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«NGOs will be critical as tools for empowering individuals to spark social change» –Samuel Galler

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Samuel Galler

Samuel Galler


Samuel Galler graduated with a joint BA/MA from Harvard in East Asian Studies with a minor in Global Health & Health Policy. He spent a summer as a research intern at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he researched the role of Chinese NGOs in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Last summer he also consulted for the Rwanda Development Board in Kigali, researching ways to attract and promote investment in the region. He has a strong interest in the study of global governance, technological innovations in health, and the development of effective civil organizations. A Rhodes Scholar, Galler is currently a DPhil candidate in International Development at Oxford University.



What is your area of research at Oxford University?

I am currently enrolled in the DPhil program in International Development at Oxford. I am interested in studying the effects of technological innovation on organizational development and civil society, and may take my research in a few different directions. The specifics may evolve over the next few months.

You spent the summer interning in Rwanda for the Rwanda Development Board and the Office of the Policy and Strategy in the Office of the President. What was your role there?

Last summer I was working in the Investment Promotion and Implementation department of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) as a short-term consultant for Chinese investment in Africa. My role was to facilitate understanding between the RDB and Chinese businesspeople in Rwanda, and to help the RDB understand some of the concerns and obstacles faced by Chinese investors in order to better attract investments from China. My project emerged from recent speculation that the relationship between Rwanda and China will be increasingly important to Rwanda’s ability to sustain growth, build infrastructure, and incorporate technological innovation in the future. It was my first (but certainly not last!) visit to Africa. I’ll also add that I was very impressed with the talent and leadership that has helped to drive Rwanda’s impressive economic growth over the past decade.

I believe my research to be a crucial first step in broadening our understanding of nascent civil societies as a unique and delicate part of today’s world.

Your internship in Rwanda is one part of your larger research agenda and interest in global governance and aid. As part of your bachelor thesis you investigated the dynamics of NGOs involved in HIV/AIDS in China. Can you describe your findings and your contribution to your field of research?

My thesis research in northern China sought to understand the politics and dynamics of grassroots NGOs working on HIV in a particular time of crisis for the sector. It illuminates the conditions under which grassroots NGOs were operating in China at that particular moment.

NGOs in their current form are a fairly new phenomenon in China, appearing mostly in the last two decades. About two years ago, the Global Fund froze funding to Chinese HIV NGOs due to a failed negotiation between a number of international and national organizations. This affected almost every organization working on HIV, and put their leaders under intense pressures to raise funds and sustain their activities. I believe it to be a fascinating case study that highlights the interrelatedness of civil society groups in various countries, which has vital implications for how we understand international relations. In this situation, the systems of economic and legal support between international organizations and Chinese NGOs faced difficult challenges, exposing the vulnerable nature of our current global society.

My aim was to explore the ways in which domestic NGOs responded to incentives imposed by the Chinese government and by international donor organizations. Using an ethnographic approach, I spoke to leaders of Chinese HIV NGOs about the ways in which they interacted with international and domestic audiences, and about the effects of political barriers that restricted their organization’s development. I discovered a number of ways in which international capacity building programs, intended to foster the development of Chinese NGOs, were not well suited to the actual needs of grassroots groups. I also argued that the dependence on international sources of funding shaped the way that suffering was portrayed and understood by these organizations. Finally, I looked closely at the way in which negotiations between the Global Fund and the Chinese funding recipients had deteriorated, revealing a need for better protocols to guide constructive deliberative discourse in a newly developing civil sector.

I believe my research to be a crucial first step in broadening our understanding of nascent civil societies as a unique and delicate part of today’s world. China’s civil sector is consistently underestimated in academic studies, yet in the next decade, I believe it will take on a much more obvious role in Chinese politics and international relations.

When compared to the work of NGOs in Africa and other latitudes, what do you think is specific about the Chinese case in relation with the political constraints under which Chinese NGOs operate?

It is an exciting time to be studying NGOs in China for a number of reasons. Chinese civil society has undergone drastic changes over the past three decades, following a series of political reforms, an era of unprecedented economic development, and of course the advent of internet communication technology. At the same time, the Chinese state still maintains a policy of limiting and regulating civil organizations to a much greater extent than countries in Africa and the West.

However, NGOs in both weak and strong state environments face similar pressures to attract international funding, with analogous effects on the way they develop institutionally. This trend towards a transnational civil society requires further investigation into ways that we can improve the manner in which strong civil organizations are encouraged. NGOs will be critical not only as political entities vis-à-vis the state, but also as tools for enhancing public service delivery and empowering individuals to spark social change.

I believe that as communication and migration become more widespread, geographical adjacency will decline in importance.

Some historians have argued that the axis of civilization is progressively moving to the West, from Ancient Summer and Babylonia, then to Rome and Greece, next to Western Europe and now North America. Relying on your experience in China and Africa, do you think that China would be next or, rather, Africa?

This theory of an “axis of civilization” is intriguing, but I would question its usefulness as a tool for understanding global development. While we may be able to point to various societies that have flourished chronologically in certain regions of the globe, I think this framework of a moving “axis” often suffers a few problems. First, this theory tends to exhibit selection bias, focusing copiously on Western powers and neglecting their contemporaneous counterparts in other parts of the world. Consider the fact that China under the Tang Dynasty was one of the world’s most advanced societies in its time. I see this as a strong counterexample to the proposition that there is axis of civilization that moves in a consistent direction. Second, there is the challenge of how to evaluate and compare civilizations – do we focus on economic, military, or cultural dominance, or the development of new technologies and philosophies?

Alternatively, I would propose an approach that emphasizes the factors that contribute to the rise and fall of national and regional powers. In the last century, many of the fastest growing nations were able to harness mutually beneficial trade relations with wealthier countries, while maintaining and developing strong education, health, and governance institutions. China is far ahead of most low-income countries in Africa in terms of its growing wealth and global economic power, but its rate of growth will likely ease in the next decade. Rule of law, political stability, natural resources, and technology transfer are widely regarded as important factors in economic development, and I believe that as communication and migration become more widespread, geographical adjacency will decline in importance.

I expect to see civil organizations help developing states to avoid the problem of dependency and debt from foreign aid.

Under the current climate of economic “austerity,” many countries are cutting back in their financing of NGO work, as well as in foreign aid. Spain is a clear example of this. In addition, and perhaps due to economic constraints, the old clichés about the effectiveness of NGOs’ work and their management of funds is being used to quell criticism on the cutbacks.

Today, we are seeing a great deal of innovation in the way that NGOs can be evaluated and held accountable. Organizations like GiveWell who research and compare NGOs are really changing the paradigm for how donors and NGOs communicate and interact. Thus it is difficult to make broad arguments about NGO effectiveness because there is an enormous range of organizational competence within this domain. In an era of austerity, all NGOs are likely to suffer, but rather than lamenting the strain this puts on many well-meaning organizations, I see this as an opportunity to double down on ensuring that dollars invested in grassroots projects are being used most effectively.

With enough creativity, NGOs also have demonstrated that it is possible to rely on partnerships in order to minimize overhead costs. A few months ago, I attended a lecture by the founder of the The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), and I was impressed by his record of collaborating with both private and public entities whose interests aligned with that of his organization. Because of these relationships, AMF is able to allocate donor money entirely for malaria nets in a scalable and effective way. This is something that other organizations should emulate.

Foreign aid should operate on many of the same principles of per-dollar outcome-based evaluation, though the political dimension to aid constitutes an additional challenge. As a long-term solution to problems in the developing world, foreign aid can be tweaked. Careful emphasis on empowering local institutions and collaborating with foreign governments will be important in this process. In the twenty-first century, we have seen civil organizations playing a more powerful role in the international sphere, and I expect to see this help developing states to avoid the problem of dependency and debt from foreign aid.

I also hope to see the development new technological tools for helping NGOs organize, analyze, and report data. The costs for this kind of work often intimidate resource-constrained or early-stage NGOs, yet constant self-evaluation is ever more crucial to guaranteeing that an organization can exert a positive impact (and prove it!). Amicus is one up-and-coming tool in the U.S. that can be used to organize fundraising and data aggregation for causes. In the current environment of rampant technological entrepreneurship, I am certain that we will see many attempts to lower costs for mobilizing and organizing civil groups.

Social media will function as an outlet for those feeling lost.

How do you think that the current economic crisis has impacted your understanding of the present and your expectation for the future? Is it accurate to talk about of a “lost generation” because of the crisis?

The economic crisis has certainly challenged many of today’s youth entering the workforce to stretch themselves in new directions, and often redouble their efforts when looking for jobs in new fields and locations. I have watched numerous friends and classmates switch fields, and it is not uncommon to see people take on another degree or postpone their entrance into the weak job market. It may still be early to talk of a “lost generation,” though I do think that it remains to be seen what kind of new experiences come out of this period of high unemployment. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that social media will function as an outlet for those feeling lost, and it will be interesting to see what kinds of products and effects result from a new set of technological pastimes.

What makes the Rhodes scholarship one of the most prestigious academic awards in the world?

The scholarship has been around since 1902 as an international academic scholarship, and many of the Rhodes Scholars have gained notable recognition in their respective fields. Hence, I would put first the legacy of the scholars in order to account for a large part of its prestige. Second, the broad ideals of the scholarship are able to attract scholars, leaders, and innovators from many different backgrounds, experiences, and interests. The Rhodes’ selection criteria specifically emphasize a concern for the greater good, and I think this ideal has guided many of the scholars to public service as well. Lastly, the scholarship benefits greatly from its connection to Oxford, and applicants are attracted by a desire to study at one of the oldest and best universities in the world.

Harvard University is known as the “Rhodes Scholar Factory” and its philosophy and method have spurred imitation at other U.S. Colleges. What do you think are the skills, values, and ideas that have enabled Harvard students to dominate the competition?

Harvard does a remarkable job of attracting and selecting a group of highly motivated, intellectually engaged, well-rounded, and socially gifted students, and I think that many of these students would attain similar levels of success at almost any top school in the U.S. In this sense, the university is dealt an exceptional hand every year in the Rhodes competition. On top of this, I found that my peers inspired, motivated, and educated me, and I greatly benefited from my conversations with brilliant roommates and friends. It would be hard not to feel a sense of intellectual propulsion in such an environment.

Harvard helps the students it sends through the Rhodes application process in a variety of ways that have now been replicated at other universities. There are many faculty and grad students who volunteer generous amounts of their time in advising students on how to approach the application, and what programs to consider at Oxford. In addition, because there seem to be a handful of winners each year, students frequently reach out to their older peers for guidance and tips.

I’ll also point out that although Harvard has had a disproportionate number of Rhodes Scholars historically, in recent years other top universities have consistently gained equivalent numbers of winners. I think this reflects the increasing number of excellent students nationally, and it certainly highlights the high concentration of competitive universities in the U.S.

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