenge your own worldview.


Don’t take only my word on any of this. Other bloggers share their seasoned advice too:

–       Tales from the Hood’s posts on Motivation and Sacrifice

–       one from Satori Worldwide on

–       one from La Vidaid Loca, and

–       another from The Principled Agent.


Maybe the title of this talk should be “What I had to un-learn from grad school.”


I do think there is room for aid workers and do-gooders to redefine our role as translators, between what people on the ground really need and that of the demands of donors. Not as providers of what people need. Not as enforcers of policy, or rules, or regulations. Not as helpers or saviors or martyrs.


Results, results, results. Yes, they are important. Results are not possible, however, without tending to “the process.”

You will have many bosses who do not understand this.


You will have to fight hard to not let the overly technocratic, abstractionist tendencies of aid work pull you under.

You will have to fight against “charitable” urges towards impoverished and marginalized people you encounter, which can ultimately debase their dignity.

You will have to fight to experience the full range of our human condition.


Anyone can identify what’s wrong. It will take much more skill and strength to wake up everyday and help identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where incremental changes can occur.


…Just a few of the things I wish I had known. What about you?