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Scott Gilmore makes peace missions more effective

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Over several weeks, readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. A panel of six judges has selected 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Scott Gilmore, founder of Peace Dividend Trust, has been named one of 25 Transformational Canadians.


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While Scott Gilmore is foreign aid's latest rock star he doesn't idolize Bob Geldof and Bono. The two pop icons have convinced people that sending more money will solve aid's many problems, but Mr. Gilmore finds the idea as quaint as '80s leg warmers.

"Bob Geldof could probably do a lot of good if he focused on trying to encourage the [aid] agencies and the NGOs to be smarter about how they spend it [money], and to be more daring and innovative in trying new ideas," Mr. Gilmore says from the New York office of Peace Dividend Trust, the non-profit he founded in 2004.

Headquartered in New York and Ottawa, the Trust also maintains offices in Afghanistan, Haiti and Timor-Leste (East Timor). Its staff have worked in 15 countries, from Iraq to Kosovo to Sierra Leone.

"I don't think I would go so far as to criticize what he's done, but I think that too much of the public's attention has gone to Bob Geldof."

By bringing modern business practices into the once cloistered world of humanitarian aid, Mr. Gilmore, 39, has increased how fairly and efficiently aid missions operate and helped them become more beneficial to the countries they operate in.

To get to where he is, however, has been a circular trip.

Originally, the commerce grad – who was born in Edmonton – planned to follow his father into business, but a trip to the Middle East convinced him he would rather be a journalist and see the world.

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With that in mind, Mr. Gilmore completed an MSc in international history at the London School of Economics. But after graduation in 1996, he joined the Canadian Foreign Service, and two years later found himself in East Timor, working on the United Nations peacekeeping mission.

There, Mr. Gilmore became dismayed by the inefficiency of the aid effort. "Basic management lessons and organizational lessons that Henry Ford had brought into the private sector and had been adopted by the public service in the 1960s hadn't been adopted by the aid industry and by the UN," he says.

To change that, Mr. Gilmore and a group of colleagues started Peace Dividend Trust.

In 2006, with support from the UN, the World Bank and the Canadian and Australian governments, the group conducted a study of where aid money goes. By following the finances of 10 UN peacekeeping missions, the Trust found that just 5 per cent of budgets entered the economies of host countries.

"We were the first people that actually traced the money, and so nobody could refute what we were saying," Mr. Gilmore says.

The big idea was simple. When foreign aid agencies come to a country in need, they buy a lot of stuff. Why not, Mr. Gilmore questioned, convince them to buy as much of what they need from suppliers in the actual country, therefore spreading the economic benefit and spurring its recovery?

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It worked.

As a result, the UN, NATO and the United States have all changed the way they procure goods for foreign aid, Mr. Gilmore says. The Pentagon has since spent more than $1-billion on Afghan companies, creating tens of thousands of local jobs.

As part of its aid spending study, Peace Development Trust had launched a pilot project to connect Afghan entrepreneurs with procurement officers. It created a searchable website of companies and trained those businesses to bid on international contracts.

PDT's original goal was to redirect $5-million from aid agencies and NATO forces into the Afghan economy. The total is now $580-million, and there are plans to replicate the project in Haiti and several other countries. As boring as it sounds, Mr. Gilmore says, rethinking procurement makes a huge difference.

"It could be girls that can go to school now, or a parent that can afford medicine, or a small entrepreneur that can expand his business," he notes. "The effects are magical, even though the root change is as dull as ditchwater."

The Afghanistan project caught the attention of the Skoll Foundation, which was created by Canadian billionaire Jeff Skoll. In 2009, PDT won a US$765,000 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship – a prize that Mr. Gilmore describes as the aid Oscars. "For us, knocking on donor doors now is much, much easier."

So, while Bono and Mr. Geldof push for more money, Mr. Gilmore says people are realizing that the so-called 0.7 per cent solution – earmarking that proportion of GDP for foreign aid – is no cure-all. "There's so much more that we can do just by getting rid of the inefficiencies," he says. "We should do that first before we start turning up the taps even more."

Scott Gilmore on leadership

I'm a former diplomat; I've got no skills other than my ability to draft the occasional cable. My father gave me the advice to always surround yourself with strong people and smart people. I've been very, very good at building a team of people who are smarter than me and work harder than me. Not because I'm particularly stupid or particularly lazy, but I actively went out and tried to surround myself with leaders and not be threatened by that.

On the importance of being unreasonable

George Bernard Shaw has the quote that all progress is due to the unreasonable man. We should modernize that by saying unreasonable man or woman, but I strongly believe that. In the early days when we proposed what we were doing, we were almost always met by some form of opposition saying that this won't work and given a whole list of reasons why, and then told we were unreasonable.

There has to be a certain element of unreasonableness, and maybe even naiveté or foolishness, for there to be real leaders who try something new. The reason that it hasn't been done before is because most people think it won't work.

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