Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - Comments

2) The way it works

-Among the international NGOs studied by Hetty Kovach et al., Oxfam is one of those that have the most democratic governance to ensure a geographically balanced representation of its affiliates and to prevent a minority to take control of the executive. In a way, this observation also applies to the national sections of a movement which works by consensus, at the risk of slowing down its decision-making process. The evolution of Oxfam-Australia (CAA) says quite a lot in this regard. At the outset, the organisation rather evoked a family business since its founder and first director, Gerard Kennedy Tucker, left his position to a nephew, David Scott, in 1962. CAA held its first general assembly in Melbourne in 1966 and set up a national committee which represented provincial groups but did not count any women until 1973. Chaired by Gerard Kennedy Tucker from 1962 to 1969, David Scott from 1970 to 1980, Jon Birch from 1981 to 1982, Brian Hobbs from 1983 to 1987, Helen Gow from 1988 to 1989, and Judy Henderson from 1990 to 1992, the organisation improved slowly. Oxfam-Australia eventually decided in 2002 to organise elections at the country level to allow volunteers to take part in the nomination of its executive board members, whose president Jo-Anne Everingham was succeeded by Judy Mitchell this very year.
-While all the expatriates receive a salary, most Oxfam branches still work with volunteers in their own country, especially to collect funds. According to Gregor Stangherlin, for instance, its Magasins du Monde in Belgium make use of 3,000 unpaid people out of a total of 8,000 or so who work in development NGOs in Wallonia and Brussels in 2001; and 90% of them are unemployed educated women, 58 years old in average. Despite the financial resources of a big trans-national corporation, Oxfam thus seeks to keep its charitable and voluntary character. In the 1970s, the British section introduced rules so that the wages of its staff would be 15% less than the market price, up to 60% at the management level. According to Susan Blackburn, CAA adopted a similar system, with a salary scale inferior to the private sector and other Australian NGOs. Moreover, all employees of the various national sections are unionised. Indeed, they now work for organisations which recorded an impressive growth of their human and financial resources. Oxfam-UK, for instance, became the biggest international NGO in Great Britain. In 1964, it employed 2 expatriates and 225 people in England, including 135 at the headquarters in Oxford. But in 1999, it counted over a thousand employees and around 500 expatriates throughout the world. As a result, writes David Wilson, the development and growing autonomy of the marketing and fundraising activities provoked misunderstandings, and even tensions with the overseas department. Some volunteers felt that business managers took over the humanitarian commitment. For instance, emergency operations were not implemented according to needs only: they followed funding opportunities, as in other NGOs. Oxfam-UK’s assistant-director Nicholas Stockton thus admitted that in 1999, his organisation spent 140 times more per inhabitant in Kosovo than in Sierra Leone or Congo-Kinshasa, where the mortality rates were ten times higher.
-At the beginning, the Oxford Committee relied a lot on missionary networks to set up operational projects abroad. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, it funded the farming projects of White Fathers in Tamale, Ghana, and worked in Calcutta, India, through partners such as Don Bosco, who was running a technical school in the district of Liluah, and the Jesuits, who were accommodating street children in so-called “houses of love” (snehasadan). Logistical problems were not the only reason for such a partnership. At the outset, the Oxford Committee was very much influenced by religious personalities. Its first presidents were reverends: Theodore Richard Milford from 1942 until 1947, Henry Roberts Moxley from 1947 until 1960, and Theodore Richard Milford again from 1960 until 1965. From 1972 to 1977, the organisation was then presided by Michael Rowntree, a Quaker who had served in a Friends’ Ambulance Unit during the Second World War and to whom would succeed Chris Barber in 1984, Mary Cherry in 1990, Joel Joffe in 1995 and Rosemary Thorp in 2002. As for Oxfam’s Quebec and Australian sections, they came respectively from catholic and protestant backgrounds. CAA, for instance, started to work in India in 1955 through Quakers like Pierre Oppliger, a Swiss, and Laurie Baker, a volunteer who was running a hospital in Uttar Pradesh. Initially founded by Jesuits under the name of Mission y Desarrollo (Mission and Development) in 1952, Oxfam-International’s Spanish section had an even more pronounced religious approach: launched in 1956, Intermón became a secular foundation in 1986 only.
-During the 1960s, however, Oxfam-UK became directly operational and began to send expatriates abroad. Not without risks: some collaborators lost their life in war-torn countries. According to Oxfam-America in April 1980, Salvador was one of the most affected areas in this respect: in total, 17 local employees were killed by the army and 300 beneficiaries of the organisation’s projects disappeared, probably killed by death squads. In Lebanon, 2 collaborators were abducted in 1988. In South Africa, the apartheid police tortured an employee of Oxfam-UK, Alex Mbatha, in 1981, and a NOVIB staff, Evelyn Zinanga, died in a car accident in 2001. Besides, AIDS made many victims and killed 9 out of 296 local collaborators in Northern Ugandan refugee camps in 1996-1997…
-Another difficulty has to do with the high turnover rate of expatriates who are sent abroad for short missions in cases of emergencies. This often marginalises national employees, whose local knowledge is sometimes ignored. Regarding aid to the survivors of the tsunami of December 2004 in Sri Lanka, for instance, Abhijit Bhattacharjee et al. notes that Oxfam-UK made some mistakes by recruiting a majority of Singhalese at the expense of Tamils, and by proposing salaries that were too high to be maintained afterwards. The headquarters did not follow local advices and, as soon as January 2005, had to reverse its decision not to build temporary shelters for the victims of the disaster. Too centralised, the Oxford Committee wanted to control all the information collected on the field, an attitude which delayed and handicapped coordination with other humanitarian organisations.
-Since the 1970s, the movement normally prefers to fund local development initiatives rather than sending expatriates. Such an evolution reminds the case of ACORD (Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development), whose creation was sponsored by Oxfam-UK in 1976. When it started, this NGO first attempted to cooperate with governments in third world countries, especially municipal councils. But the liberal and structural adjustment policies of the World Bank changed the perspective. From 1980 onwards, ACORD tried to circumvent corrupt administrations by sending expatriates to manage directly development programmes, even if the institutionalisation of the NGO increased its overhead costs. Since 1986, ACORD then decided to let more or less formalised grassroots organisations run its projects and income generating activities.
-Whether by creating or supporting an already existing NGO, the idea of Oxfam is actually to favour endogenous development processes and to avoid dependency on foreign aid. The objective is also to adequately meet local needs by consulting the population before a project starts. In theory, Oxfam tries to select efficient partners who have access to the victims or the poor, treat them impartially, are accountable, allow external checking of their operations, and do not depend only on foreign subventions. With a minimal number of expatriates, such a pattern has the advantage to associate the population to the implementation and assessment of the projects. But it has drawbacks as well. It can multiply micro-projects endlessly and facilitates the takeover of humanitarian logistics for political or military ends, like in Tanzania from 1972, Nicaragua from 1980 or Ethiopia from 1984. Another difficulty is that Oxfam runs the risk to support structures —guerrilla branches or violent activist groups— that are at odds with its humanitarian values. Eventually, funding local NGOs does not guarantee the empowerment of the population. In Burkina Faso, writes for instance Marie-Christine Guéneau, the community grain banks supported by Oxfam went bankrupt when external contributors stopped supplying capital.