RON SEEBER: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Ron Seeber, and I have the great pleasure of introducing our guest speaker this afternoon. Before I do that, I want to just say a few words about this particular Lectureship, the Kaplan Family Distinguished Lectureship in Public Service.
The Kaplan family has long been associated, and, in fact, really have blazed the trail for the university in their support of the Public Service Center, and of public service and service learning at Cornell University. And among many other contributions that they make, they have supported this Lectureship. The Lectureship was set up to bring nationally recognized and international leaders to the Cornell campus to share with faculty, students, and staff their experiences in public service since their departure from Cornell, or from their standard university learning.
Before we begin this afternoon, I want to recognize the contributions of the family, and the three family members who are with us-- Barbara Kaplan, Leslie, and Doug.
So they actually have really fostered a sense of, and attached a, critical importance to public service on the campus. Really blazed a path for us here. We have taken that mission and developed it a bit further. I want to mention two years ago, we had the 20th anniversary of the Public Service Center. We've now started a new center for engaged learning and research to work with faculty and student groups and put engaged learning into coursework at Cornell. We have, in our strategic plan for the university of 2010, one of the seven strategic initiatives was to both heighten the awareness and to spread public engagement work around the university. It's our goal, and we know it's true for a great number of our current graduates and alums around the world, that public service be a distinctive feature of a Cornell education, something not only that is ingrained in students while they're here, but then they take with them as they leave Cornell and lead a life of service going forward.
We currently estimate that we reach certainly through the Public Service Center 8,000 students a year. Well over half of our undergraduates participate in programs at the Public Service Center. We have over 100 faculty offering courses with a significant service learning component. And so we know that we are moving the university in the right direction. And it is due to generous contributors and supporters, such as the Kaplan family, that we have been able to do that.
Our guest this afternoon is John Ambler. He received his PhD from Cornell University a little over 20 years ago. He attended other universities-- Stanford among them-- for his bachelor's degree. But I think his significant work-- and he'll comment on this-- came through his development sociology PhD here at Cornell. Upon leaving Cornell, he has occupied a series of positions that truly make him a globally engaged citizen of the type that I was just describing.
He first spent many years working in Indonesia on issues related to the organization of water management and other agricultural issues. And he, then, moved from there to other work with the Ford Foundation as a program officer in Indonesia. From the Ford Foundation, he moved on to CARE USA, based in Bangkok, and supervised and set strategic direction for CARE's relief and development operations in Southeast Asia.
Then, he moved on to Oxfam. He first was senior vice president for programming at Oxfam America. In that capacity, he has guided all humanitarian programs and response work worldwide of the organization. Most recently, he has ascended to the position of vice president for strategy at Oxfam America. Within the organization, he now works on building up the agricultural program, identifying best practices across the Oxfam confederation of country based organizations, fundraising, and identifying strategic investments and opportunities that the organization might make.
In short, he's truly a globally engaged citizen, and one which all of us at Cornell can be proud. And it's my great, great pleasure to introduce John Ambler.
JOHN AMBLER: Thanks.
RON SEEBER: Thank you very much.
JOHN AMBLER: Thank you.
Well, it's great to be back on campus this time in April. My first bit of advice to you is don't plant your garden yet. You still got three weeks when you might still find ice in the morning on Beebe Lake.
So I've been given a few minutes to talk about my career and what lessons it might hold for other people. As you mentioned, I'm working for Oxfam. Oxfam is a confederation of 17 different national Oxfams. Oxfam Great Britain is the oldest and largest one. It started after World War II in response to the blockade of Greece. Oxfam America is the third or fourth largest of the confederation. We have a annual budget of about $80 million for our organization. The total budget for Oxfam is about $1 billion altogether per year.
Now, you might think that's a lot of money, but given the scope of our aspirations-- confronting poverty and injustice worldwide-- it's not a lot of money. So we have to be pretty strategic in how we think about investing that money. I mean, I think it's a really great job, and I'm very privileged to have it. And it's perhaps the best job in the world. But what have I learned along the way? Well, that's what we're going to discuss today.
I've tried to choose a few personal lessons that have stood me in good stead, sometimes in hindsight. But these are lessons that were relevant for me, but you have to do some translation, because a lot of these lessons are now 35 years old-- starting with 35 years old as a young volunteer in Indonesia-- going up to the present. And so you have to translate between space and time as you think about the relevance for your own work, or for the work of your students or colleagues. So these are only my 10 lessons. Your 10 will be different. But I hope that I've chosen some lessons that will have a little bit of staying power.
Lesson one-- no, lesson one was don't plant your garden.
Lesson two-- protest, even if you don't fully understand what you're protesting about. When I was an undergraduate at Stanford, I got involved in the Vietnam War protests. Actually, I learned later, when I was living in Hanoi in Vietnam in the mid-'90s, there was no Vietnam War. It was the American War. It's obvious, isn't it. But that was our perspective-- the Vietnam War. And I knew the government was lying to us about the war, but I didn't understand really how much.
But one of the things that really shocked me was that we were having a peaceful demonstration on campus. The Santa Clara County TAC squad in full riot gear showed up. They started beating on their shields as they started advancing, moving us off of the plaza. This was a real shock to me. Because I grew up in Colorado, I was used to thinking of the police as protecting my rights. And here, we had a nonviolent protest and we were being essentially evicted by the riot squad.
So that got me thinking a little bit. Interestingly enough-- I mean, it doesn't seem like a big deal, but that started to prick my interest in the relationships between authority and in human rights.
Next lesson-- pick up random leaflets off the ground. In other words, believe in the power of serendipity. Spring of my sophomore year, the secret bombing of Cambodia had just been disclosed. My disgust with American policy was reinvigorated. And I'm walking across White Plaza on campus, and I pick up a colored leaflet off the ground. It might have even been turned face down. I'm not sure. It makes a better story to say that it was turned face down. In any case, I picked it up and it talked about a program called Volunteers in Asia, which is based on campus. It wasn't technically affiliated with Stanford, but that's where its base was. So this really got me interested. I like the sound of John Ambler volunteer a whole lot better than Private First Class Ambler.
So I decided then and there that I was going to start studying one of the languages that they sent volunteers to Indonesia. So I took the unusual step of starting to study Indonesian while I was still an undergraduate. I took it for two years. I was actually pretty fluent. I was fluent enough when I arrived in Indonesia that my Indonesian was better than most people's English. So I kept that up, and I used Indonesian most of the time.
So I moved to West Sumatra to teach English. I was well prepared and, predictably, I hated it. You know, it was exactly the opposite of everything that I was used to. The food was really spicy. The temperature was abominably hot. The humidity was over 100%. It was completely different than anything I had been used to. There were customs I didn't understand.
The Minangkabau people in West Sumatra are matrilineal. So certain property passes through the female line, and that has all kinds of interesting intricacies associated with it. In a matrilineal society, young, unmarried, unaccomplished males, including foreign ones, are the lowest species on the totem pole. You're way down there, way down there. And the Minangkabau have a wonderful habit called [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]-- to make fun of people. And so you are the target. Actually, I was a big target anyway. I'm a little bit taller than the average Minangkabau.
But anyway, I did learn something about etiquette, and patience, and Islam, and poverty during that period. And when I went back to Indonesia nine years later to do my doctoral fieldwork, I went back to West Sumatra. That time, I was married. I had a car. I had two daughters. Daughters are good in matrilineal societies. And some status, so finally I was getting some respect. So the moral of that story is, look up, your shmuck status is not permanent.
Next lesson-- get your hands dirty, but keep the soap handy. Now, when I was living in Indonesia, I was living actually in a fishing village outside of the town of Padang, the provincial capital. And I would commute in every day to teach professors English, so that they could take advantage of World Bank scholarships to go abroad. This was in the mid-'70s. And every day, I would go back to this fishing village, and the contrast was just amazing.
This fishing village, there were no-- mine was the only house that had a tin roof. The others were all thatched roofs. The fishermen would take, very early in the morning-- at 6:00 AM in the morning-- they would take their canoes out and stretch a long net called a [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] along the beach. And then, they would pull it in by hand, four or five guys on one end, four or five guys on the other pulling back for four hours. And then, at the end of the four hours, they would see if they got anything. And it often wasn't much. And if it had rained recently, there was often nothing, because the fish went out to deeper water. They didn't have the technology to fish deeper water.
Anyway, so I got some exposure to living on the edge that way. My stipend was $2 a day from Volunteers in Asia. And after I paid room and board, and other things, I had $25 a month to live on. And it was good. You know, I could do it. And I had the knowledge that, if I needed more than $25 per month, I could arrange the money from somewhere, which is not something everybody can do. But it started to put me into contact with issues of poverty, and it taught me a little bit about how close to the edge a lot of people live.
In the mid-'80s, I spent two more years in the village, this time in an inland, rice growing village in West Sumatra. I was lucky enough to have money from the Ford Foundation at the time that gave me two years of field work support, which was really good, because, if I had just charged in with my hypothesis in hand, and looked neither left or right, but for situations that would help me prove or discredit that hypothesis, I would have missed the most important and interesting things that turned out of my dissertation. So I did take some time to look at things. And I think the moral of that story is, keep your eyes open. The world is not always organized around the principles we think are most understandable.
These experiences also fortified me for working with people like the Asian Development Bank, and USAID, and the World Bank. A lot of those people, they're really smart, but they've never lived in a village. They don't have any sense of the rhythms, or the rites, or the negotiations, the things of everyday life, and the things that are extraordinary that happen in a village. And so those two experiences gave me some instant street cred when I could start off with the phrase, when I lived in the village, blank-blank-blank, which is something that they often couldn't say.
That experience also helped me develop some what I call bullshit antenna. You know, my antenna would start quivering when I heard stuff that just didn't seem to fit. Now, it wasn't that it was necessarily not true. It might be true in a different context. But my bullshit antenna would start quivering and I'd say this is something, based on my experience, I've got to probe further. That was one of the greatest things about that field work experience.
Lesson five is study, study, study, but don't stay in school forever. I mean, there's nothing like practical experience to keep us sane and grounded. But it's really these advanced degrees-- and I'm so thankful for the experience I had here at Cornell where I studied development sociology, with minors in agriculture and Southeast Asian studies-- those mental frameworks, those problem solving tools, that I got during that period were really essential all throughout my work.
And you know, it's not often-- I mean, where else, except Cornell, could you get that concentration-- the best Indonesian and Southeast Asia program studies in the US. One of the best agriculture schools in the US. In fact, the best from my point of view of the social organization of agriculture. And the development sociology. You can't just find that combination anywhere. So Cornell was the perfect place.
I was actually going to try to do my dissertation field work in Burma. And I had a foreign language area studies fellowship for two years that allowed me to study Burmese, as well as take my other classes. But the window in 1984 that seemed to be opening up for meaningful research closed again, and I went back to Indonesia.
It's really funny how different different places are. In 1984, if you wanted to go to Burma and want to study religion, no problem. You want to study agriculture? Oh, no, that's too political. Indonesia, you want to study agriculture? No problem. You want to study religion? No, no, that's too political. So you have to work with what people give you.
I think one of the other lessons that I learned from that experience, I had quite a-- before I came to Cornell, I had a master's in development economics and a BA in psychology. So I had kind of covered a lot of the social sciences. And one thing that I've learned is it all will come into use at some time or another in your career. Don't forget anything.
All that Russian literature I took as an undergraduate at Stanford became useful when I was living in Hanoi, and so many Vietnamese had studied in the USSR. Or, when I was regional director for Asia for CARE, and I was in Tajikistan-- was part of my region, and that was part of the former Soviet Union-- it provided an entree. We could discuss Russian literature, which created an immediate bond that would not have otherwise been there.
And you never know where one discipline is to become useful for another discipline. Soil science, OK? There are six micronutrients that are needed in soil science. Manganese, magnesium, boron, et cetera, et cetera. And the model in soil science for these micronutrients is that you can have a deficit in each of these, but if you fill up one-- say you see fill up all the boron deficit-- it's not going to help, because you still got major constraints in the other ones. So you need to, before filling up all the boron-- you fill up boron partly-- then you've got to fill up some magnesium, and then you've got to fill up some manganese. So in a way, that helped me as a mnemonic for thinking about poverty.
If you say you deal with the education deficit in an area, but you don't deal with the productivity deficit as well, then you've overeducated and there's no opportunity. Or, you deal with the health issue, but you don't deal with productivity. People are living longer, but they're not able to support themselves in the same way. So that was one example of how something as seemingly unrelated as poverty and soil science actually came together.
Final point-- at least get a master's degree. And if you do do a PhD, don't make it a monster like mine. Don't get it right, get it writ. But I think the key thing is figuring out a way to cross boundaries.
And this is something that Cornell is exceptionally good at. There are lots of places where you can get specialized education in some things, but not that many places where you can get this broad sweep of educational inquiry that allows you to solve the problems at the interstices of disciplines, at the interface between different types of problems, and that's really where Cornell should excel in producing those type of interdisciplinary people.
OK, lesson 6-- work in NGOs early in your career. It trains you in low carbon living. You may not be able to afford to work in an NGO your whole career. Remember, your kids are going to know that lesson number five-- study, study, study-- and that's going to cost you. But NGO experience is often a stepping stone to powerful positions in powerful organizations, like the World Bank and others. I mean, the World Bank and the IMF are looking for bright, dedicated people who have good academic credentials, but also have proven their passion by working in non-government organizations.
And some of you may eventually work for the World Bank or IMF, and we want that, especially if you're bent on reforming those institutions from within. And by working in an NGO first, you'll have learned to live modestly. So once you're in the bank, you'll still want to continue to live in your 730 square foot apartment, and you'll want to be saving all that extra, excess salary for organizations like Oxfam.
In any case, after I finished my dissertation, I worked for an Indonesian NGO called [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], where I learned a whole lot of things about life in Indonesia that I did not learn either as a volunteer or as a researcher. And then, as was mentioned, I moved into the Ford Foundation, where I was first able to put some money behind ideas.
The next lesson is hobnob, but with humility. By the mid-1990s, I was pretty high up in the Ford Foundation. I'd progressed from program officer in Indonesia to deputy representative in India, to representative for Vietnam and Thailand. And I was now mingling with the elites-- you know, the people that control the political, financial, and economic resources that bear on people living in poverty.
In Vietnam, for example, I was dealing with the deputy prime minister, the chairman of the External Relations Commission of the Communist Party, the ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry of defense, the minister of internal security. Anyway, so I had good access. And by the way, I thought that it would be difficult for an American dealing with those institutions, but amazingly it was not. It was very easy in the mid-1990s.
But it can get easy to forget yourself. I mean, you're now dressed the same. You live in the same type of housing. Well, maybe not like the US ambassador's house, but your kids go to the same expensive international schools. There's nothing wrong with all of this, as long as you still remember your roots, and you remember those days in the fishing village of pulling water up by hand and preparing lessons by the light of kerosene lanterns, and dealing with the bugs and the insects and the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], the various flying things that always seemed to get into the wrong places.
Anyway, so it's a good thing to be in that circle and trying to influence people that are going to make a difference on poverty. Because again, if you only have a billion dollars and your goal is to eradicate poverty, you've got to leverage policy. So this is the type of place that you want to be.
My lesson eight is be persuasive, be principled, but be calmly diplomatic, even in the face of nastiness. OK, so it's Kabul, Afghanistan, early 2001. The Taliban are still in control. At that time, I'm Asia Regional Director for Asia, for CARE, and I'm trying to negotiate for girls' education in Afghanistan. I'm not getting through to this guy. I'm outraged, but I stay calm. I try to think about some kind of angle that may be persuasive for him. I talk about how women in Saudi Arabia can get an education. I talk about Benazir Bhutto who was prime minister of Pakistan. I talk about Madame Curie. I'm getting nowhere with this guy. He's saying, no, we must finish the war, then we can think about education. I don't raise my voice. I keep on gently until he wearies of such talk. I lost that one.
But actually, there's another story which I won't go in now about the Community on Primary Education program that we had. We had 23,000 school kids in it. This was during the Taliban period, in rural areas. 23,000 school kids in that program. 46% were girls, and the Taliban could not shut it down because the communities wouldn't let them shut it down. So there was work that could be done, even under the Taliban.
Now, northern Sri Lanka, 2002. The country is still in deep civil war. I'm in rebel hell territory in the north talking to a guy whose nom de guerre is Thomilchelvan. He's the political commissar of the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, the terrorist group credited with perfecting the concept of the suicide bomber. My purpose is to try to expand space for humanitarian access to northern Sri Lanka and eastern Sri Lanka, but we're also talking some broader politics. He defines the independence he seeks for the Tamils as a form of autarky. I challenge him politely and offer an alternative vision of independence as really being a state of having many friends. He becomes reflective. I consider it a victory.
So the point is your message must be principled, but it must be conveyed in a way that is culturally appropriate. You won't get far in Asia taking off your shoe and banging it on the table like Khrushchev, saying, we will bury you. But ironically, that style does work in Boston sometimes.
Lesson nine-- language is the window to the soul. I mean, people sometimes ask me how many languages I speak, and that's a difficult one, because some I speak well, some I don't speak very well, some are so residual I should take them off my resume. But the important thing is I've tried. And a lot of people don't try.
You know, I noticed a lot of people in the development world, they don't try to learn the language. It matters to people, and people take notice, when you do things like learn the courtly Malay of old Indonesian, or the Burmese or Hindi writing systems, or the six tones of northern Vietnamese. It matters to people, and you just get such a better experience having put in the effort to study the language.
I mean, for example, Indonesia-- I mean, it's well known that a lot of Asian cultures have different words for rice, depending on what stage of development they are. But how about the words for carry?
I mean, all different words, depending on where you're carrying something on your body. That's the type of sophistication in the language like Indonesia has that English does not. Or, this phrase, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. Literally, it means the time it takes to cook a pot of rice, about 20 minutes. But it's not a measure of time. It's a measure of distance. It's a measure of how far you can walk in the time it takes to cook a pot of rice for about 20 minutes.
So these are wonderful examples of how knowing a little bit about the culture, getting into the idioms, getting into the phrases, the sayings, the cultural expressions, it opens many doors. And besides hearing the same groans coming out of people when you make a bad pun, it makes us realize we're all the same.
OK, so lesson 10-- there are many ways to contribute to the cause. I am extremely fortunate to be able to work with Oxfam, and extremely fortunate to be working in the field in which I was trained to work. Not everybody has that luxury.
Those of you who are students will work in many jobs. I remember an engineering class on irrigation that I took at Cornell. Or, I audited it, I should say, because I couldn't do the math. But I did audit it. And one guy was taking the class so he could build irrigation systems for golf courses. And I was thinking, man, how irrelevant. But you never know. That guy may be managing a halfway house, or maybe he's an engineer designing low flow water systems for urban landscapes. You just never know.
The 1960s radical, Jerry Rubin, became a stockbroker. Unreformed profiteers and cutthroat capitalists sometimes become great philanthropists, or sometimes not. But the career paths are rarely straight. But know your values and keep alert for opportunities to leverage your good ideas in ways that attack poverty and injustice.
To those of you here who are faculty, my advice is to continue to learn from your students. Feed on their passion and idealism. And all of us should continue to infect each other with the drive for pursuing what is right, for being practical, and for being pitbulls, albeit diplomatic, and to make things happen at a policy and program and structural level.
There's a wonderful song by the old singer Billie Holiday. One of the lines is, "The difficult I'll do right now, the impossible will take a little while." Cornell, I think, is a very special place with its rich and diverse resources, and probably some of the best are-- those resources are right here in this room. So you should take on the problems that other people are reluctant to take on.
I mean, if not you, who? Who will do it? And I really think that, in the future, when the history is written of how we finally got to a more just, peaceful, prosperous world, some perceptive graduate student is surely going to be running a search through databases for his or her dissertation, and she or he is going to find this odd connection between Cornell and the success of that adventure.
SPEAKER 1: Do you have time for some questions?
JOHN AMBLER: Yeah, sure.
SPEAKER 1: That would be wonderful. John, thank you very much. We're now going to open it for some questions, and we'll get started.
SPEAKER 2: Hi, John. In Ithaca these days, there's a very high concentration of focus on undoing racism, and how hidden it is, but how persistent and [INAUDIBLE] it is. And we all noticed the first book you linked [INAUDIBLE] in injustice, and I'm just wondering what's the lesson you've learned from being in other parts of the world about how they tie together on a more global level, rather than just the way it looks like in the American context [INAUDIBLE] in the world?
JOHN AMBLER: Yeah. No, that's a great question. I guess the first thing I could say is that every country I've lived in is dealing with racism, its own types of racism and discrimination. Take Vietnam-- about 90% of the Vietnamese are lowland Vietnamese, the ethnic group called the Kinh, and then another 55 groups live in the highlands, so different kinds. And the lowland Vietnamese always think of the highland people as primitive. They think these guys are uneducated, they would do all the wrong things. And it's because they are this ethnic group that they're primitive.
So in 1995-- early 1995-- the Ford Foundation sponsored an international conference on the Dao. The Dao is one of the ethnic groups in northern Vietnam. And Dao from Paris, and from New York, and Philadelphia, and all around came. They paid their own way. They show up in suits, and this was a shock. The Vietnamese would go, wait, you're not Dao. Well, what am I, if I'm not Dao? I am Dao. And it really got people thinking, wait a minute, it's not the Dao-ness that is holding these people back. It's something else. And they didn't want to go there, because somehow this upset their vision of the universe.
I took a group from Vietnam from the Institute of Ethnology to West Sumatra, where I'd done my field work. Now, if you guys are familiar with the 1856 volume by Engels on the theory of the family, you'll notice that he says that matrilineal societies are primitive, and they will disappear. Well, here's a vibrant society. And I took the Vietnamese, and what do they see? They see modern buildings. They see perfectly paved roads. They see people getting five crops of rice in two years. They see women getting educated. They were completely blown away. And they actually dared to confront the Engels theory in print when they got back.
So everybody's got their problem with some kind of racism or discrimination. And I think one of the challenges for us is-- because we want to get to the structural causes of injustice-- how much we try to deal with that level? Because it's deep. It's well-rooted. And it's difficult to confront. But I think-- I mean, my beat has mostly been Asia. It was all Asian until the last eight years when my scope became global. But in Asia, there's so much diversity. You can always find some place that proves something different. And so these cross visits have proven very, very valuable.
SPEAKER 1: Next question? Yes, in the back, please.
SPEAKER 3: Hi, I'm Vanessa. Thank you for your talk. I'm graduating in about a month and two days, and struggling with the question if I should volunteer my time. It could take quite a few years going [INAUDIBLE], or spend those two years working towards a degree. [INAUDIBLE] issue of selflessness and selfishness, or something. Giving or taking from culture, and learning from it, I didn't feel [INAUDIBLE] in terms of [INAUDIBLE]. I found that what I wanted to be was the Mother Theresa and help them, and I learned so much from them. Now, I think, well, you're going to graduate school and spend four years plus more years, and then be able to do my degree for a greater portion, or should I spend more time getting to know myself more, and then work [INAUDIBLE]. So I don't know. Do you have any advice for me?
JOHN AMBLER: I have advice, but you may not like it. My advice is that actually you can serve yourself by volunteering. There's no sacrifice there, actually. Because you're graduate program will become that much more focused and meaningful if you've had that volunteer, that intensive volunteer experience before you get into the classwork of your master's program. So it's not really one or the other, from my perspective. I see that as, doing the volunteering actually will make your master's or other degree program more meaningful. It will be more nuanced. You'll know a lot better what you should be studying, how you should be studying it. And you'll just have a lot more growth in your bullshit antenna.
SPEAKER 1: John, I have a question. You were talking earlier about this billion dollars as a responsibility, and I know people were saying, hmm, that's a of money. And then, as you framed it, you are trying to think about eradicating poverty worldwide, it isn't a lot of money. And so, how do you go about thinking strategically about where you're going to make investments that aren't just putting a band-aid on a situation? [INAUDIBLE]?
JOHN AMBLER: Well, I should have clarified a little bit. That billion dollars, about 35% of it is connected to emergency relief. So that's $350 million that is just going for responding to the crises that occur around the world. So that's difficult to program in a long term manner.
We're trying to think about more systematic efforts to prepare communities for disaster, and work through them when disaster strikes, so that they can be good and better first responders. But it's difficult to do that with something like an earthquake, because you can't predict where an earthquake is going to happen and when it's going to happen. But it is possible do it with things like flood and drought, which are increasingly predictable, in some ways, and we can know where to concentrate our efforts with that emergency money.
The other 65%, or $650 million, is coming from a variety of sources. Oxfam America does not take US government funding. So we have our money coming from foundations and individuals. The money that comes from foundations is as good as the unrestricted is, because we negotiate with the foundation for doing what we want to do. So we're leveraging the foundation's money.
Unfortunately, some of the organizations in this business take mostly restricted money from government, and their efforts are being leveraged by the government, actually. They take a lot of things that they wouldn't necessarily do on their own if they had unrestricted money for it. So there's a debate about how much degree of freedom you actually have on this.
I think we have quite a lot in Oxfam compared to many organizations, but still, there are restrictions on some of that money. We work in 84 countries. Divide a billion by 84, and that's only $12 million a year per country. And of course, some countries are real big countries, and other countries that have small budgets. I mean, $12 million is what I had in the Ford Foundation to work with in India as our office there.
So you kind of start to break it down, and it doesn't seem like as big a chunk of money as you might hope.
But what we try to do is we don't spend all our money on field experiments. We may do some field experiments, but we spend a lot of our money on policy analysis, working with policymakers, getting policymakers out to the field in their own countries to see good experiences, trying to bring key organizations in the government into the process of creating the experiment itself. That's the way we have more leverage on national policy. And at the end of the day, most of the policies that are holding people back are found in the countries in which they live.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 5: [INAUDIBLE]
JOHN AMBLER: Yeah. The Indonesians have a saying, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], which means, of course--
It means, of course, different fields, different grasshoppers, different fishing holes, different fish. So there are differences between places. And some places will learn better from other places.
I mean, one of the things I found in India was Indians didn't learn very well from other countries. But there was a lot of variety just within India. They would learn from other states in India. So that was the reference point that was useful. Some of the small countries-- Vietnam was eager to learn from anybody, and that was really an exceptional case, I thought.
Yeah, I think there are lessons that are transferable. But some of the lessons are not the solutions, but the thought processes that you go through to come to some kind of joint solution, or some kind of half solution. Those processes that make sense, that are participatory, that talk about creation of real ownership, not sense of ownership, that talk about co-design, not just participation, in something, where they talk about facilitating the development of organizations, not forming organizations. If we change the way some of our language is directed, this work actually becomes more ownership-driven and more located in people that we want to help.
One of the things that I think is transferable across all this experience is that we want people who are living with poverty and injustice to be their own best advocates for social change. And we don't want to do it for them. We can't do that for them. We don't have the money, or the longevity, or even the credibility or legitimacy to do it for them. But if we can help them speak out for themselves in new and more powerful ways, that's really where we get leverage, and I think that's the kind of lesson that is transferable across different situations.
SPEAKER 6: And to that point, I'd be curious what you have found [INAUDIBLE]?
JOHN AMBLER: Actually had some impact, yeah. OK, let me give you a couple of very different examples. One is the system of rice intensification in Vietnam. You might think Asian rice farmers know everything there is to know about growing rice. Well, it turns out, they don't. And the answer is not found over in the plant breeding department here at Cornell, I'm sorry to say. The answer is actually found in going back to some earlier practices that were practiced in many places in Asia, where you have wider spacing, fewer seeds, faster transplantation from the seed bed to the main field, and a variety of other techniques that, together, are taken as the system of rice intensification.
And Vietnam already had pretty good yields-- four tons per hectare. But this is raising it to five tons per hectare. And because we worked with the plant protection department of the Vietnamese government, this is spreading nationally. So I mean, going from four to five tons per hectare in Vietnam, or going from one to three tons in Cambodia, makes a huge difference. And that's the type of thing where we got government involved in Vietnam from the very beginning, and they have been powerful agents for transferring that knowledge to new places.
Another example comes from South Africa, where we were involved with the campaign to get antiretroviral drugs more cheaply to people in Africa especially. And that kind of campaign is one where you have to be connected for a long time, because you have episodic spikes in activity and opportunity. They're not there all the time, and you waste some money if you try to push it all the time.
So one of the lessons we learned from that is, if we've got experts in that area, keep them busy with other things, too. And then, when the time comes where there's an opportunity, then they can weigh in. And that program dropped the price of antiretroviral drugs by 90% to South Africa.
Now, obviously, we're not the only organization that's involved in that. That's a huge coalition. But that's another one of the lessons, is try to form meaningful coalitions with other organizations, and especially with the government itself, because the government-- that was one case where we and the South African government were on the same side of the issue.
SPEAKER 7: When I look at pictures about food poverty, which [INAUDIBLE], there's a couple of things I've seen to be like in a runaway mode, one of them being the land grab situation, especially in Africa, and the other being the seed monopolization in [INAUDIBLE]. And I'm just wondering, when you look at that, are there advanced, high-leveraged methods to meet how [INAUDIBLE] those concerns are? I mean, what are people doing that you see that really seem like have a chance?
JOHN AMBLER: How Many people don't know what land grabbing is? OK. Land grabbing is a term that may be not always that appropriate, but it refers to governments leasing out land-- their own country's land-- for agricultural production to foreign organizations-- foreign companies-- who will export the food to those countries.
So for example, India and Saudi Arabia are getting leases on large amounts of land in Ethiopia to potentially develop as food sources for India and Saudi Arabia. The problem is Ethiopia's drought prone, right? And some of the worst famines in the world have happened in Ethiopia-- 1984 and other years. I mean, just in the last five years, we've had three major droughts in that area.
So you could be faced with the specter of foreign companies tilling the land, exporting all the food, while people in Ethiopia themselves are dying. I mean, where have we seen that before? Well, the Irish potato famine. It wasn't that there weren't potatoes, but the British were exporting them all from Ireland to England in the 1840s. So that's a problem.
Now, how do you get past that. Well, one would be trying to influence the donors. Because Ethiopia is a case in point. There's a lot of money going into Ethiopia from the bilateral donors, and not nearly enough of it's going into agriculture. If you can shift some of that investment emphasis on agriculture, and have them develop their own land, then they can decide whether to sell it to Saudi Arabia or India. They don't have to automatically see it pass through their ports and leave the country. So that's a much more powerful way of dealing with it.
GMOs, that's a tough one. The genetic diversity issue is a problem. But one of the things that we're finding with this system of rice intensification, for example, is that you don't need GMOs to get these yields. You can use traditional varieties, or hybrid varieties, that are already in the market. You don't need to go to GMO things. And therefore, you can avoid the monopoly that some seed companies have tried to create.
I think Chuck had a question.
SPEAKER 8: John, I appreciated your 10 lessons very much. I'll use at least five of those in a lecture tomorrow, I'm sure.
JOHN AMBLER: For yourself, or for your students?
SPEAKER 8: I hope you don't mind the [INAUDIBLE] of this question, but because you have had such a [INAUDIBLE] career, and stations stations in different countries [INAUDIBLE]
JOHN AMBLER: Yeah, I think there are a few institutions in America that really should aspire to be global land grant institutions, and I think Cornell is one of them, because of the interdisciplinary opportunities that exist here. But I think one of the key things to really be successful in that is to figure out a way to tap the knowledge of your students from many parts of the world.
This is not a simple problem. How do you get people who may know an awful lot, but have difficulty either expressing it in English, or expressing it in academic terms, or expressing it because it may seem culturally different? How do you get that kind of knowledge really worked into your research proposals, into your thinking? How do you really learn-- I mean, many of your foreign graduate students already have significant work experience under their belts. How do you tap that? I think that's part of what would lead to a more successful global presence and reach.
SPEAKER 9: [INAUDIBLE]
JOHN AMBLER: Yeah, we think about that a lot. Maybe not as systematically as we need to, but it's a problem. I mean, business of different kinds. An individual farmer is a businessman. You know, so it doesn't have to be-- we're not just talking about corporations. But the profit motive, the market system, is really where it has to be. That's where most of the value is going to be produced. That's where the jobs are created. They're not in government, or in NGOs. They're created out in the individual entrepreneurs or in companies. So that's going to be the driving model for the economy as a whole.
But when you try to think about businesses as being the driver for social investment, that starts to get really weak, I think. Because businesses, whether they're public or privately owned organizations, they need to respond to the profit motive. And that's good. We want them to make money. We don't want businesses to fail. But trying to add on to that a burden of being socially investing-- socially aware is OK-- but investing as part of their model in communities, I think you need to look really closely at that model. And part of the reason is companies tend to have a very self-interested perspective on poverty. They tend to invest in communities around their factories, for example, or invest in their supply chain-- people in their supply chain.
The people you really want to influence, I think, is the government. Government's making the big policies that affect both the way corporations and individuals work. I mean, this is a big, long question about social investment in companies, which we don't have time for, and I'm not necessarily competent to deal with all the angles of that. But I think you really have to ask, where's the leverage going to come from that's going to change society? Is it going to be individual companies? Will it be a movement that companies buy into? Will it be government led? Will it be people led? There are many different sources of energy for some kind of social movement. And different countries-- like, India has great possibilities for self-help groups as being an engine of change. But self-help groups are not a big thing in Vietnam. So you see you have to accommodate to the conditions that you're working under.
SPEAKER 1: Well, John, you've given us a tremendous amount to think about, both in our individual lives and as Cornellians, especially as we think about contributing to the land grant university of the world. And you make us very proud as a Cornellian. Thank you for spending time.
JOHN AMBLER: Thanks. Thanks very much.
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From West Sumatra to Hanoi, John Ambler, Ph.D. '87, vice president of strategy for Oxfam America, has devoted himself to public service in developing countries. "It's perhaps the best job in the world," he said in his April 24, 2013 Kaplan Family Distinguished Lecture.
Ambler's contributions to Oxfam, an international confederation of 17 organizations working in about 90 countries to find solutions to poverty and social injustices, include development of its agricultural program, fundraising, and identifying best practices and strategic investments for its rights-based programming.