Oxfam and BRAC: the links between Bloody-Mindedness and Innovation

March 29, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Spent a buzzy couple of days IRL with Oxfam colleagues recently – the first such get together since Covid, and very moving/energising to be in a room together with others working on policy, advocacy, research etc in Oxfam GB’s ‘Impact Division’.

One of the conversations was about innovation (isn’t it always?). Rather than generic thoughts on what helps/hinders creativity, I thought it would be interesting to work backwards from some success stories. These are those historic examples that organizations tell themselves but often, in my experience, fail to systematically research.

There are loads of these in Oxfam, many of which I have written about on this blog, so I started doing a bit of digging on some of the big ones. I came across this great example from a history of the renowned Bangladeshi organization, BRAC – the biggest NGO in the world, at least in numbers of employees. It’s written by Shahaduz Zaman and Imran Matin of the BRAC History Project (yep, BRAC is now so big it has its own history project).

In the early 1970s, during Bangladesh’s independence struggle and eventual independence, there was a terrible refugee crisis and widespread hunger (for those old enough, think George Harrison and Ravi Shankar):

‘Oxfam, a large charitable organization at the time, played a major role, supporting up to 600,000 refugees at the camps up until repatriation. Raymond Cournoyer, Oxfam’s representative for Eastern India and East Pakistan, and his team were persistent in supporting local efforts for relief provision at the camps (and later rehabilitation of Bangladeshis). While other agencies were flying in expatriate teams to run their programs, Raymond— with strong support from Julian Francis, who was an Oxfam volunteer at that time—was quite sure that all the trained manpower they needed was available in India as well as at the refugee camps.

The plan they drafted was also focused on the areas outside Kolkata because foreign agencies and their personnel were concentrated in Kolkata. Oxfam’s locally based team thus focused on the border areas where they had links with Mission hospitals and Gandhian organizations for ongoing relief operations.

However, their decisions regarding how to implement operations as well as which organizations to fund as the new nation emerged conflicted with the views of more bureaucratic senior management in London, as Francis recalls from his days in 1971:

‘Raymond Cournoyer was appointed as the Field Director to Eastern India and East Pakistan in early 1971. Within a few weeks of his arrival, the Liberation War got under way and streams of refugees starting [started] entering India. Raymond warned Oxfam that up to 10 million refugees could come to India, a figure the Oxfam management in Oxford laughed at. A few of us had been working on what was, at that time, Oxfam’s single largest ever rural development project in Bihar. Raymond lost no time in asking us to come to Calcutta and set up the administration of a relief operation that eventually, at that time, became the largest relief operation with which Oxfam had ever been involved. Raymond soon showed that he was ‘different’ and his approach to the operations almost cost him his position.’

Francis elaborates, “Oxfam Headquarters preferred someone who would listen to their way of working which was not always the case with Raymond. He was called back in the middle of the operations at the camps to be dismissed by Oxfam, UK”.

Francis played an important role in bringing the media attention to the work that Raymond was trying to do. In his words:

The world’s media then was at the lobby of the Grand Hotel. Assessing the situation, I immediately informed them of Raymond’s visit to the UK, emphasizing the fact that he was the one who had spoken directly to the refugees in Bangla, spent considerable time at the camps and that he was the one to interview for credible information.

A flock of journalists awaited Raymond’s arrival at Oxfam headquarters. Accompanied by the Field Secretary for Asia who had received him at London Airport, Raymond would have to enter the office through the backdoor to avoid meeting the huge crowd waiting at the front door. By the time the pair met with the Executive Director at the time, the management had realized that there was no way they could dismiss Raymond. He was already on Oxford Radio and continued to have interviews with global media houses in Canada, the UK, and the US. Operations thus continued, and Oxfam ended up having a huge program involving doctors from Kolkata and Mumbai (then Bombay) medical colleges and hundreds of volunteers.’

While all this was going on, the eventual founder of BRAC, established initially in 1972 as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, Fazle Abed, was moving between Europe, South Asia and elsewhere, raising awareness and cash for the relief effort.

‘To ensure more funds for their work, Abed joined a series of meetings that took place between Oxfam, other voluntary agency representatives, UN officials, and the newly formed government.

The discussion focused on what rehabilitation programs could be immediately undertaken to help the Bangladeshi people. The decision on who to fund in the new country though caused considerable conflict within Oxfam’s management, even in the weeks before independence. When it was clear that the emergence of an independent Bangladesh was merely a matter of time, Raymond was the obvious choice as Oxfam’s first Field Director in Bangladesh for his experience in the region.

However, it was again not so simple. He told Oxfam UK that he wanted carte blanche or complete freedom regarding the development activities to be supported in Bangladesh and that he did not want to have any part in distributing mere relief supplies. “Give them to CARITAS or Mother Teresa!” he thundered, “I want to invest for the long-term in young Bangladeshis with vision”.

His stand of investing in development activities went against the more traditional approach of Oxfam—the distribution of relief. With much debate, Raymond was able to influence the decision to support new and emerging NGOs. Oxfam thus became BRAC’s first international donor.’

There may will be other versions of this history, but the recent history of BRAC confirms this account (see pages 59-61.

And more generally, I recognize some recurring aspects of innovation within Oxfam in here.

  1. The power of spin-offs and letting go – supporting new initiatives not trying to control them (I am told that other candidates include SEWA, Café Direct and New Internationalist, though I have not yet had time to take a look)
  2. The role of mavericks, prepared to slug it out with management where necessary
  3. The power of the fait accomplit in convincing management to adapt and change
  4. Mavericks need to understand the incentives of management, eg getting the media attention to influence decisions

Of course, there is massive selection bias here. I am sure there are loads of examples of bloody-minded mavericks who were wrong/ineffective (so bit of a defence of management there 😉). Still, interesting story, I think.

And here’s a striking 5m BRAC video celebrating its 50th anniversary. In song. Oxfam clearly needs to up its game.

Update: Bit of extra info from Exfamer Claire Hutchings who now works for BRAC International:

‘Initial grant was for 430k , BRAC had 16k left and tried to return it. Oxfam told them to keep it (suspect that they may not have had the systems to take it back efficiently 😉). Source: ‘Freedom from Want’ (2009), page 63′

March 29, 2023
Duncan Green