Eight decades after Oxfam began with a meeting in an Oxford church, we must respond to challenges our founders could not have dreamed of, from re-imagining what an international NGO should be, to the need for totally new sources of funding, to the world-changing impact of technology, says Oxfam GB CEO Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
One of my favourite bits of Oxfam history is a note scrawled in black ink in the very first minutes of the very first meeting of the then Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in October 1942. Debating how to react to the looming famine in Greece being driven by Britain and its Allies’ wartime blockade on food imports, “Several speakers urged caution… lest controversy be roused.”
In that single note, scribbled in a school exercise book that you can still find at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, we see how so many debates – over how to speak truth to power, how to deliver humanitarian aid, over the perils of being seen as “political”, and what it means to be a “neutral” humanitarian – are as fresh in the aid sector today as they were in that draughty Oxford church a full eight decades ago.
Yet there are also debates, challenges and ideas pivotal to the future of Oxfam today that would never have occurred to the Reverend Theodore Milford and others in that idealistic and passionate first gathering.
They would probably not have questioned the notion that what they were doing was “saving” those in need; they almost certainly wouldn’t have seen (at a time when the British empire still held sway over much of the world) their attitudes as “colonial”; they would have had no inkling of the scale and transformative potential of technological change that was coming; feminism, now at the heart of everything Oxfam does, would have been a novel notion; they would not have known, as we now know, that people in the communities affected needed to raise their own voices and take control of their own aid to deliver real change in their lives.
In this blog, I want to highlight three concepts that will shape Oxfam’s future, challenges that we’ll need to address if we are to build on our founders’ extraordinary legacy.
1. We must re-imagine and remake ourselves – as part of a new, decolonised network that can respond to global as well as local challenges
The old INGO model: a paternalistic charity in the global north “saving lives” in the global south; often dependent on official development assistance; crowding out local organisations and disempowering the very people it is supposed to help – has always been broken.
Add to this that the nature of the challenges is changing, that some of the most acute problems for humanity now, from Covid to climate to racial justice to inequality, have global aspects that demand global action. Many movements in recent times – the Arab revolutions, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter – have had a sort of golden thread that runs across borders, even though they manifest locally in very different ways. Part of our job now has to be to use our convening power and connections to strengthen such global action – the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which we supported, is a good example.
Of course, supporting people living in poverty and facing local humanitarian crises wherever they live will remain at the heart of what we do, but the sector is now well aware that this must be done in a decolonised, feminist way that shifts power, resources and agency to the affected communities themselves. Organisations like Oxfam are at their best when they support, amplify and connect local action. (Interestingly, until the mid-1950s, we did all of our work through local partners, such the Red Cross Societies or Jewish Relief or YWCA or even a local girls’ education college in Greece.)
So, can we re-imagine ourselves? Leave behind the idea that we take resources from the global north and “give” them to the global south? Our goal instead should be to become an energetic part of a truly global social justice network that speaks truth to power, and that mobilises people and communities.
Such network building feels like a natural step for Oxfam which, rather than being the large, centralised agency many people imagine, actually consists of many national Oxfams with their own rich and diverse histories. Organisations such as the Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work, KEDV, a Turkish social enterprise NGO founded in 1986 that joined Oxfam (replacing a country office) in 2019, or Oxfam Colombia, which became our 21st affiliate in April 2021. I’m lucky enough to be CEO of just one of these affiliates, Oxfam GB, but I also have a long connection to another: aged 11, I started fundraising for Community Aid Abroad, founded in 1953, which joined the Oxfam network as Oxfam Australia in 1995. Our diversified network feels far more suited to the challenge of shifting power to communities than a centralised organisation, headquartered in the global north.
2. We need big new sources of money and new institutions to deliver it
A second huge challenge is that, even as the world faces a proliferation of crises, it seems to have dwindling public resources to deal with them. The result is we seem to be simply raiding already inadequate pots of money to tackle new problems. British aid budgets had already been cut before the conflict in Ukraine and, as Ian Mitchell of the Centre for Global Development has observed, it looks as if the “UK’s generosity in supporting Ukrainian refugees will be paid for by lower income countries”. Add to that the fact we can’t assume economic growth will deliver extra resources as it did in the past for future generations, and it’s clear that we need to come up with new forms of resourcing that aren’t based on charitable donation.
I’ve just come back from Somalia (see video below), which is in the midst of the worst drought for 40 years driving widespread hunger. The people I met there have done almost nothing to cause climate change, yet, when climate disaster breaks, Oxfam and others must currently resort to begging donors to help us respond, as famine looms. Instead, we need to tax those responsible for climate change, in other words we need reparative justice, not charity after the fact.
That might take the form of a windfall tax on energy companies or large food traders that goes into a global trust fund to pay for loss and damage caused by climate change or humanitarian response. Just as America had a Marshall Plan for Europe at the end of the Second World War, we need a global Marshall-type Plan that is equal to our biggest global challenges.
Such a plan will, I believe, require a new global financial architecture. The Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and World Bank, might have been fit for the 20th century but they’re not doing a great job in the 21st. In a recent speech to the UN General Assembly, the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, set out the ideas behind her nation’s trailblazing Bridgetown Agenda for radical reform of this global architecture; hers is the sort of fresh thinking we now desperately need from every government. (More thoughts on this challenge in this article).
3. ‘Digital leapfrogging’ can change how development happens
Even though the rise of the digital economy has led to huge accumulation of wealth and power by corporations, I’m an optimist: I believe digital transformation can drive accelerated and inclusive development in way that “leapfrogs” previous steps in development. Many organisations have been caught off guard by the sheer pace of change and innovations such as the gig economy: we now need to support people taking back control of such digital spaces to protect human rights and drive inclusive development.
In Somalia, I came across a project where motorbikes have been offered to young, displaced Somalis in an area of huge youth unemployment to do paid delivery jobs via a digital platform. Of course, the gig economy has problems, but it’s also transforming employment in many parts of the world and I would argue organisations like ours need to find ways generate fairer digital livelihoods. The human rights potential can be seen in a platform we’ve supported in Bangladesh, called Hellotask, where people book domestic staff. Workers using the platform have access to help if there’s an emergency, as well as getting information about their rights. The result is domestic workers who were previously invisible and employed in the most informal way, paid in cash with no protection, now have visible work records, and a named employer with obligations to them.
Beyond this, we can boost the impact and success of social enterprises by investing in their digital development. All of this work is at an early stage, but it does seem as if young people in particular can leapfrog ahead economically in digital spaces – and I hope Oxfam can invest in and explore the huge possibilities there.
All three of these challenges come against a global context that our founders might well recognise: one of squeezed space for progressive action, of war in Europe, of the rise of nationalism, of people deprived of lifesaving medical care, and an accumulation of wealth by elites even as much of the globe languishes in poverty. As well as the new challenges therefore, we also have an old one that links Oxfam’s present to its 80-year past: to remind richer nations of their obligations to the whole of humanity; to, in short, play our part to keep the flame of internationalism alive.