Some Reflections on Leaving Oxfam after 20 years

April 23, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

To prepare for leaving a job I have loved, first as head of research, then as strategic adviser, I have been re-reading a work diary I kept from my arrival in 2004 until about 2010 (when it fizzled out). It helps bring back those early days, and prevents rewriting my experiences, whether for good or bad, with the benefits of hindsight. To give a flavour of the organization I joined, here are some extracts from 2005 – a huge year for Oxfam as a global campaigning force. Then I’ll add some thoughts on how the Oxfam of the noughties compares to that of today.

2005. A very big year

I was one of many who had qualms about the hubris and lack of attention to national and local development in the Make Poverty History Campaign, but the diary also brings back the access (and success) we had under the Labour Government that year, and the difficulties that came with that success.

‘March 2005: Today HMG publishes an amazing U-turn on EPAs, backing down on Singapore Issues, offering alternatives etc – the entire NGO trade agenda. I even helped Dianna Melrose (Exfamer in charge of trade policy at DFID) draft bits of it when I went round for coffee last week, and sure enough, my stuff is in there. Once again, the lesson is that once NGOs unite, focus, do their homework, make the development case and come up with specific proposals, HMG will change position. Democracy works!

June 2005: 2005 is living up to all expectations as a historic year. Yesterday the G7 finance ministers delivered a debt deal – 100% multilateral write off for 18 HIPC countries with others to follow.

Typically, with so much success in prospect, the NGOs have started kicking chunks out of each other, with Oxfam apparently the whipping boy of choice. Nasty cover story in the New Statesman ‘Is Oxfam Failing Africa?’, where our main crime appears to be not being sufficiently nasty to Tony [Blair the then UK PM) and Gordon (Brown, the then Finance Minister)? Lots of quotes from World Development Movement, War on Want and Christian Aid. Now Geldof has come in at the last moment on Gleneagles, taking the whole thing up several notches, and the NGOs (tho not us) are all panicking about loss of control.

August 2005: Months slip past, the G8 (at Gleneagles) comes and goes in a welter of NGO conflict and recrimination – classic, we get an extra $16bn per annum in debt relief by 2010, so we start ripping each others’ throats out about saying anything nice, while the politicians who’ve bust a gut pull a disgusted face and move on.

January 2006: 2005, the big ‘year for Africa’, is over. Got movement in Gleneagles on debt and aid, fxxx all on trade, lots of hype and profile, backlash from Rodrik and Birdsall on the Make Poverty History agenda, and Matthew Lockwood’s excellent critique, The State They’re In.’

Then v Now: 3 Reflections

The unintended consequences of localization: I believe passionately in devolving power and resources, but there is a cost, which I hadn’t really grasped until thinking about my reasons for leaving. My initial years at Oxfam involved a lot of travel for a mix of workshops and programme visits. Those trips provided some of the key ‘lightbulb moments’ in shaping my thinking about development (although others came from reading, usually books rather than the ‘grey literature’ of academic papers and NGO reports). I have drawn endlessly on what I learned during visits to about the fishing communities of Tikamgarh, the struggles of Bolivia’s Chiquitanos, We Can’s work to shift norms on against gender-based violence in South Asia and stakeholder analysis in Tajikstan. These days, I certainly would not be able to blog about how to run impromptu focus groups under mango trees.

Or getting drenched in Vietnam – here’s me (black umbrella) on a literal field trip in 2005, just after joining:

About a decade ago those kinds of experience dried up for me at Oxfam, although they continued through other channels. The invitations stopped coming, which may be just a consequence of my changing job profile, but I suspect it is also an unintended consequence of the backlash against white saviourism, concern over air miles, and the devolution of power within Oxfam.

All these are laudable, but I wonder if an unintended consequence is that more staff in the UK no longer travel. I used to ask colleagues ‘when was the last time you talked to someone living in poverty, other than a domestic or taxi driver?’ The answer was often a matter of months. I suspect for many at Oxfam House, it would now be a lot longer than that.

Oxfam Australia once did a survey on staff satisfaction and found that the further people were away from Melbourne, the happier they were with working for Oxfam. The explanation was that people on or near the ‘frontline’ received daily doses of inspiration, but also of realism – they realized what a small player Oxfam was in a bigger tumult of change, and so did not beat themselves up about their failure to be ‘transformational’. I fear that devolution has exacerbated that divide – the further I get from Oxford and Oxfam, the better our reputation (e.g. during some recent work for the LSE with CSOs in the Middle East I was told that Oxfam was the most respected INGO in Gaza).

From excessive hubris to excessive self doubt?: Perhaps that last point is also damaging morale in Oxfam House? The Oxfam I joined was undoubtedly arrogant, captivated by its own sense of mission and importance. Even before I joined Oxfam, I remember attending the 2003 Cancun WTO ministerial and watching in awe as a press conference of the trade ministers of China, India and other major developing countries stopped proceedings to welcome Oxfam’s Irungu Houghton on stage to present a 20 million signature calling for trade justice. Imagine the envy of people like me, working for smaller INGOs! (btw, anyone got any pics of that event – Irungu and Google both drew a blank).

I was part of pushing back against that arrogance, especially through the book From Poverty to Power, whose core argument was that development arises from the interaction between active citizens and effective states. i.e. development is primarily a national process (an implicit critique of the hubris of Make Poverty History/INGO rhetoric at the time).

But in recent years, I have become concerned that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. It feels like Oxfam and many other INGOs are plagued by self-doubt about their mission and (even more so) identity. This might be understandable, as the question of what our precise role is in a decolonised future is a tricky one – but it also I think means we have given up influence in areas where global INGOs are still really needed.

Stuff that hasn’t changed: A couple of excerpts from 2005 bring home how little has changed in some aspects of life in Oxfam:

First a comparison with my previous employer, DFID:

‘So how does Oxfam compare with DFID? Bigger in staff numbers (if you include the shops), but with one two hundredth the budget. The resource is people, not cash. The people are finishers, not thinkers. Try to talk about something that’s not in the campaign plan and a look comes over them – anxiety and exhaustion and irritation at being distracted in this way. In DFID there are always intellectuals, the emphasis on career development and learning, lots of high powered, underemployed and politically naïve graduates keen to attend a seminar or whatever. Oxfam is more conservative, more political, less curious. The rewards for entrepreneurship are greater at least at team leader level in DFID – the minister or the SPAD or senior officials always want to be ahead of the curve, grab the next big idea. Not so Oxfam’s heads-down implementers. There are thinkers, but they are dispersed, hard to locate – it’s not their day job.

But God do they implement – a fearsome campaigns, advocacy and press machine, huge ambition (though much of that vision came from Justin [Forsyth, then head of policy and campaigns]).’

And the challenges of treacle and internal leadership:

‘So many meetings! And working as Oxfam International massively compounds the transaction costs behind any decision, with teleconferences galore. Already I feel I’m a wasting asset, too turned inwards, losing touch with the thinkers outside. So hard to keep facing out.

But the potential and the platform are glorious. If I can just find a way for Oxfam to ‘do’ thinking, to produce ideas even if they’re not tied to a campaign.

A big challenge personally. To move the machine requires conviction, assertiveness, power. My natural tendency to self-doubt and contrarianism could be damaging. Already I can feel my initial ambition and freedom eroding, the new ideas starting to look just too difficult.

And finally:

I want to end by stressing that Oxfam has been good to me. Given me the space to write and think, in books and blogs, a space it has not accorded most of its people, and that is very rare in the wider development sector. The cliches about the wonderful privilege of working with great people on the ground are entirely true. I just read the proofs for the second edition of How Change Happens (coming out in June 24) and the number of stories and examples from Oxfam are incredible – I can barely believe that they all happened to me. I will be forever indebted.

Note to Readers:

Clearly this blog – and my role in it — will be changing and we need to work out how. So over the coming months, we’ll be consulting with readers about its the future. Meanwhile, FP2P still welcomes your contributions;  please keep sending them to Amit Srivastava in the Policy & Practice team at, who will be helping me to post content in this transitional phase.

April 23, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. Well, I will miss reading your stuff – and being made to think about issues which whilst important and interesting, fall relatively far from my tree. (And my tree is very much in the strategic security space so it is always good to be reminded that other things are going on.)

    One point upon which I really, really agree is the unintended consequence of localisation – although for HMG this seems to be as much about saving the cost of travel as anything else.

    I think that to a large extent, we are all in the people business. We may bring technical, strategic or political lenses to bear, but ultimately it is the engagement, the cross-polination, the seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling that matters. But Teams, the cost and other negative consequences of travel and all sorts of otherwise understandable constraints all seem to me to combine to make some of the sums of the parts add up to substantially less than the whole.

    I miss working with people.

    Good luck with the next steps.

  2. I can confess to the recognition that the further you were from headquarters, the happier I was at Oxfam (probably due to the number of internal and internally focused meetings HQ generated); and, to the dangers of losing fertile, cross-fertilization with the legitimate concerns for localization and travel footprint on which I have now opted to make fewer, longer trips, which have the additional virtue of slowing you down. I will always remember the director of an Ethiopian NGO tell me, “You people at (then multiple) Oxfam(s) all imagine you are different, but you all the same. Always in a hurry”! One of those simple but priceless lightbulb moments!

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  3. I will miss your thought-provoking writing, but change is good.

    I agree on being happier away from Oxford (I joined in Asia, and Oxford felt foreign). And also on the loss of identity, which is one of the reasons I left working in the sector after twenty years.

    Look forward to whatever is next.

  4. Thank you so much for this post and above all your dedication to learning about development and the contribution of civil society, Duncan. It has always been inspiring to read your articles with their underlying message of hope: that change is possible and that we can contribute to such changes. Re this post: Your points on international travel and attitude (arrogance vs. self-doubt) resonate strongly with me. I hope that we can gradually move from thesis via antithesis to synthesis in both areas, so that we keep learning from each other and that we succeed in striking a better balance between humility / self-doubt and ambition / willingness to contribute our share to global development and the progress of nations and peoples.

  5. One of the benefits of being with an organization for so long is that you have a rich library of archives to stimulate your thinking. I enjoyed this reflection, in part because of my own 30 year journey leading an information-based strategy intended to mobilize resources to help youth living in high poverty areas of Chicago move more successfully from birth to work.

    I started my own blog in 2005 and have posted articles to it consistently since then. I started my first website in 1997, and began sharing ideas via printed newsletters in 1993.

    I’ve often re-posted older articles from my blog because what I was writing then is still relevant to the problems that I was focusing on the, and are still with us today. In the past couple of months I’ve shared articles from even earlier.

    I hope you keep doing the same. More than that, I hope people will take time to read your past articles and add their own energy to the work you were trying to do.

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      Interesting Daniel, I could just repost old, but still relevant, blogs since either new people will be reading them, or they’ll have forgotten the originals. Is this the basis for some kind of cyber-immortality?

  6. “The unintended consequences of localization” – more staff in the UK no longer travel. Isn’t the question to ask after localization is, “Why are those staff still based in the UK in the first place?” Can those jobs not be done from Nairobi, or Manilla or Mexico City? Mind you I guess it’s perfectly possible to be based in Nairobi and not meet people in poverty on a daily basis. (The term domestic made me laugh, I suspect that’s more relevant to Oxfam staff in Nairobi than Oxford).

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      Thanks Ken, I agree up to a point, but there’s something rather apolitical about thinking that an organization can raise all its money in a rich country, where it is subject to all kinds of legal and political accountabilities, and then happily move all its staff somewhere in the South. It’s very hard to separate power and money for more than fleeting periods. I also agree on the aid bubble insulating people wherever they are, whether it’s Nairobi, Oxford or Washington.

  7. Thanks Duncan – interesting reflections. I do share your concern that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. It’s a sector-wide issue, but I think Oxfam suffers more self-doubt than some other organisations, and my sense is that it has as a result lost a lot of the power and legitimacy it once wielded more-or-less effectively on behalf of affected people both in humanitarian and development contexts.

    That would be great if the power had been taken up by local actors, accountable governments and affected people themselves, but in general I don’t believe it has – it’s either dissipated or been taken by others who are no less arrogant and much less interested in solidarity and impact.

    I do believe there’s still a role for big, institutionalised and well-branded global organisations that can earn trust and legitimacy and use it to build strategic connections between practical programmes and effective policy and influencing work, and provide the opportunities (and business models) that can support the work people like yourself and countless others from global North and South have done with Oxfam over the last eight decades.

    Good luck with future adventures.

  8. Duncan, dear colleague, many thanks for this post and sharing your ideas and findings overhere for so many years. We share that natural tendency to self-doubt and contrarianism. Keep history burning.

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  9. “areas where global INGOs are still really needed” – would love you to expand this to a whole blog. Where do you think global INGOs are still needed? Where should they/we be more assertive? And where *aren’t* we?!

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  10. This is an interesting read for me as a proponent of decolonisation and localisation of aid. Where do you see the role INGO’s in the new dispensation, and how do you motivate the staff at oxford? This has not been something that is being discussed or acknowledged, and yet when not addressed it definitely will affect aid decisions. Especially if the Oxford, Washington and Brussels staff are out of touch with the realities on the ground.

  11. Thank you Duncan for a typically thought-provoking piece. Some of it resonates with my own experience – both personal and institutional – of the evolution of INGOs in the ‘dev sector’ over the past 30 years (the characterisation of DfID circa 2005 not so much). The last few comments BTL suggest your next project could/should be ‘What role for INGOs’ going forwards? I’m late to the farewell party, but wish you all the best for grandfatherhood and whatever else comes next.

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