Anja Langenbucher

Director Europe | Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

What do you do as director of the European office for the Gates Foundation?

I lead a team here in London that establishes our strategic relationship with governments across Europe. We engage with officials as well as other stakeholders such as civil society, political influencers and the media.

Could you give us a concrete example of how you implement this?

One interesting example was how we engaged on the G7 in Germany last year. The German government was looking for a development focus and they asked us for some input. We discussed with them how global health could be added to the agenda, and we suggested discussing key findings from the Ebola crisis and on the topic of pandemic preparedness.

We did some work on this with key stakeholders: we convened an expert panel, demonstrating one of the key strengths of the Foundation as a convening power. We brought experts from academia, research institutions and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) together to produce a paper. Bill Gates chaired a discussion in Berlin which we provided as input to help the German presidency as they were shaping up the G7.

This brings together key advantages that we have as the European office. We have established relationships in those countries, which we combine with the programmatics coming out of the head office in Seattle to then help increase impact for our development policies.

Our office focus on government relations and public policy. We draw upon the programmatic expertise coming from Seattle but we do not implement programmes out of this office. We give a small amount of advocacy grants which help engage stakeholders in the donor countries to raise awareness of the effectiveness of foreign aid and engage with policy makers on key policy questions often taken in the capitals.

You have been in your job since 2011. The public mood on foreign aid has evolved significantly over that time period. Do you feel it?

It changes country by country. We do extensive polling to assess the attitude of citizens on foreign aid, how engaged they are. We have seen an interesting shift across Europe. It’s an ongoing challenge for all the actors working in global development to make the case for aid and to convince both the engaged and less engaged audiences on the topic and to bring them information. This is ongoing work that will always be critical.

The UK is an interesting example. The mood is quite extreme as we see in the polling. You have people very supportive of aid and on the other end of the spectrum the opinion is much more negative. In other European countries, the population is less polarised, possibly because of less awareness of the issue. In France, Germany and Italy, you see higher support level and less criticism.

Of course what happened over the past 12 months with the refugee crisis and people arriving in Sweden, Germany, Italy and in new EU member states like Hungary has brought development higher up on the public agenda. On the one hand there is a bigger call for humanitarian aid because of the human tragedies taking place but on the other, the awareness of the huge responsibility Europe bears to tackle the crisis in and outside Europe and the root causes has brought new attention to the issue. Hopefully it will give us a chance to have a new, content-based, debate.

You are an economist by training. Do approach your job differently because of it?

Economists are encouraged to rely on numbers and data, which is something the Foundation does anyway. Because of my training, I try to base the arguments for intervention on facts and calculate the benefits.

Each donor government wants to prove the impact of the aid programmes. There are soft factors and hard factors to do so. A background as an economist helps to come up with frameworks, patterns and milestones to judge the hard factors.

I understand data is key to the way the Foundation functions.

Our data is very specific to each programme. We look as well, but not only, at the macroeconomic situation of the countries because so many factors influence it.

In family planning for instance, we set ourselves goals that a certain number of women should have access to contraceptives by a given date. We then check against these goals and help the countries implement strategies and develop plans to work towards those numbers. So we work towards those milestones very precisely.

Very often, the Foundation has an advantage coming into the field because we do insist on data at the beginning, before we even start an intervention, because we want to understand the size of a problem, cost it and define the best intervention to tackle it. That’s not an approach all organisations take before intervening.

What is your favourite thing about working there?

We are all driven very strongly by the mission. I find that incredibly stimulating. Our jobs here at the European office are mainly generalist, which I appreciate because it allows us to think out of the box, about all the different factors influencing our development thinking - we can be very creative. Having worked at different development institutions before, this is the one I feel most likely to make change happen. The combination of being able to think creatively about the things that can make a difference plus an incredibly talented and motivated set of colleagues to work with are my two favourite things.

What do you look for in people you hire?

An exceptional individual. We are looking for a combination of somebody who can be a broad strategic thinker as well as an executer with a hands-on attitude because we are a small office. We want to see somebody who is creative, full of optimism, has great ideas, can design a strategy and implement it but also who can pull up their sleeves. A general development background or a market knowledge of our continental European markets helps.

You used to work at the World Bank Group and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Why did you decide to move to Gates?

It was really the development impact. Both the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the EBRD are financial institutions that focus on giving semi-commercial loans to emerging markets, rather than developing countries, because they are dealing with private sector entities. The IFC is the private sector arm of the World Bank group. I found that I was doing too many semi-commercial transaction.

For instance, after the Argentinian crisis, we were syndicating large transactions in Argentina where the IFC was giving the first long term loan to an oil seed crusher. Through that we were able to syndicate other banks into the transaction. That had a development impact but it wasn’t direct or focused on the poorest.

At the EBRD, we focused on transition economies, tackling former Soviet bloc countries. I wanted to go back more to the pure development focus: how do you address the problems of the poorest? I felt that some of the transactions that I worked on started to be something that a commercial sector bank could have done as well and that wasn’t what I was interested in.

Why did you decide to work in development?

When I graduated out of high school, I wanted to be a journalist. Then I became a management consultant because I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do. My passion was always a mixture of European institutions and global international organisations. I finished my PhD thesis while working for the European Commission which is where I became passionate about development. At the time I was more economics-focused and realised the impact donors can have.

Has having a PhD been important to your career?

Not necessarily because you have a title and people are looking for it, although that depends very much on your career. At the World Bank it does matter for certain positions. t  teaches you to structure thinking because you learn to tackle problems efficiently, to work through them and to digest information and come up with your own proposal.

How do you deal with travelling often?

That is a challenge and everybody has to take their own decision how much travel they are willing/able to do. While at the World Bank and the EBRD, I was travelling to Latin America, Russia, the Balkans, etc so that was hard because the trips were long. When you start having a family, it is challenging because you need to balance your career with children. My travel now has become easier because it’s mostly Europe, though I go to developing countries once a year.

Having a family will always be a challenge. I see careers going in steps. If you are a mother with young children, you might decide that for a certain period of time you may travel less. Women feel very nervous about scaling back for a certain period of time but I think you have to be more confident and see your career in chunks.

Did you have a career plan?

I am a very planned person so I always think of the next step, but it doesn’t always happen that way… Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. I would have thought that the World Bank was the place I wanted to be and that I would stay there but personal circumstances changed and I moved back to Europe. I always have a plan but plans can change rapidly.

What are the most useful things you have learnt?

Seeing the big picture and not forgetting what I am passionate about or getting bogged down in process too much, especially in big organisations that can be very bureaucratic.

Constantly remind yourself of where you want to go and don’t look left and right at what others are doing. It’s harder to do at the beginning because you are nervous, trying to find your place, but knowing what matters has helped me prioritise the right things and not get distracted.

Don’t be afraid of change. When I joined the Foundation, there were four of us in the office and it was unclear whether it would be a career or a side step or if the office may shut down. I left a civil servant type job but it was one of the best decisions of my life. Don’t be afraid of change when something comes up even if it’s unclear that it’s the right move.


Anja Langenbucher | Director Europe | Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

13 years' experience

CV in brief: 

Education: Heidelberg University

Previously worked at: European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)World Bank Group

Inspired by Anja's interview? 

Here are related career opportunities: Jobs at Gates Foundation | Work with European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) | Work at World Bank Group

Find Anja online: Twitter | LinkedIn | Gates Foundation profile

Interview by Lucie Goulet, June 2016