Michael Elliott bids farewell to the ONE Campaign

Michael Elliott, president and CEO of the ONE Campaign. Photo by: Stuart Isett / Fortune Brainstorm Green / CC BY-NC-ND

Ed Markey, the junior senator from Massachusetts, is running late. So Michael Elliott, president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, takes another question. Two hundred volunteers are crowded into a subterranean meeting room in the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C. Sens. Bob Corker and Chris Coons, have already delivered their remarks.

A ONE Campaign volunteer from Wenatchee, Washington, wants to know what happens now that the Electrify Africa Act is a law but 600 million people still live without access to electricity. ONE is widely credited with pushing the bill, which promotes U.S.-African energy investments, through Congress. As Coons told them earlier, “Electrify Africa would never have happened without you.”

“Innovation,” Elliott replies. The Electrify Africa Act affirmed that affordable energy is key to Africa’s development, he says. Now it is time to find breakthrough technologies that can help deliver on that promise.

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In his remarks Corker asked ONE, the poverty-fighting advocacy organization, to help him end modern slavery. Coons, a former activist, shared some practical advice with the crowd of volunteers, a collection of college students, faith leaders, and community members from around the U.S. who have self-funded their way to Washington to lobby lawmakers and their aides, to convince them Americans care about global poverty and that their representatives should too.

“Don’t leave without an answer,” Coons told them. “Ask a question and then leave a yawning silence,” he said.

The volunteers are listening intently to Elliott, their leader for the last five years. They are charged up, caffeinated. This is the culmination of their annual “power summit” in Washington. They have figures, statistics and stories to share with their congressmen and women — representatives from their own home districts. Volunteers from all 50 states are here. They have secured 151 meetings today — March 8 — and will roam the halls of Congress asking for commitments to fund nutrition, global health and gender equality. The volunteers are wearing matching black tee shirts with ONE’s white circle insignia emblazoned on the front. Some of them, like a woman from Rep. Nita Lowey’s district in New York, have been ONE Campaign members since the organization began working 11 years ago.

Michael Elliott, CEO of ONE, fields questions from volunteers on Capitol Hill at ONE’s “power summit” in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Michael Igoe/Devex

It’s 9:22 a.m., and Elliott was supposed to be back in his office 22 minutes ago to meet with Katie Holmes, the American actress. Holmes is joining volunteers today to lend her star power to some of their congressional meetings. But since Sen. Ed Markey isn’t here yet, Elliott takes another question.

“We love you!” a volunteer shouts from the crowd.

“Well that’s nice, but that’s not a question,” Elliott says.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker speaks with ONE CEO Michael Elliott in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Michael Igoe/Devex

He is wearing his kangaroo leather hat, because the college student who introduced him told him he should — and black Carhartt suspenders, which he had to take off to get through the Capitol’s metal detectors. Many of the volunteers have met him before, when he came through town, on a college campus, or at the pub. He knows many of them by name.

“What’s the best piece of advice you can give us?” a volunteer wants to know.

“Always buy your hats in Sydney, Australia,” Elliott quips. “Worse things happen at sea,” he says.

But there’s another piece of advice. He shared it with the college student who introduced him, and he shares it again now. “Only change your career when you’re completely happy in the place that you’re leaving,” Elliott tells them.

And he is leaving. Elliott, who has been living with cancer for the last two years, will step down as ONE’s president and CEO as soon as the organization appoints his successor.

“As your CEO for the last five years, all I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you.”

A third act

In 2011 Elliott, a Liverpool native who has shuttled between high-profile journalism posts in the United States and United Kingdom, was Time, Inc.’s deputy editor, running international publications at the multibillion dollar media company. He was previously an editor at Newsweek, and before that, The Economist’s Washington correspondent and founding editor of its Bagehot and Lexington political columns.

“I got a phone call from a headhunter one Friday,” Elliott said, back in his office at ONE’s headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.

The headhunter wanted to know if Elliott could suggest anyone to take over as CEO of the ONE Campaign, the advocacy organization co-founded by philanthropist and U2 frontman Bono. Elliott told him he would think of some names. When the phone rang again, before Elliott could suggest anyone else, the headhunter asked him, “What about you?”

Elliott poses for a photo with his “favorite sustainable development goal,” the goal to end poverty, in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Michael Igoe/Devex

Elliott had just signed a new long-term contract at Time — “by far and away, in every possible way, the best contract I’d ever signed” — and he thought it might be his last. “I’m not an idiot. I know what happens to journalists after they crack a certain age,” he said.

But he had also gotten to know Bono a little bit. When Elliott was at Newsweek, the U2 frontman and activist wanted to come in and talk about debt relief for developing nations. Elliott was skeptical. “I’ve seen all this before. The ‘celeb’ — you can imagine.” But nevertheless Bono came to Newsweek’s office for tea.

“He was brilliant,” Elliott said. “He was passionate. He was funny. He made everyone laugh. He did very good impressions of people” — including Tony Blair and the pope.

Newsweek ran the story in January 2000 — “Can Bono save the Third World?” It described the Versace-clad rockstar’s lobbying feats in Washington, D.C., his efforts to convince the U.S. and other governments to write off hundreds of billions of dollars of developing country debt. Two years later, with Elliott now an editor at Time, the magazine put Bono on its cover, headlined by an even more ambitious — some would say naive — question about the music icon’s “mission to make a difference.”

Time Magazine’s March 2002 cover story described Bono’s efforts on developing country debt relief. Source: Time, inc.

So when the headhunter asked Elliott if he would consider taking the job at ONE, Elliott knew something about the organization — that it was more than a “celeb’s” public relations stunt. He also knew that if he was going to follow successful careers in academia and journalism with a “third act,” Elliott wanted it “to really matter.”

“I’d been a sort of informed amateur on development issues for years,” he said. (He counts among his development credentials the decision to “put diarrhea on the cover of a magazine.”) But Elliott saw an opportunity in ONE to go deeper into development expertise, to “actually know something about this,” he said, and to drive real policy change.

ONE’s most recent policy success has, at least to some degree, satisfied that urge. Elliott is “phenomenally proud” of the Electrify Africa Act. “We did that,” he said. “That would not have happened without ONE.”

Taking the model to Africa

For an organization with 7 million members, it can be difficult to attribute individual success. That transcendence, from individual contributions to real strength in numbers is part of the legacy Elliott will leave behind, according to his colleagues.

In five years under Elliott’s leadership, the organization has undergone “a maturation ... from just Bono’s organization to one that is really represented by an educated, dynamic and engaged public,” said Tom Hart, ONE’s North American executive director.

“I met Mike more than a decade ago, before ONE was a glimmer in anyone's eye, much less the movement of 7 million people it is today — in large part due to his leadership,” Bono wrote to Devex in an email.

“If ONE and organizations like it can’t take our model to the ‘global south’ we might as well go out of business.”

— Michael Elliott

In that time ONE’s field operations have matured “into a political force that members of congress can feel back at home in their states and districts and here in Washington,” Hart said. Their point of introduction to ONE’s advocacy, message, and goals increasingly comes from volunteers, not from their iconic founder.

“We have members of Congress who don’t know ONE through Bono at all, but through our membership,” Hart said. “That has happened under Mike’s leadership.”

ONE’s next big leap is across the Atlantic ocean. Three million of the organization’s 7 million members are African, Bono told a Senate subcommittee in Washington, D.C., this month. Elliott is working with his colleagues to channel that presence into a force for political action on par with the ONE Campaign’s North American operation.

Elliott and his colleagues want to drive policy change in African countries, where governance decisions directly implicate the issues ONE has prioritized: agriculture, energy and gender equality. “If ONE and organizations like it can’t take our model to the ‘global south’ we might as well go out of business,” Elliott said.

For Bono, ONE’s effort to take the model to Africa is a step towards becoming whole. “I jokingly used to say to the board that we should be called “1/2” rather than ONE before we made the move south of the equator,” Bono wrote. “I think the north/south appeal of ONE sets us apart and it was Mike who pulled that off.”

Elliott understands that influencing foreign governments can be a risky proposition for an organization that leans heavily on the power of its brand.

“You can’t do it in the same way” that ONE has done in the U.S., he says. “You’ve got to find partnerships. You’ve got to be very sensitive that you’re not the northern organization that just parachutes in … We all know the caveats that have to apply,” Elliot said.

But pressuring governments is a vital piece of the work, he insists. “That’s where the resources, the capacity, the money — that’s where development is going to get done.”

ONE isn’t the only player that sees this shift toward national governments and national resources. At the Financing for Development conference last July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for example, domestic resource mobilization, not official development assistance — or ODA — took center stage. Development organizations that have based their portfolios around donor funded programs took notice.

“If ODA doesn’t get the job done, then an organization like mine can’t just be about ODA,” Elliott said.

Translating ONE’s political advocacy model to new contexts will be a big task for ONE’s next CEO.

“I think Michael has brought us to the cusp and just to the starting blocks of something very, very exciting,” Hart said.

Hart described an agriculture advocacy campaign launched early in Elliott’s tenure called “Do Agric.” The effort delivered petition signatures and policy recommendations to African heads of state and, according to Hart, offered a “wonderful contrast to Live Aid,” the benefit concert for Ethiopian famine relief that raised money from the West to buy food for Africans back in 1985. Do Agric “was about African pop artists raising attention and advocacy about agriculture and development,” Hart said. “That feels like the right transition albeit many, many years delayed.”

ONE’s current major effort, a campaign to empower women and girls called “Poverty is Sexist,” has been a big “conversation opener” on the continent, Hart said.

The director of ONE’s North American programs is quick to point out that North American and European donors will remain “essential” in the fight against poverty — and in ONE’s effort to accelerate that fight. But they will not be sufficient.

“It’s clear to us now that ONE has a positive role to play ... in Africa to make a difference there,” Hart said. “That, in some respects, was a missing piece to our own strategy.”

Breaking through

As an Englishman living in the United States, Elliott noticed that Americans, despite having it so good, constantly complain about how bad things are.

In his 1999 book “The Day Before Yesterday,” Elliott argued that Americans “whine” about the present because they have an unrealistically rosy view of the past. The period immediately following World War II was abnormally good to the United States, Elliott said, and yet Americans cannot stop comparing their current lot in life to that incomparable period.

“Americans have lost the ability to accurately assess their present condition,” Elliott wrote.

Elliot has recently tried to bring some perspective. Last year, in anticipation of the Sustainable Development Goals launch in New York, he penned a Time Magazine essay about what he calls the “age of miracles.” He juxtaposed the gloom of terror attacks in Paris and Nigeria against the undeniable improvements in quality of life witnessed over the course of a single generation.

“Here’s the truth: Many of the miracles that have saved so many lives over the past two decades aren’t supernatural at all. They are quite tangible, in an everyday sort of way, as anyone who has helped spread an insecticide-treated bednet in an African hut would know,” Elliott wrote.

“What is truly miraculous is that millions of people ... have put pressure on their governments -— north and south, in the rich world and the poor one — to fund and implement the policies that have saved and improved the lives of millions.”

Elliott has thought a lot about the gap between a world that has gotten empirically better and a public — not just in America, but across the global north — that remains largely disconnected from the story of global progress and the work necessary to achieve it. For Elliott, the sustainable development goals’ failure to achieve mainstream attention in developed countries made that disconnect even clearer.

“Migration is going to be part of our conversation for the next 20 years. You can absolutely guarantee it. And none of us really knows what to say.”

— Michael Elliot

“The global goals didn’t break through last year,” Elliott said. “I think we can all admit that.”

“We need to take stock a little and ask ourselves what it is that really will make our issues break through into a wider consciousness,” he said.

The global development community must do a better job of articulating its relevance to issues that dominate international headlines, Elliott said. Two of these in particular, migration and security, beg for development expertise and yet seem to confound development advocates.

“Migration is going to be part of our conversation for the next 20 years. You can absolutely guarantee it,” Elliott said. “And none of us really knows what to say.”

If a world in migration is one future certainty, poverty in conflict is another. Tomorrow’s extreme poor are more likely than ever to live in conflict or post-conflict states, and the development community has struggled to position itself within that emerging reality, Elliott said.

“We don’t have close enough connections with the security world. We’re a little suspicious of them. We don’t quite know how to talk about peace and security in the development context,” he said. “If we don’t [improve that], a really significant chunk of what we are supposed to do in the next 20 years, we will be ill-equipped for.”

Elliott is particularly interested in security at the “street level,” — the kind of security that makes a trip to the grocery store unremarkable in one place and dangerous in another. But the development community, again, has struggled to speak clearly on questions of criminal justice, police training, and judicial systems, Elliott said.

“If I was to give a speech in front of the NGOs in London about the need to divert money into police training, you think that would go down well? I don’t think so,” Elliott said.

“We need to think about how we can talk about our issues so they really, really connect. One of the ways you connect with people is by talking about things that are in the news that day.”

Back to the ‘age of miracles’

Later, at an International Women’s Day luncheon hosted by the United Nations Foundation, Elliott finally connects with Katie Holmes and apologizes for missing her earlier. He thanks her for her work with the ONE volunteers; the movie star will join them in the afternoon to ask Markey for his support on global nutrition programs.

via Twitter

On the patio of the St. Regis Hotel, the site of the luncheon, Elliott runs into some long time friends from the media elite: Elisabeth Bumiller, the New York Times Washington bureau chief and Tina Brown, the influential former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Elliott has recently returned from a spring road trip through the American West.

“All I have to do is do a road trip like that and all my journalistic instincts come back,” Elliott says.

Elliott will stay on as a senior adviser to ONE, but he is hoping to use his time away from the CEO’s desk to do more writing and wrap his head around some of those issues he thinks the development community should speak up about, including migration. “How do we fit that into our mental map of what development means?”

“I want to go back to the age of miracles and think about how we can keep the age of miracles going,” Elliott said.

Elliott hopes he will have time to focus on these questions and on his health. He is thinking about his fourth act.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.