Marie Brill ActionAid USA's new executive director. Photo by: personal collection

Anti-poverty group ActionAid has been known as a policy shop of sorts, producing groundbreaking research and thought-provoking analysis on the intersection of human rights and development.

So when Marie Brill accepted her new title as executive director of the group’s U.S. chapter, she wants ActionAid-USA to build its campaigning arm to engage the wider population in its work and spread its successes.

Even before her recent appointment, which took effect March 5, Brill was already leading the organization, though on an interim basis. Prior to joining ActionAid in 2010, she served as deputy director of Africa Action — considered as the oldest human rights group in Africa — and executive director of Jubilee USA Network, which advocates for debt cancellation in poor countries.

“One of the things that I really love — the approach we take on human rights and development — is that we are a bottom-up organization,” Brill told Devex. “We are starting with the individual, with the community and we build empowerment to understand and realize our human rights.”

In this interview, Brill discusses how ActionAid-USA is escalating campaigning and its priorities in 2013.

ActionAid has been known as a policy shop. How do you plan to engage people more in ActionAid’s work?

We’ve largely been a policy shop. We do a lot of research and analysis. The thing that I hope we can build more is our campaigning arm, so that we’re engaging supporters in our work.

We have been engaging quite a bit more with youth and student movements, doing trainings over the last year and we’re going to escalate that this coming year, throughout 2013, and actually are offering opportunities to bring U.S. students to a training course in El Salvador where they would work from students all over the world to build a campaign plan on issues around human rights. And it would be an opportunity for them to be able to go back and apply those skills not just for issues that we care about at ActionAid but much more broadly for any issues that they like to organize now.

So that’s an example of how we’re escalating our campaigning, getting beyond sort of our policy shop and out into the community.

We find that our supporters really appreciate that we bring a new approach to human rights and development work and they tend to be loyal supporters. It’s going to be more fun to meet new friends in that way.

What issues do you want to drum up through your campaigns?

One of the things that we’ve really seen over the last couple of years is how challenging it is for people that are vulnerable and people living in poverty around the world, including in the U.S., when food prices are very volatile. In the United States, 4-5 percent increase in food prices has been happening each year and with the last summer’s drought in the Midwest, again there were spiking food prices. People who are hit the hardest are people who are unemployed.

One of our priorities in 2013 is to address all of the root causes of food price volatility. So that means looking at how climate change is impacting when and how people grow our food, creating weather disturbances like the drought last summer, addressing like our decisions about how we use land and transform food crops to fuel crops and what that means for food prices, and looking at where we have our smartest investments in food production.

And we have actually a new campaign. It’s called President for a Day. And with this thing, you get to be a president for a day and you get to make choices [about] these various things that drive food prices. And based on your choices, it generates for you a newspaper article where you get to be featured as president. And the article tells you what happen in terms of food, hunger, based on the choices you made. So that’s an example of creative ways in trying to engage people in these issues.

Does ActionAid have projects lined up this year that would make your group’s work more broadly known in the United States and elsewhere?

On the issue of climate change, for instance, Brandon Wu, who is our climate expert, is right now at the negotiations around the Green Climate Fund that are happening in Berlin. So we’ll continue to engage multilateral strategies as well as domestic strategies.

And we’re also aware of the increasing incidences of land grabs around the world and so we’re taking effort to build our policy work around land rights and preventing land grabs over the next few months. And we’re actively participating in the World Bank poverty conference and hosting a congressional briefing on the successes on the international realm on creating voluntary guidelines on land tenure.

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About the author

  • John Alliage Morales

    As a former Devex staff writer, John Alliage Morales covered the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community. Prior to joining Devex, John worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data, and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.