Penny Fowler

Podcast Interview

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BFP: What do you do?

PF: I lead Oxfam’s Private Sector advocacy team, which undertakes research, develops analysis and policy positions and lobbies companies and governments on issues relating to business and poverty. Oxfam’s overall aim is to maximise the contribution that business can make to poverty reduction through engaging with and working to influence companies’ policies and practices, and the regulatory environment within which business operates.

Oxfam’s business engagement is structured around a number of agreed focus sectors and topics: agriculture, finance and climate change, including within the context of Oxfam’s Grow Campaign which aims to secure food justice in a resource constrained world. We work to engage companies in developing and implementing sustainable business models, and to share Oxfam’s insights from many years of experience working with partner organisations and local communities in over 70 countries around the world. We have developed a number of programmes in which we work collaboratively with business, for example, to support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, with a specific focus on women entrepreneurs, and the promotion of inclusive business models.

My team engages companies in advocacy dialogues on key issues identified in our policy analysis and programme work on the ground. Where necessary, Oxfam will challenge companies (and/or governments) to change their policies and practices, including through mobilising Oxfam supporters in public campaigning if we feel that this is the only or most effective way to achieve the necessary change. One recent example is the spotlight Oxfam has put on the new wave of land acquisitions which, due to inadequate global safeguards to protect the rights and needs of poor communities living on the land, can impact negatively on poor communities.

BFP: What is the best part about your job?

PF: Working with colleagues, partner organisations and businesses around the world who are committed to making a difference and changing the situation of people living in poverty. We face huge challenges in tackling global poverty but by working together, we can make a real difference to people’s lives.

BFP: What has been your greatest challenge?

PF: An ongoing challenge is convincing people that business and international development are not mutually exclusive objectives; whilst at the same time being quite clear that good intentions [on the part of business] are not enough. So one is constantly walking the line between recognising that business can make a positive difference and encouraging them to do more. There are clearly lots of win-win situations out there but it is not always obvious what the business motivation would be for getting involved in engaging in this space.

BFP: How have you overcome these challenges? What has been the secret of your success?

PF: I think it is often about being prepared to listen and appreciate different perspectives, and building relationships based on mutual respect. It helps to agree that there are substantial differences between parties’ views and expectations, but to then try to identify the common ground and to engage in constructive dialogue to increase understanding. It is important to recognise that everyone brings something to the table, that everyone has a contribution to make.

By the same token, I think it is also important to recognise when you need to challenge people and confront them with difficult questions that don’t fit with their normal view or typical situation. Finally, NGOs including Oxfam need to be open to learning and increasing our understanding of what would enable business to do things differently.

BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?

PF: Most importantly, you need to have a strong inherent desire and a commitment to work in this field. You can demonstrate this commitment by being prepared to spend time working overseas in a developing country, if necessary on a voluntary basis – this is a very competitive field and you need to demonstrate that you are serious about working in development and prepared to make a personal investment in getting the right opportunities. In my own case, I volunteered with Oxfam on completion of my Masters degree, and was then offered a two-year ODI fellowship in the South Pacific. On my return I did research, policy and advocacy work in the civil society sector for some time before joining Oxfam 12 years ago, where I’ve held a number of different positions prior to joining the private sector advocacy team.

BFP: Finally, what do you hope to get out of being part of this community?

PF: Business Fights Poverty is a great place to find information and contacts on a range of topics that I, personally, and Oxfam generally are interested in working on. It is useful for getting a sense of the big emerging ideas and the debates on issues that people are concerned about. Oxfam has used BFP to share Oxfam’s own work with this community and to let people know about new reports, analysis and campaigns; to advertise jobs with Oxfam; and to engage with the wider business and development community. We have also participated in several BFP events, including at CEO level.

Editor’s Note:

Thank you to Penny Fowler for taking the time to do this interview.

We’re always looking out for members to feature. Help us by taking two-minutes to update your profile, or by me****@bu*******************.org" target="_blank">nominating someone for Business Fights Poverty Member of the Week.

This Member of the Week interview was conducted by Hester le Roux, BFP Member Relations Manager. Read previous Member of the Week interviews here.

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