Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - Comments

5) Public Relations

-Oxfam communicates a lot through publications, Internet websites, lobbying and petitions.
-First of all, each affiliate of Oxfam-International has its monthly or quarterly magazine: onzeWereld for NOVIB since 1957, Oxfam News for the Oxford Committee since 1965, CAA Review, Oxfam Horizons then Oxfam News for Oxfam-Australia since 1973, Mo Kung for OHK since 2004, etc. These newspapers, which target a general public, can have a quite important circulation, in the order of 50,000 copies for Community Aid Abroad in 1990 for instance. Some were controversial because of their political standpoints. Thus, in 1973, the Oxford Committee launched the New Internationalist, while CAA established a small press agency, The Light Powder and Construction Works, and a newspaper, The Powder Magazine. Their radical analyses divided the rank and file and provoked a series of resignations within the movement, which had to stop such publications. In Australia, The Powder Magazine had only 300 subscribers. Its editorial staff went out of Oxfam’s control and shared its offices with a leftist alternative fanzine, Digger, which advocated sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Shocked, CAA’s management ended the experience in 1975. Since then, the movement got less radical and began to communicate on Internet. In the United Kingdom, for instance, it cooperated in 2006 with the Ministry of Education and the British cooperation to produce school guides on developing countries.
-Oxfam-International is also a professional lobby with advocacy offices in Geneva, Brussels, London, Washington and New York. Unlike publications, such activities address decision makers only. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, the credibility of the movement is quite high among “opinion elites”, up to 41% in Europe in 2004, against 26% in 2001, and up to 23% in the United States in 2004, against 17% in 2002. Due to its origin in Oxford, Oxfam records the best results in Great Britain: 64% in 2004, compared to 38% in Brazil, 30% in Germany and 29% in France. If these percentages are lower than those of Amnesty International and Greenpeace, the organisation still has access to restricted circles within intergovernmental organisations. In February 1997, for instance, Oxfam was one of the first NGOs, together with MSF and CARE, to be consulted by the Security Council of the United Nations, and it lamented the use of humanitarian aid as a substitute for political action during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Joined by SCF, a second meeting of this type took place in October 1998, more specifically about Sudan. In October 2001, again, Oxfam, MSF, Global Witness and Amnesty International presented to the Security Council an analysis of the humanitarian situation in Liberia.
-To enlarge its advocacy programmes to the general public, Oxfam-International launch campaigns which often coincide with an important event and which embrace both countries of the North and the South. While a World Bank summit was being opened in Washington in 1993, for instance, the Oxford Committee sent 15 000 petitions signed in Zambia to protest against the damaging effects of structural adjustment policies. Before the Olympic Games in Greece in 2004, again, the organisation, together with the non-communist International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICTU), launched a campaign called Play Fair at the Olympics in order to defend the rights of third world workers in the sports industry. In this respect, the globalisation of Oxfam-International’s advocacy and communication has improved a lot. Most sections did set up professional units, as in Australia in 1989. The contrast is striking when compared to the beginnings of the French Oxfam. Quoted by Christian Troubé, the director of Agir Ici, Françoise Vanni, explained how its organisation started on a very small scale. “Decision makers did not receive us and did not reply to our arguments. The activists who participated in the petitions were not kept informed about how the campaign was progressing. We stuck to the same topic for two months, and then moved to something else. Newspapers did not support us”.
-In practice, Oxfam-International had to follow certain rhetorical contortions in order to globalise its advocacy and to bring together its various affiliates and partners. For instance, the organisation adopted a politically correct language that was as much consensual as possible. Henceforth, it avoided the term “third world” and rather spoke of “developing countries”. Its communication strategy also tried to please both donors and beneficiaries of international aid. For the Catholics, the Oxford Committee thus hesitated to support family planning programmes. In India, it first condemned the governmental policy of sterilisation, until it started to fund the distribution of intra-uterine devices in 1969. Torn between the sometimes-contradictory demands of donors and developing countries, the organisation happened to end up in quite schizophrenic positions. Some volunteers like Marc Vachon see it as hypocritical. On his return from a mission for Oxfam-UK in Kabul in 1996, he explained how his colleagues pretended to promote women’s rights, yet told sexist jokes when drinking beers at the pub. He mocked their self-satisfaction and compared them to “obese persons congratulating each other”!
-In the same vein, the organisation became a fashion victim when its actions were determined by the public opinion in the North and not local needs in the South. In India during the tsunami of December 2004, for instance, Oxfam decided to satisfy the expectations of the donors by distributing modern motorboats which created social tensions in Nagapattinam and Chennai. The idea, explains Rajan Alexander, was to let the victims own their ship to go fishing and earn a living. But some boats were given to people who knew nothing about sailing, who had no means to maintain a pirogue, who could not equip them properly and who eventually got rid of them for a small price. As a result, fishing boats were bought again by their local manufacturers… and resold a second time to other NGOs! In Sri Lanka, the same pattern of media pressure and donors conformism was also to be found. There, show Abhijit Bhattacharjee et al., Oxfam chose to fund a programme because it was very visible and easy to implement: the supplying of free housings rather than the governmental distribution of building materials to the survivors. Such a solution was not to be the best one on the long run. As it happened, the families who made the effort to rebuild themselves were penalised because they got less aid than those who waited in temporary shelters and received prefabricated houses. Besides, some new accommodations remained unoccupied after November 2005 because the government reduced from 200 to 100 meters the area along the seashore where it was forbidden to rebuild constructions. Many fishermen thus abandoned the houses rebuilt by NGOs in the hinterland and came to recover the plots they owned near the water and their working place.
-Regarding advocacy in the third world, Oxfam often avoids denouncing too openly governmental abuses. When its expatriates conduct a programme, it prefers to give sensitive information to human rights NGOs, on condition that they assume their publication. CAA, for instance, decided not to communicate about the repression of a rebellion in Bougainville Island, so as not to compromise its programmes in the rest of Papua New Guinea. As for Oxfam-UK in Cambodia in 1979 and Ethiopia in 1985, it went as far as covering misappropriations of aid in order to carry on its programmes without being expelled. In this respect, the deportations during the famine in Ethiopia are significant. Witness of summary executions by governmental troops, the organisation gave instructions to its employees not to tell anything to the press because it feared reprisals and eviction from the country. The hagiographical book of Maggie Black, a former Oxfam’s member, is revealing since it does not even mention the problem. Unlike War on Want, an NGO which worked only with the rebels, the Oxford Committee wanted to protect its activities on the governmental side and did not inform against the abuses of the army and the use of humanitarian logistics to isolate the guerrillas, empty the north and forcibly transplant villagers toward the south. The “Marxist” regime of Colonel Mengistu Hailé Mariam had stopped importing wheat since 1982 and preferred to starve its own people to save currencies and buy arms, even if it meant that relief was diverted up to the Soviet Union according to the Sunday Times of March 27, 1983. In a right to reply written with a colleague from SCF, the director of Oxfam in Addis-Ababa, Hugh Goyder, argued that stopping international assistance would be catastrophic for the population. Instead of informing against the manipulations of the regime, the organisation, which had just started a huge programme of food distribution in Wollayta in the south, rather denounced the bureaucratic inertia of big governmental aid agencies in a press release of September 10, 1984. The CRDA (Christian Relief and Development Association), a local NGO that Oxfam co-presided with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, took it even further with a communiqué approving the resettlement of villagers from the north to the south in December 1985.
-In general, Oxfam communicates a lot about organisations which are outside of the movement: international financial institutions, trans-national corporations or the governments of developed countries. But it does not account much for its own activities. It turned out that its transparency was weak when compared to the other international NGOs studied by Hetty Kovach et al. in 2003. As a matter of fact, its Internet website does not explain in detail the programmes conducted in each country; it does not publish any assessment of its operations; it does not put its Charter online; it does not account for the decisions of its executive board and does not give precisions about the procedures that are adopted in this matter. Besides, Oxfam-International never answered the questions of AidWatch to explain why its statement of financial activities displayed a much higher amount than the total sum of the budgets communicated by its affiliates. At the national level, a more detailed analysis in 2006 revealed important differences in this respect. On one side, Oxfam-Germany did not put online any budget, while OHK masked its public subsidies and let people think that all of its financial resources came from private funds. As for the annual reports of the Oxford Committee, they started only in the middle of the 1990s to mention the name of partners in the third world, including the “humanitarian” branches of guerrillas. On the other side, the Quebec, Spanish and Belgian sections were more transparent and gave details about the amounts and the sources of funding for their activities in each country. Since 1995, Oxfam-Australia’s annual reports also mentioned the two highest salaries in the organisation. But the partners in the third world are much less accountable. In Sjef Theunis’ book, the Sri-Lankan SSM (Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement), which is funded by NOVIB, explained for instance that it did not release annual reports because its employees were illiterate and could not read them!