Me and Harry Reid: My second day on the job at OxfamDecember 3rd, 2012 | by Jennifer Lentfer
“Wear a dark suit. You’ll be wearing an over-sized cardboard mask.”
This is not a set of instructions I expected to hear in my new job as a writer, but here I was, being asked to play the Senate Majority Leader from Nevada.
As the newbie, what was I going to do? Say no?
The next day, my new colleagues scurried around as onlookers and the Congressional police force carefully eyed what we were doing. The image of the 18 foot high inflatable yellow duck against the backdrop of Congress’ hallowed halls was certainly a site to behold.
As I danced around to Benny Hill music with “Nancy Pelosi”, “Mitch McConnell”, and “John Boehner”, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think, “What have I gotten myself in to?”
In the two weeks since my stint as Harry Reid, my time at Oxfam has been less eventful, but no less exciting. I’ve been drinking from a fire hose, manned (and womaned) by a group of intelligent, talented, and committed people in Oxfam America’s Washington DC office that I have affectionately named “The Wonk-tivists.”
As I read my team’s annual plan, it became clear that these are folks who know that people lift themselves out of poverty. That’s why they are focused on making international aid more effective and more responsive, a topic near and dear to my heart.
But first, we must protect the tiny proportion of poverty-reducing aid that is part of the federal budget, hence the need for the lame duck stunt. (Check out some of the media coverage here and here.) Humanitarian and development aid is less than 1% of the federal budget. And although cutting aid won’t prevent Congress from jumping off the fiscal cliff, it will prevent us from upholding our responsibilities to people around the world who are working hard to bring change in their communities.
Before coming to Oxfam, I worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa. What is undeniable to me, in my decade of service in the international aid and philanthropy sectors, is that assistance to vulnerable families within their immediate locales builds on long-standing African traditions of community-level sharing of agricultural labor, assistance in times of drought and other calamities, and shared child care. In fact, across Africa, the poorest and most vulnerable people set up indigenous and resilient coping mechanisms such as self-help groups, church groups, burial associations, grain loan schemes, and rotating credit and loan clubs (Lwihula & Over, 1995; Mutangadura et al., 2000; Wilkinson-Maposa et al., 2009).
Earlier this year, the Aid Effectiveness Team at Oxfam America conducted research with these local change-makers in seven countries to help describe the experience of people living and working on the ground where US foreign aid is delivered. Their findings and collection of stories show how threats to Congress’ foreign aid budget puts the results accomplished by people like Emiliana Aligaesha at risk.
Emiliana Aligaesha and her fellow community members are part of a community group that formed a local private company in Karagwe, Tanzania. They sell coffee and beans and USAID and the World Food Programme have been among their clients. Local leaders declare Ms. Aligaesha’s farm exemplary, even though she has had little formal agricultural training. In addition to her farm’s productivity, Ms. Aligaesha has become a kind of researcher and innovator in the village, testing out new agricultural techniques for others to follow. Most importantly to this former teacher, Ms. Aligaesha’s nine children have all been put through college.
I know why I signed up. I’m here at Oxfam to support the people like Emiliana Aligaesha that are making our world safer, more prosperous, and better for us all.
So if asked to impersonate a 72-year-old Senator again at Oxfam, I’ll readily say yes.