Meet the woman redefining aid: Charlotte Petri Gornitzka

Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee. Photo by: Joakim Berndes / CC BY

One cool day in downtown Stockholm, Elsa Håstad stood outside the red brick offices of the Swedish International Development Agency waiting for her new boss — the director-general of SIDA, Charlotte Petri Gornitzka.

“It was after the regular interview and after I’d been offered the job as her deputy,” she told Devex, “so we were just taking a walk, to sort of get to know each other.”

The pair walked around summertime Stockholm. Håstad said Petri Gornitzka was very open about her own background and personal life, as well as her vision for SIDA. Håstad shared hers, too. In retrospect, she said, she realizes that Petri Gornitzka had taken a risk when she hired her.

“She was the one who recruited me, even though I’m quite young and I didn’t have the kind of experience you might see traditionally for that role,” she said. “Looking back, I think that was very brave of her.”

Asked if she was at all nervous during the walk, Håstad said Petri Gornitzka is “a very easy-going person, very warm and energetic and extremely easy to talk to.” At the same time, she could be stunningly direct.

“On that walk she said to me, ‘you’re not wearing high heels,’ then said, ‘that’s brave of you because you’re so short.’”

“I thought that was very funny,” Håstad said. “Very direct. But she is like that.”

Håstad learned quickly that Petri Gornitzka is not just direct — she can be downright blunt, known for her ability to push troubled organizations through the kind of eye-watering reforms and cuts that could otherwise end executive careers.

Now chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee — a position she took up late last year — Petri Gornitzka must take on some of the world’s most powerful aid donors at a difficult moment.

The DAC is the supreme authority on where, how and why official development assistance is spent. Some of its members are hoping to ease restrictions on the use of aid for security purposes, in-country refugee costs and counterterrorism.

Petri Gornitzka is also charged with finding a place in the aid toolbox for promising, if sometimes controversial, private sector instruments.

If that were not enough, she has just launched a catalogue of wide-ranging reforms to the DAC’s ways of working — from its membership practices to its place in the Sustainable Development Agenda, with a self-imposed deadline of October 2017.

Changing fortunes

When Petri Gornitzka took over as executive director of the ailing Save the Children International in 2008, she pushed the organization through a comprehensive global restructuring many believed it would not survive. It did — and with its new governance structure, doubled its international budget.

“We had overspent our money — I mean Charlotte had to let go 200 staff members … And that was just her first week at work.”

— Elsa Håstad, Europe and Latin America director, SIDA

At the end of the two-year process, while still putting the final touches on Save the Children’s new business model, she set her sights on another troubled organization — or “change project” as she calls them. Like the mobster movie mainstay who stoically cleans up his clients’ grisliest impulses, Petri Gornitzka moved on neatly to the next: The heavily-indebted SIDA. After a last-minute appointment as SIDA chief in 2010, Petri Gornitzka entered the agency in a whirlwind of financial mismanagement and uncertainty about the donor’s place in the world.

“We had overspent our money — I mean Charlotte had to let go 200 staff members,” Håstad said. “And that was just her first week at work.”

“I think she came to SIDA and could immediately see our weak points and strong points, and she forced us to move in a direction we hadn’t been before,” Håstad said. “Of course, some people didn’t like that.”

At SIDA, Petri Gornitzka found herself in charge of the world’s most generous aid budget, and yet up against an entrenched and traditional model of development. Already the largest donor of aid as a proportion of income, spending $7.1 billion in 2015, Sweden’s generosity offered a foundation on which she could build a more streamlined, outward-facing aid collaborator. For example, she was immediately keen to put SIDA at the forefront of multistakeholder partnerships, beginning with Sweden’s top corporations, such as IKEA and H&M. Seven years before the ink was dry on the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, Petri Gornitzka held in her mind a vision for cross-sector collaboration at the heart of development.

Slightly ahead of her time, and at the helm of a government agency still reeling from cuts to its bureaucratic infrastructure, her colleagues said she pushed — often hard — to redefine Sweden’s place in the global aid ecosystem.

A ship in shallow waters

Petri Gornitzka is repeatedly tasked with rescuing ailing aid organizations, but she can’t seem to stick to the brief. Whether its wedging the private sector into even the most bureaucratic aid machinery, or restructuring one of the largest aid implementers to embrace modern financial realities, she doesn’t want to simply be the “fixer” in the classic mob movie — she wants to change the business model for aid.

“I didn’t know how important it is just to maintain and really make sure aid doesn’t become so diluted it doesn’t mean anything.”

— Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, chair of the DAC

That sometimes means exploiting institutions when they are at their most malleable in order to invoke change.

At the DAC, the challenge is somewhat different: Petri Gornitzka is not faced with an embattled organization in need of a lifeline, but a member-driven aid authority in desperate need of its own members’ buy-in.

In its role as supreme authority, the DAC rallies support from its members — the world’s top 30 aid donors — on how to safeguard and modernize aid, at a time when multilateral aid cooperation appears to be at a crossroads. The presidency of Donald Trump in the United States and the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union play a role in the crisis of faith, but behind the scenes, corresponding battles are being waged about the position of aid in more isolationist, security-focused and migration-averse societies.

The UK is lobbying to further blur the lines between humanitarian and security spending, while the EU seeks greater aid allowances for supporting resettled refugees in-country. Petri Gornitzka, who as SIDA head opposed both measures, is frustrated to find herself policing aid. Fresh from a country where, in spite of bureaucracy and politics, a generous aid budget is more or less a given, Petri Gornitzka said she was startled by the potential divisiveness of her role when she arrived at the DAC.

“I mean, safeguarding ODA, I didn’t see myself on that journey really,” she told Devex. “I saw myself mobilizing private sector and making better use of the OECD’s tools.”

“I didn’t know how important it is just to maintain and really make sure aid doesn’t become so diluted it doesn’t mean anything.”

She explained that she would much rather focus on doing what she does best: modernizing a capable aid organization that has fallen into disrepair, while revamping its mandate to be fit for purpose for the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Instead of refloating a sinking ship, she has found herself at the helm of a healthy, well-intentioned vessel moving through increasingly shallow waters.

As multilateral institutions face more scepticism, and isolationism is on the rise among the DAC’s biggest members, Petri Gornitzka is faced with perhaps her greatest “change project” of all.

Reformer reformed 

Petri Gornitzka’s office is coveted within OECD headquarters for its view of the low-lying, suburban Paris landscape. When Devex visited in March, a few months after Petri Gornitzka took over from Erik Solheim as chair of the DAC, the view from her office was shrouded in mist. She told Devex that being honest or even forceful is critical if you want to change the way an organization works — a skill she said she’s found herself building a career around, beginning from when she left the private sector to join the Swedish Red Cross, and later Save the Children Sweden.

“When I came to Red Cross and Save the Children I had done 10 years as a management consultant and I realized that what I brought from that, more than I knew, was some of the professional skills like performance measurements, teamwork, the kind of rigor around asking, ‘what’s our mission?’ and ‘how do we know if we’re on the right track?’”

She noticed early in her tenure with the Red Cross that her skills were unusual at a time when there seemed to be an expectation in the sector “to just do it out of passion or whatever,” she said. She decided not to execute her own passion for development in the same way as her counterparts, and found quickly that “when my professional background met that passion, there was something in that interface that was a very good meeting.”

After six years at the Swedish Red Cross, the last three as under secretary general, Petri Gornitzka hit a crossroads: Did she want to take her strong management skills back to the private sector, or continue “working for better lives,” as she put it, with an eye on bringing private sector power to development?

“I chose to apply for Save the Children Sweden, and I think that was the beginning of a red thread for me: When I enter into something, I always start to explore the mission.”

Reflecting on her time at Save the Children, SIDA and now the OECD, she said she has routinely found herself prodding even the most fundamental purpose of an organization.

“I started to look into Save the Children in Sweden with that perspective, and I found that the vision was, ‘Every child should have its rights fulfilled’ — but I was thinking, ‘Every child?’ OK that’s challenging; that’s a vision for the world, not the organization.”

“Then I found that actually, there was no vision.”

While Save the Children was “fantastically well performing” when it came to holding governments accountable on children’s rights, the organization’s international budget as of 2008 hadn’t moved in more than a decade. More frustrating was that Save the Children routinely turned away donations for crises on which they were not yet working, and had little protocol other than telling donors, “Sorry, we don’t do that.” Petri Gornitzka said it bothered her that an organization whose job it was to save children’s lives had to turn away the opportunity to do more.

As a result, she undertook what she compared to a merger: ringing together Save the Children Sweden with Save the Chlidren International, setting in motion what would become an organization-wide restructuring. Around this time, in 2008, she accepted an offer to serve as executive director of Save the Children International, headquartered in London. Petri Gornitzka began shuttling between London and Stockholm, where her husband and two children remained, while she initiated a two-year reform process that would “help all 29 Save operations deliver on Save’s expectations and reputation,” she said.

Tara Camm, now at Plan International, was then head of counsel at Save the Children International. Camm worked alongside Petri Gornitzka “on what became a massive transformation,” she told Devex in a phone interview. Before the reforms, Save the Children’s 29 member organizations delivered international programs independently. This meant Save the Children members held an autonomy that was unique in the sector, but over time had created huge inconsistencies in governance and quality. The vision was to sync up Save the Children organizations under the same governance structure and, at the same time, Camm said, to roll out the kind of organization-wide streamlining normally associated with over-ambitious “blue sky” reform.

“It was about getting the right balance of risk in programs,” she said, “as well as assessing lost opportunities, while also stripping out unnecessary bureaucracy and creating economies to scale for these member [organizations].”

Another overarching goal was to “make the organization more attractive to staff and volunteers, as well as donors, because we were reducing risk by streamlining,” she said, letting out an exasperated laugh. “Honestly, in the beginning I think we only kind of knew the extent of it.”

To lead the reforms, it was essential to understand how to push change effectively — but also how to make people more comfortable by following protocol and keeping them informed.

“I think Charlotte had the balance pretty well, because [she] believed in process as a way of respecting the individual,” Camm said. “She’s smart, forward-looking — brings simplicity to complexity, keeps people focused and kept that clarity of vision and focus. I think she is a really pragmatic sort of person [who] doesn’t get entrenched in particular points of view,” she added.

Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, then director-general of Sida, visits special education classes of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan's Rehabilitation of Afghans with Disabilities program. Photo by: Sida

Perhaps most importantly, Camm said Petri Gornitzka was an effective communicator, “both in large groups, but also in one-to-one interactions — able to [communicate at] both ends” throughout a process that needed to effectively bring together more than 8,000 staff around the world.

In fall of 2009, the process was going well, Camm said, and the team was just about to appoint Save the Children International’s first CEO, Katherine Whitbread, who would go on to see the organization’s budget double to $710 million. Despite the scale of the reforms, the organization held up under pressure.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

“Everything was going ahead, it was meant to continue,” Petri Gornitzka told Devex. “Then very suddenly, in January, my husband passed away while out running. It was a heart attack.”

“That changed a lot,” she said.

“People go through things, and that was very tough for my family,” she said. “I am privileged to have a fantastic little family,” she added, her voice brightening.

Cast in a new role as a single parent, Petri Gornitzka “started a new life from home” in Sweden — with the stark awareness that she needed another means to support her family.

“Yes, it was a personal tragedy, and at that time it was very tough. Work-wise, it brought me to SIDA, which was the best thing that could’ve happened to me on the professional side, and also to my family to get the predictability of a life in Sweden,” she said.

SIDA, at the time financially troubled and struggling with governance, presented just the kind of challenge she was becoming accustomed to tackling.

A new way of working

“If somebody like Sweden has trust, then that leader should step forward and initiate some of the processes that the world needs. Not by dictating or dominating, [but] by enabling it, by leading the processes that the development world needs.”

— Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, chair of the DAC

“When I realized that SIDA was a big player, despite the fact that it’s a small country, I saw that we weren’t really using the potential that we could,” Petri Gornitzka said.

“I was thinking sometimes, why are SIDA contributing everywhere, and yet I don’t see any leadership?”

Even outside of SIDA, she said, she felt the development sector was plagued by a lack of strong leadership. After a tough year of heavy staff cuts, Petri Gornitzka began building a strong, close-knit management team. Sweden has trust as a development donor, she said, and “if somebody like Sweden has trust, then that leader should step forward and initiate some of the processes that the world needs. Not by dictating or dominating, [but] by enabling it, by leading the processes that the development world needs.”

Long before she took over at the DAC, Petri Gornitzka saw the value of getting the right people in the room. Håstad recalled that during her time at SIDA, the agency engaged with new partners on initiatives they previously never would have dreamed of spearheading - but that her overarching vision laid the groundwork for a much bigger agenda.

“She initiated this network of business leaders, the biggest — typical Charlotte, she really put her eyes on the biggest, most important leaders — so she and colleagues gathered a network of CEOs from the absolute largest companies in Sweden,” Håstad told Devex.

“She even managed to get our minister of finance and minister of development into that network, and then they all agreed that we team up and we work toward development goals.”

SIDA Assistant Director-General and Head of Africa Torbjörn Pettersson was on Petri Gornitzka’s management team at the time. He believes she changed the agency by forming “a vision that was shared by the organization, of course, but also that brought the management group of SIDA together in a way that made it possible to push the boundaries of how we work on development cooperation,” he told Devex.

She was “more proactive about what kind of actors we were working with, co-creating and pushing SIDA to work … with private sector, civil society and government authorities more than the traditional aid agency,” he said.

Laughing, Pettersson said evidence of Petri Gornitzka’s impact is the sheer amount of time it took SIDA to appoint its new director-general, Carin Jämtin, who took up the role in May after a nine-month search.

“That we were able to continue our work for so long without a director-general was due to the management systems put in place by Charlotte. I think this shows how important and lasting her legacy will be here,” Pettersson said.

“I think that she had some difficulties in gaining the trust of the majority of staff. Changing big organizations, perhaps you have to go so much slower than you want.

— Elsa Håstad, Europe and Latin America director, SIDA

Still, Håstad said, she believes Petri Gornitzka hasn’t yet been fully appreciated for her work, and stressed that her time at SIDA proves that those in reformer roles often ruffle feathers, particularly when government bureaucracy or old ways of working are in the crosshairs.

“She was extremely positive and full of energy — wherever she went she made an impression — but I think that the talk around her was, ‘Oh she’s doing all these new things and we don’t understand them,’ and ‘What is this new strategy, and why?’”

Håstad believes the development sector — particularly national donors — can sometimes be weighed down by traditionalist thinking around the role of donors and the sanctity of aid. Reflecting on Petri Gornitzka’s tenure at SIDA, more could have been done to bring staff in line with their leader’s vision, she said.

“I think that she had some difficulties in gaining the trust of the majority of staff,” Håstad said. “Changing big organizations, perhaps you have to go so much slower than you want. Perhaps you have to explain things a hundred times. As a manager, sometimes you think 10 times is enough, but it’s not,” she said.

Still, Håstad added, “these things take time, and when she came to SIDA she had a very difficult assignment.” Petri Gornitzka managed over a remarkably short period of time to “regain the confidence of our political leaders” and the public, she said.

In her six years as head of SIDA, Petri Gornitzka repositioned SIDA as an authority on aid. Just as she sought to bring Save the Children International “in line” with its global mission, Petri Gornitzka used her time at SIDA to make sure one of the world’s most generous aid donors put its money where its mouth is.

“I think one legacy of hers is that SIDA is now the one [organization] people want to talk to about development, or gender equality, or human rights, etc.,” Håstad said. “We’re not only a cash machine; we’re experts.”

SIDA chiefs typically serve for six or nine years. But at the end of the shorter term, Petri Gornitzka said she began to feel the pressure to go.

“We’d also heard the rumors that Erik Solheim was going to leave [the DAC],” she said, and thought perhaps it was time to move there to “continue to do this safeguarding of ODA, really working hard on those commitments but also the modernization, and let SIDA get new energy from someone else.”

Having worked closely with Solheim on several ODA task forces, Petri Gornitzka was excited to take on another role in which she could help reinvent an institution’s place in the aid community.

Laughing, she added — “What I didn’t know was how little I knew.”

The guardian of aid

The transition to the DAC was “not quite a wake-up call,” Petri Gornitzka said, “but Sweden is a country that takes a lot of interest in OECD-DAC, and even so, I now know that SIDA is only taking advantage of half of the resources available through the DAC and the OECD. I can see there’s a lot of communication and knowledge that has to be brought to DAC members.”

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In her mind, the DAC wasn’t taking full advantage of other OECD resources and initiatives, namely its work driving international tax reform — both to increase domestic resource mobilization and to make donor countries take more responsibility for the damage caused by tax havens, among other efforts — as well as the OECD’s new Total Official Support for Sustainable Development, which will track all aid spending toward the SDGs.

Still, she said, what she “felt this platform could be about was really attractive to me.”

Taking up the role in November 2016, Petri Gornitzka entered the DAC when it was still in the process of implementing changes to the ODA rules. Members, led in large part by the U.K., had agreed to soften some of the rules around using ODA for security purposes — particularly in conflict situations — and also increased allowances for using ODA for counter-terrorism purposes; both changes Petri Gornitzka had opposed while at SIDA. Yet before those changes could even manifest on the ground, the U.K. began publicly expressing its intention to change the rules yet again.

“I actually find it harder today that [the rules change] is not really respected, because it tells you too much about the realities,” she said, adding that she finds it frustrating to see ongoing discussions about making further changes to the rules related to security costs, for instance.

It’s also frustrating that some of the larger members seem not to take the DAC as seriously as they should, she explained, when they stand to gain a great deal from its tools.

“Rich countries can’t pretend they don’t have [more resources] — they do — but the way you use that power, that’s what we can influence.”

— Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, chair of the DAC

“Some of the bigger DAC members think, ‘Oh well, that’s just the DAC.’ I hope to change that in the sense that I hope even the bigger members begin to feel that we are mutually beneficial, more [so] in a couple of years than they do today. Otherwise I don’t think DAC will be that convener or have that potential we’re talking about,” she said.

Petri Gornitzka is now in the midst of wide-ranging reforms that will culminate in October 2017, ideally with the DAC’s approval.

“I want to bring this kind of interface of keeping what’s good in the way we do ODA today but also mobilize, catalyze, partner, open up, break down the silo that’s still there between the development sector and other industries, and also within development, like between humanitarian and development work,” she explained.

She added that she plans to move the DAC from being so focused on development assistance to being part of a common effort for the SDGs, adding that, “It’s not necessarily that the DAC has to do a thousand new things. I think the core of the DAC is still so valid, but it’s where we take it and with whom we work, and how we really use, on the one hand … the tools that we have to inform policy,” she said. “The other side is to realize the committee is a community of resourceful governments and nations. I think it’s untapped potential to really work with members in a servant-leader way.”

The term “servant-leader” is important for the changes she hopes to see, because Petri Gornitzka is acutely aware of the OECD’s status as “the rich club,” a members’ only group of wealthy economies that control the world’s charity to the poorest.

“Rich countries can’t pretend they don’t have [more resources] — they do — but the way you use that power, that’s what we can influence,” she said.

In her habit of questioning even the most fundamental premise of an organization’s mission, Petri Gornitzka is asking the DAC tough questions.

“We are 80 percent of the funding base for the multilateral system, but how much do we actually use this community to — in a collegial way between us, in an iterative process — be a good partner? When the United Nations is trying to reform its processes and performance, for example? What if we were to work as two communities challenging each other on this journey instead of every member doing its own review within the U.N. system?”

Another example is Petri Gornitzka’s championing of private sector instruments. The DAC agenda at the moment, she said, is very focused on how donors can better make use of ODA spent through their investment banks — like the U.K.’s CDC Group, which last year saw its budget increased and its mandate refocused on the poorest countries. By incentivizing riskier investments, these tools can help fill in the gaps in some of the toughest environments, where typical investors fear to tread.

As the DAC begins to reshape itself around its great reformer, likewise Petri Gornitzka’s skills are already being tested. She is navigating how to best regulate promising new tools, how to marshall new or potential aid donors and how to better engage members, civil society and even the DAC’s own core mission.

At the same time, she must defend aid — work that, in its purest sense, transcends the boundaries of the DAC. There are encroaching political interests and receding enthusiasms that need examining. The question is how Petri Gornitzka’s role at the DAC will serve not just the DAC, but the career of an aid reformer who seems determined to question everything.

Asked what’s next, she exhaled heavily.

“It might sound pretentious, but there’s something in the fact that you can be accountable as an individual to implementing the SDGs just by contributing your experience,” she said.

“If I can choose ... I think I would choose either to go where there’s an opportunity to lead change again, in perhaps a big, important institution that if modernized or revitalized would really influence the world in a good way,” she said.

“On the other hand, another alternative is to be more executive, and work for the same purpose, but perhaps in a company or an organization that could be quicker.”

“Anyway,” she said, “I hope I can be privileged enough to be able to choose.”

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About the author

  • Molly%2520anders%2520cropped

    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.