Exclusive Interview: Gayle E. Smith

Gayle E. Smith is the President and CEO of the ONE Campaign. She served as a top advisor on development issues for two American presidents and is one of the world’s leading experts on global development. In this exclusive interview, Women in Dev founder Rachel Firth sat down with Gayle to talk about throwing out the old playbook, equality and diversity – and, of course, the Women in Dev conference.  

Q: As 2020 began you tweeted that your resolution is to think the unthinkable and that we need to be willing to throw out the old playbook and start thinking about new bold ideas that can transform communities and countries. That sounds exciting. What are we throwing out and where should we be bold?

A: You know, when you look at 2020 and the state of the world, it’s kind of easy to feel depressed. Because all of these big, huge crises are hitting us at once. And I think part of what we need to do, there’s some things that we’ve always done in the past that have worked: certain forms of advocacy campaigns, demonstrations, writing your Congressman.

Build on all those things that work. But I think we’ve also got to think bigger and bolder and start to ask the world: okay, what if you take issues like climate change, equal pay, the completely ludicrous notion that it’s going to take 108 years on average to reach gender equality.

We need to start asking, demanding, provoking, engaging on questions, like okay, what if everybody just adopted equal pay? Like what’s the reason we wouldn’t do that? I think there’s merit in incrementalism, in doing things step by step. You build a solid foundation, we make more and more progress.

But I also think some of these crises are so large that unless we start to make quantum leaps and capturing the imagination of the world’s public by saying well what if we turn this on its head and fix it? I’m not sure we’re gonna catch up.

So, I think we gotta be bigger and ask the big questions.

Q: You have served as a top advisor on development issues for two American presidents and as Administrator of USAID. With only ten years to go to meet our SDG commitments, are you optimistic?

A: I’m always an optimist because I think to be a pessimist or cynical, then you just stay home and stream videos all day which is tempting but not necessarily the most constructive.

So, I think the facts are if you look at the SDGs and the targets for 2030, we are nowhere near on track. We are not on track to defeat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We are not on track to meet any of the commitments that were made on behalf, for and by women in Beijing 25 years ago.

So we are not on track. We are totally off the road, off course. What makes me optimistic? I think there are a few things. One of the things that technology has enabled is the world talking to itself and people talking to each other across borders. These commonalities coming out.

So we’re getting issues rising to the surface at a global level that might not have done so in the past. I think the second is we’re seeing all over the world people saying whether it’s the community level, country level, or single-issue broader issues: I’m sorry, enough. And we’re seeing acts of social awareness, some protests, some activism, some actual engagement, innovation to actually do things differently.

That signals that there is a generation of people spread across the globe. It’s not an entirely singular generation – some of us who can’t quite redefine youth to include ourselves – are certainly with you on this but I but I think there’s a momentum and there’s a determination out there. By people who look at over the next 50 years and say the next 50 years needs to be fair.

There needs to be greater equality, everybody needs to be able to participate. The planet needs to be safe and secure, and we’re gonna fight for it. So are we off track?  Yes, but is there momentum building that’s gonna be hard to stop? Yes.

Q: Women are underrepresented globally in political discourse and decision-making. Where do you see progress for women entering and sustaining political leadership and campaigns and what can we do to increase the number of women reaching the top?

A: For more women to reach the top, particularly in political leadership, more women have to run and so part of the place to start is enabling and empowering women to actually campaign and run.

In the United States, for example in what we call our midterm elections in 2018, we saw a significant number of women run and particularly young women, they did very, very, very well. They are certainly holding their own and forging new ground now that they are members of Congress. So, I think part of that though, is making sure that those people have the support that they need.

In some cases that is support from a community. In some cases it is support for organizations, we just learned there’s a new fund in the United States now to support women who want to go into political leadership. But a couple of other things also enable that. There have been some great stories, huge scandals over the last year of women who brought their children to parliament for the day or something because they had to nurse, or women who admitted that they had babies. Um, look, women have babies. Women still do most of the childcare. During infancy babies really need their mothers, so we got to plan and account for them, so the woman have the time and space to get out there and campaign.

The other is to shine a spotlight on the models.

I mean, you look at what’s come out of New Zealand, for example. There’s a sign of what female leadership looks like and it’s an inspiration, it’s hopeful and I think we just got to get out there and put those images out there and act like we’re supposed to be there. We don’t need to apologize, we don’t need to say it would be really great if there are more of this, we need to act like we should be in the room.

Q: There’s a huge gap in the number of healthcare workers needed to achieve universal health coverage, but also a huge gender gap in management and delivery with women making up roughly 70% of the global health workforce and holding only 25% of senior roles, how do we solve that inherent contradiction?

A: I think it’s true, Christ, in every sector that you’ve got under-representation of women or unequal representation of women. And I think you can get to that from the top and from the bottom, and from the middle. From the bottom it’s everything from making sure that girls can go to school and that women can have access to credit and the legal rights they need to own property and do whatever else is needed to enter a workforce more unequal, than on a lesser footing.

I think at the top there are businesses, companies, governments who can put in place policies that actively ensure and incentivize those things that engender gender equality. It doesn’t happen automatically, if it did it would have happened already, so how do you incentivize it – how do you track the data in your organization or your business or your government so you know where you are on gender equality, how do you do really simple things like make sure you’ve got equal pay? So, I think there policies that can be put in place at the top that make a difference as well.

I think in the in between those two, is solidarity between and among women but also women and men. I’ve been really fortunate in my career that I’ve had the strong support of a lot of other women but also the strong support of a lot of men who never questioned my ability to be in the room or my right to be in the room or the fact that I was the right person to be in the room.

And so, how do you build that solidarity, so that there’s a demand that’s coming not just from women? Not just from advocates on the outside but is coming from a workforce or a classroom or a government that in its largest numbers collectively believes that gender equality, that any kind of equality, the diversity that equity that are values that are going to make our performance better whether in the public sector or the private sector.

Q: 2019 was a big one for ONE, not least in ensuring that congressionally authorized aid went through despite attempts to cut it out. How does an organization campaign that effectively?

A: You know, I joined ONE because I was on the other side of ONE multiple times. I was in the White House twice and I was the Administrator of USAID. And ONE was the most effective advocacy organization out there because it combines this inside game and an outside game. So you mobilize the public externally. To say we believe in this, we support this, don’t do this or do do this.

But then you’ve got an inside game which importantly talks to both parties in the case of the US, multiple parties in the case of other countries. Tries to build on where people agree and not use the extremes of where people disagree accept in extremis.

And really knows the policy and the details. So in a recent case in the US where there was a move by the Trump administration to slice the foreign aid budget by over four billion dollars, which is a pretty hefty cut. It was combining those things, working with Congress members from both parties who thought this was not a good idea.

Our activists across the country who believe, and in parts of the country where people would say, oh nobody here cares about foreign aid, actually there are a lot of people who think that the United States should be investing in the well-being of other countries for all sorts of reasons.

Turning all those things on at the same time, putting the message out there in the public: that’s how you either start something or stop something. And in this case, we were able to stop something. With other partners, I don’t want to say it’s all just us.

There are a number of us but that’s how it’s done. Think of a political campaign without politicians.

Q: We are delighted to have you as a part of Women in Dev. What are you most looking forward to about the conference in the run-up to International Women’s Day 2020?

I’m looking forward to us as women and activists and advocates being fierce, but fair. What I mean by that I don’t think playing dirty works. I don’t think screaming at people is necessarily the best thing, to do but I also think that just saying please please could we have equality: that doesn’t work either, so we have got to be fierce but fair.

I’m looking forward to women talking to each other, so that we can share the things that work and don’t work and support each other. None of us has a monopoly on what the answer, or what the best solution is. I certainly don’t. I hope that I can hear some things that will help me, and I really hope – because I’ve been at this for a pretty long time – that I can talk to some younger women and give them the support and help them build the confidence and determination to get where they want to go and where we need them to go.