You can’t achieve development by working around government, says Big Win’s Jamie Cooper

Philanthropists and funders have a responsibility to understand and support the goals of their government partners, said Big Win Philanthropy Chair and President Jamie Cooper during a panel discussion at the Skoll World Forum.

Joining experts from government and philanthropies, Jamie emphasized that working with governments also requires an appreciation of the complexities of domestic politics and development agendas.

Titled “Elephant in the Room: Funder/Government Power Dynamics,” the session focused on how funders and governments can navigate complex dynamics to enable greater scale and impact. Speaking of her experience as a philanthropist, Jamie emphasized: “You can’t achieve development by working around government.”

Jamie said that the “aha moment” that fundamentally changed her approach came when she was working with the Ethiopian government to reduce infant mortality. Jamie suggested focusing on nutrition and developing a home birth checklist, since so many women were giving birth at home rather than in health facilities. But officials at the Ethiopian Ministry of Health wanted to take a different approach. They knew that failing to improve infant mortality rates quickly would put them at risk of losing big donors and missing Millennium Development Goals targets. Nutrition, while important, was not their primary aim.

Appreciating how difficult it can be for governments to say no to funding, Jamie and her team adjusted their strategy. They collaborated with the government to get more women to give birth in health facilities, raising that number from 10% to 66% and leading to a reduction in infant mortality—while also developing a post-birth home checklist. Had Jamie insisted on focusing on nutrition, she realized, it would have undermined the government’s progress and agenda.

That was the moment when I really realized that [my partner at the Ministry of Health] understands their context and their politics. The more I sit on the government side of the table, the more I realize how important it is to be a trusted partner and not undermine them in any way.”

Asked about the most important qualities in a government partner, Jamie outlined four key characteristics: someone with an ambitious transformative agenda; someone very driven; someone willing to change their style and navigate new challenges; and personal connection. In this regard, Jamie said Big Win is “very lucky” to be able to work with partners through the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program and the Amujae Initiative, the flagship program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development.

The session at the Skoll World Forum was curated in partnership with VillageReach and Emerging Public Leaders and was moderated by Ngaire Woods, founder and inaugural Dean of Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. Joining Jamie on the panel were Patrick J. Mugisha, Commissioner at Uganda’s Innovation & Intellectual Property Management, Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation (MoSTI); Deborah R. Malac, former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda and Liberia; Malado Kaba, Amujae Leader and former Minister of Economy and Finance of the Republic of Guinea; and Paulin Basinga, Director of Health for Africa at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Watch the full session below.