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CEO of Bond, Stephanie Draper - leading the UK’s network for international development organisations

Stephanie Draper



CEO of Bond, Stephanie Draper, sheds light on the work of the UK’s network for organisations working in international development and discusses the challenges and opportunities to build back better

An insightful conversation that delves into the UK Government’s changes to its foreign aid budget, the termination of the Department for International Development (DFID), and co-ordinating with UK and international organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephanie Draper has spent more than 20 years working to accelerate a just and sustainable future, with a focus on sustainable development. She brings extensive international experience of bringing sectors together to collaborate and shape a better future.

The following is a full transcript of the podcast episode:

Alberto Lidji: Today, it's an absolute pleasure to welcome onto the show, Stephanie Draper, who is the chief executive of Bond. And Bond is the UK’s network for organizations working in international development. So it's going to be a really interesting conversation talking about international development, the recent cut in foreign aid of the UK government, and a little bit of the restructuring that's happened with DFID, the Department for International Development and Bond, the organization, the work they do, the more than 400 members they have, the knowledge-sharing research and advocacy. And without further ado, Stephanie, a heartfelt welcome on to The Do One Better Podcast today.

Stephanie Draper: Thanks, Alberto. It's great to be here.

Alberto Lidji: Well, it's a pleasure having you on the show today. Thanks for taking the time. Why don't we start by finding out a little bit about Bond, what is the organization or the network all about?

Stephanie Draper: Yeah, so Bond, as you say, we’re a network for all of the civil society organizations work in international development. So that ranges from the large agencies, you would have heard of the Oxfams, Practical Action, who you had on a few weeks ago, Plan, through to smaller peace builders, like Peace Direct to much smaller organizations. So we have 450 members, roughly, and they are all focused on how they can create a just and sustainable world in their own ways. And our purpose is about enabling them to come together to create greater progress.

Alberto Lidji: And you've been around for a while?

Stephanie Draper: Yes. So we're nearly 30 years old. And we were spun off from the NCVO, which is the National body for all of the charities in the UK, because there was a need for a focus on the specific issues around working internationally.

Alberto Lidji: What is the state of affairs with international development these days? I mean, 2020 has been a horrendous year, I can only imagine some of the challenges that your constituents are tackling right now. Give us a little bit of a flavor for the state of affairs in international development.

Stephanie Draper: Yeah, it is a really… I think the word is “interesting time” at the moment for us, in the UK and globally. So one of the reasons that I was really interested to come to Bond is because I'm passionate about change and responding positively to change around you. It's got to be said that a lot of the changes that we're experiencing at the moment have been difficult to be positive about but I think that we are seeing shifts that are positive and some directions and then obviously pressures that are less so. So if I think about the maelstrom of change that we're experiencing, on one hand, we have the changes to the politics of international development. And one of the core areas that Bond focuses on is around shaping policy in UK politics. And that at the moment is very fraught. We have less political support for aid in the executive and there's this threat of reducing the aid budget in the UK, which is a genuine challenge to the UK standing in the world, at a time when we need to be stepping up, we're hosting the G7 next, and then that's a precursor to the climate summit, which is so critical in terms of getting results for the world's most marginalized communities, but also for all of us. And so having that point seven, and the respect and the political influence that brings is really going to be a challenge.

Alberto Lidji: By point seven, you're talking about the percentage of the budget…

Stephanie Draper: Yes. So the UK is committed to 0.7% of GNI, gross national income to development, its development budget. Yes.

Alberto Lidji: So they said a little bit of that change of the amount that's going on in foreign aid, and also recently the… DFID or the Department for International Development, which has come to a conclusion.

Stephanie Draper: Yeah, so the separate Department for International Development has been merged with Foreign and Commonwealth Office into the foreign Commonwealth and development office. And clearly, that is also creating a lot of disruption. Because as anyone knows who's been through a merger, there's a lot of organizational change that's needed, there's a need to set new priorities. So that has also been a great distraction from the focus on the world's poorest communities at a time when the global pandemic is pushing more people back into poverty. So there's a real need at the moment. And we are working hard to make sure that the UK’s response continues to be commensurate with the scale of the challenge, and that we play our part. I think one of the things that Britain can be really proud of is that it does take responsibility and contribute to addressing global challenges, like climate change, like poverty, like pandemics, and is actively doing that to benefit the wider world. And we want to see that continue.

Alberto Lidji: What's the sentiment amongst your members? Are they feeling that this is a period of change, but in terms of the UK and foreign aid, things will go on favorably going forward, or is there real concern that the restructuring and reassessing the amounts granted on foreign aid will be a problem?

Stephanie Draper: Yeah, I mean, there is real concern. And a lot of our members were part of the Gleneagles Summit when the commitment to international development and the Point Seven were decided upon and then enshrined in law. And so these have been incredibly important steps to ensuring that the UK is a progressive nation. And seeing that reversal, that sort of unpicking of many of the things that we think are really important, is really difficult to see, I think there is also this concern that we're moving away from a poverty focus. So the best examples of international development are focused on where the need is, where the marginalized communities are, or fragile states or very specific issues, but focusing on benefiting the people that we are working with. And that is where you get results. And we know that that's what the public is supportive of. Things that actually create change for people and make people's lives better. But there's a risk when you start to conflate development with foreign policy objectives, that you start to use aid in a way that might push a trade deal over the line or perhaps to complement other things which aren't necessarily focused on the people who need it the most, which is another concern that we are very conscious of and wanting to keep focused on the best outcomes that can be achieved.

Alberto Lidji: Interesting. How do you guys feel you're measuring the impact? You mentioned about the most effective ways of deploying international aid and you mentioned alleviating poverty, but what's the response to the critical audience that might be out there that says, “Well, foreign aid, you know, we have plenty of problems here in the UK, we don't need to be giving out that much. And we're not doing it well.”

Stephanie Draper: Yeah. So it's, it's a really important question. And we need to do more to demonstrate impact, and to be constantly finding ways to improve that impact so that it benefits those who need it most. But the aid budget, the UK aid budget is the most scrutinized of all government budgets. And the assessment and reporting suggests that the vast majority of aid is well spent, and achieving the impact that it says it's going to. So this idea that a few projects are sort of pulling down the whole aid budget is wrong. Actually, the scrutiny and the commitment to getting it right is really there and is really delivering results. At the same time, I don't think we as a sector would say that we’re perfect, and that we've got it all right. These issues are incredibly complex. If you're thinking about providing water and sanitation for entire cities, or communities, or ending AIDS or malaria, that is a systems challenge. And actually the complexity that we're working with, and the need to have an ecosystem of actors working together means that sometimes it's quite difficult to see the specific impacts that one organization or one project is having. And so getting more sophisticated about how you understand that impact, but also how you learn, and how you innovate as well is really important. So I think one of the things that this scrutiny has driven is a bit of risk aversion in the sector. Because if you want to experiment with new thinking and new ideas, you also need to be conscious that you might end up on the front page of the Daily Mail, as a project that, perhaps is seen as not as kind of in line with what we would traditionally understand development to be. So we need to keep evolving in a fairly risky environment. But it's critical that we do evolve. And that's kind of the second thing that Bond is really focused on. It's about how we help the UK international development sector to transform and to create those opportunities that I talked about at the beginning out of the challenges it faces. So there's real demand for a focus on local communities and nations to be able to make their own decisions about the future of their countries and their communities, which is absolutely right. I can’t imagine… I live in Farnham… I can't imagine somebody from the Ukraine coming along and telling… and offering me a whole load of things and suggesting how Farnham should be recreated would go down very well. So that whole desire and need for self-determination in communities is really important. So how can the UK sector enable that? How can it offer expertise, be invited in to help where help is needed, and then be much more hands off and trust local communities to do what they need themselves in other cases? So, that’s just one example of the need to evolve and respond. There are a whole load of other issues, climate change being one of them, different development actors playing different sorts of roles from China through to business. So it's a very dynamic space. And it's really important that we as the membership organization are supporting our members to respond to that and to be agile.

Alberto Lidji: And as you pointed out, I think it would be a shame if there isn't an appetite for sensible risk taking within this field, right? I mean, again, you need people who are going to be innovative and you're going to be trying something new.

Stephanie Draper: Definitely. Yeah. And we need to be really learning from each other. So we don't have time with big issues like climate change, to be making the same mistakes over and over. So we want to be sharing those mistakes, being transparent, communicating, so that we can scale the things that work and build on each other's learning. And so we create a safe space to be able to do that, at the same time as making sure that the successes and how fantastic the work of our members in the sector is are amplified externally. So it's, it's a balance.

Alberto Lidji: So you at Bond, you're looking at policy, advocacy, research, a bit of all of these, right?

Stephanie Draper: Yeah. So I describe our work in three ways. So first of all, it's about, as you say, shaping policy and UK politics. So that's advocacy, its research. And a lot of our media work sits underneath that. And we were very focused on the cross cutting themes that underpin successful international development in the UK. So that's aid quality, that's focused on the Sustainable Development Goals, some of the enabling conditions like good sustainable economic development, climate change. And then the second piece is around this idea that the sector needs to transform. So we have a programme of work that's looking at things like promoting locally led solutions, how can the sector be actively anti racist? What are the business models that we need to be deploying, in order to be successful into the future, and sustained attention to some of the trickier issues in the sector, like safeguarding, and accelerating transparency. And then the third piece is essentially, that we want to be a dynamic and supportive network, we know that as we move forward, organizations need to be more than the sum of our parts, we need this ecosystem response to actually solve these wicked problems that we're facing. So that means having groups that come together to discuss disability and environment and learning and knowledge management and policy and lobbying approaches. So a whole range of different ways that people come together to be the best they possibly can be supported by us. Offering training and support with organizational issues like recruitment and that sort of thing.

Alberto Lidji: Fascinating. I imagine. It's been an incredible challenge over the last several months since the first lockdown to be able to carry on with the convening and knowledge sharing and training.

Stephanie Draper: Yeah, well, we really benefited from having a great team who had the foresight to have already invested in online training. So we're already experimenting with blended learning. And so actually, we were able to go online, almost immediately, at the beginning of April, as the lockdown happened in the UK, which has been great to be able to keep that going. And similarly, I think there's something about having people who work in the space of humanitarian and crisis management, it was just amazing to see Bond, the organization's sort of click-into-crisis mode, we got webinars going, we brought the sector together on zoom, we have kind of bi-weekly meetings with the CEOs from all of our members who choose to come just keeping everyone up to date, upping in our communications. So it has been intense, but it's also been a time of extreme connection. And whilst we're not able to have those coffees in person, I think we're certainly benefiting from being able to connect with people across the country and in other countries, in perhaps a more regular way, if not, such a deep way. So, that has been, for me, really heartening to see the amount of support and how we are all holding each other up in what is such an intense time.

Alberto Lidji: Much interaction between Bond and your counterparts, so in other countries.

Stephanie Draper: Yeah. So we, so one of the things that we want to be able to do is bring together, bring in more foresight into the whole international development, so that I think many of the big agencies are doing that for themselves but our smaller members perhaps not, so we want to make sure that people are ready and prepared for different issues that might arise in future. And one of the things that we do is we have a regular call with the International Civil Society Center in Germany, that's based in Berlin, with interaction based in the states who are our peers in the states and a number of others, people in the Netherlands, so we kind of essentially just share intelligence, because the kind of changes and the future trends are the same across organizations, across different countries. So that's a really important part of staying connected globally. And then we're also members of some of the bigger agencies. So there's Forus which is the overarching membership body for all of us, who we’re members of. So it's an important part of sharing learning, I had a call with one of my counterparts, as soon as the merger happened to talk about what happened when their departments had merged and what we needed to be looking out for, so that we are again building on each other's ideas and learning from mistakes or successes elsewhere.

Alberto Lidji: Yeah. And the research that you do, is that available for everyone or must you be within a membership to be able to access it?

Stephanie Draper: Oh, no. And so any research that we do is open access. So it's available for everyone.

Alberto Lidji: Ok.

Stephanie Draper: So, for example, we did a transitions report that was looking at, which was basically a series of infographics bringing together, what are the different trends, and how might they converge to create a different environment. So I come from that sort of futures system change background, and one of the things I'm really interested in is not just that there is one trend, that public support for climate change is increasing, or the actual physical impacts of something like climate change. But how does that start to converge with other trends, like the need to shift power to local communities? How do those two things come together to create a different space, a different opportunity. And so we tried to do that across a range of different issues. And that's all publicly available. But at the same time, we do pieces of research, more focused around specific policy issues. So we run a cross party group on the Sustainable Development Goals. And that looked at what has the impact of COVID 19 been on the Sustainable Development Goals. And again, we use that as a vehicle for influence. So we try to make our research action focused so that it has a purpose, and it's very much about driving change.

Alberto Lidji: Correct. What's your website address?

Stephanie Draper: You'll find us at

Alberto Lidji: Perfect. Now, you alluded to this a little bit. So tell us a little bit about your background, how did you end up where you are today? And what's driving you as well.

Stephanie Draper: Oh, wow. So I am all about creating social and environmental change. And I came from Forum For The Future where I'd been for 16 years, building up an approach to system change focusing on big systems like food systems and energy systems. So from that kind of more sustainable development side of things. And what I'm really interested in is how do you bring people together in order to create more impact and to shift things and move things forward. So I'm both interested in how you engage with people and the relationships and the process of change that gets you towards the outcomes you want to see. So Bond was a perfect place to bring those together, and focusing on justice and sustainable development, which are things that I hold really dear. And so yeah, it's been a really interesting and exciting moment, to be helping the sector to be the best it can be. And at the same time, I really like all of our members, and I love the sort of relationships and the connections and I have regular conversations, a bit like you, were… it's so impressive and amazing to see what somebody will be doing, focused very specifically on water or on girls education, or perhaps on engaging young people in their own futures. So many inspiring stories that I get to be exposed to on a daily basis.

Alberto Lidji: Yeah, you must be learning on a daily basis.

Stephanie Draper: Absolutely. So there's never a conversation that you don't learn from. This kind of essentially one of my, one of my underlying principles. Curiosity is a core value for me. So that means, you really do get to benefit from all of these conversations, even if somebody is telling you that you're not quite getting it right — that’s interesting in itself.

Alberto Lidji: …at which point you hang up the phone… (a bit of laughter). Are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the world right now? It's difficult to be optimistic after the 2020 we’ve had, but then again, there's a lot of building back better and opportunities as well. How are you feeling about things for the foreseeable future?

Stephanie Draper: Yeah, I mean, I think I'm naturally optimistic. But right now, I've got to say it does feel as if we are moving in the wrong direction. And there are opportunities that we can grow, and build back better is a classic example. No, actually, we have an opportunity to rethink how the economy grows. And the sort of stimulus packages that are used in the UK and abroad will have a bearing on the sort of future that we shape. We've got an opportunity to involve more people in decision making, through things like climate assemblies, or just general, generally improving democratic processes, and there's chances to have more engagement with our members with people who are expert on the ground to shape government policy, but that we're not seeing that happening, we're not seeing those opportunities be taken forward, which gives me less confidence. And things like cutting the aid budget, when there's already a kind of two and a half trillion gap in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And we should be, as a country, encouraging others to step up and fill that gap is quite challenging. Understanding the difficult economic climate but at the same time, knowing that actually, if this pandemic has shown us anything, it's how interconnected we are, and how, if we're all good, if we're going to live in a safe and prosperous world that has to work for everyone.

Alberto Lidji: Key takeaway for our listeners, what's the one thing you'd love for our listeners to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?

Stephanie Draper: Oh yes, I'm sort of learning so much. And I actually maybe that's it, the takeaway is that you never stop learning. And actually, that's what keeps things moving. That's what keeps change happening. That's what enables us to build from our mistakes and make progress. So make space for learning and reflection in your life. I have a reflection time at the end of every week. And just sort of bank what I'm learning and so that I can build on it. And right now, I think the other sort of takeaway is that we all need to look after ourselves and each other. Because it is relationships that make things happen, isn't it, and the people who count at the end of it.

Alberto Lidji: Hear hear, indeed. Never stop learning and look after each other. I think those are two very sensible takeaways that everybody should keep in mind. You've been listening to Stephanie Draper, the Chief Executive of Bond. And, Stephanie, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today and learning from you. And wishing you good luck for the very difficult environment that you have to tackle in international development.

Stephanie Draper: Thank you so much, Alberto. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

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