Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - Comments

6) Links to politics

-Each affiliate of Oxfam-International interacts with the political sphere through its advocacy, its relationships with a party, or the public commitments of its partners in developing countries. The Oxford Committee, to start with, was always very close to the Labour Party and people like Barbara Castle, the first British Minister for Overseas Development in 1964, during the government of Harold Wilson. Except the short interlude of Guy Stringer between 1984 and 1985, most of the directors of the organisation had a political carrier and were chosen according to their influence, not because of their experience within Oxfam. Between 1951 and 1975, Howard Leslie Kirkley was a pacifist member of the Labour Party. A Methodist who became Quaker, Brian Walker, who succeeded him from 1975 to 1983, was a committed pacifist as well: eager to reconcile the Catholics and the Protestants of Northern Ireland, his country of origin, he founded the New Ulster Movement in 1969 and the Alliance Party in 1970. Frank Judd, who came to lead the Oxford Committee in July 1985, was a Labour Parliament Member for Portsmouth West and North between 1966 and 1979, successively Minister for the Navy, the Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation between 1974 and 1977, and then director of the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) from 1979 onwards. He resigned from Oxfam in 1991 to become a Lord and was replaced by more technocratic directors, namely David Bryer until 2001, and Barbara Stocking up to now.
-Other affiliates of Oxfam-International are also on regular terms with some political parties. In Australia, for instance, CAA first started with conservative religious communities who saw aid to developing countries as a means to contain communism and atheism. Influenced by liberation movements in the third world, the organisation then got politicized when the Labour Party came back to power for the first time since 1949, with the government of Gough Whitlam between 1972 and 1975. Oxfam-Australia and the authorities had many things in common. Both pushed for an increase in public aid to development. Moreover, many donors to the organisation voted for the Labour. According to Susan Blackburn and a poll amongst one thousand CAA Review’s readers in 1987, the supporters of Oxfam-Australia were more educated and less conservative than the average. Only 13% said they were voting for the National or Liberal parties; religiously speaking, the majority did not go to Church any more, or never went. As for Oxfam-Quebec, it is still close to trade unions and the authorities, like its English-speaking counterpart in Toronto. A politician of the Parti Québécois, its president from 1992 to 1994, Pierre Charbonneau, was a Member of Parliament for the districts of Verchères in 1976-1989, and Borduas since 1994: he occupied different governmental positions in 2002-2003 and was the speaker of the provincial legislative assembly between 1996 and 2002. Ghislain Croft, who sat on the board of Oxfam-Quebec in 2002, was himself a former director of the cooperation department in the Canadian Ministry of International Relations.
-Undoubtedly, the relationships between Oxfam and the Labour in Great Britain, Australia or Canada influenced the activities of the organisation throughout the world. In Cambodia during the 1980s, for instance, the Oxford Committee acted as an informal British Embassy to the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, which was not recognised by the international community. At the request of the Australian cooperation department in 1986, CAA also accepted to fund student activists of the Kanak and Socialist National Freedom Front, the FLNKS (Front de libération nationale kanak et socialiste). The Labour government of Robert Hawke could thus develop by proxy a foreign policy which favoured the independence of New Caledonia, a very sensitive matter for France.
-Certainly, such contacts do not prevent a plurality of opinions. According to Peter Burnell, Oxfam-UK’s officials are generally on the left but the managers of the shops, mostly women, are rather from the centre-right. Unlike NGOs such as the Norwegian’s People Aid or the Secours Populaire Français, the Oxford Committee was never close to the British trade unions. Eager to preserve its political freedom, it did not want to maintain organic relationships with the labour movements. For instance, it would not let trade unions have representatives in its executive board. In the 1970s, it tried to collect funds in the working classes and to raise their awareness of third world problems, but to no avail. Common campaigns with British trade unions started only in the 1990s. With the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union), it thus lobbied the Labour government of Tony Blair to stop in April 2002 a vouchers scheme which reduced to essential commodities the social security benefits for asylum seekers since April 2000.
-As such, the advocacy programmes of Oxfam are very political. In western democracies, the movement regularly lobbies parliaments, for instance to increase public aid to development in Spain or Great Britain. As soon as 1964, CAA asked for a tax exemption of its humanitarian activities. It then complained about the politicisation of the Australian cooperation in 1972, and condemned the reduction of overseas aid when the Conservatives came back to power in 1976. The organisation, which established an advocacy department in 1991, eventually sent to the government a petition of 12,000 photo pictures in order to protest against the racist immigration policy of an extremist party, One Nation, in 1997. The affiliates of Oxfam-International also conduct various trans-national campaigns in favour of fair trade, the transparency of extractive industries, the control of arms sales, the liberalisation of drug patents, the end of subsidies to farmers in developed countries, etc. The movement is active in the third world as well. To governments, it provides technical expertise to write laws and to defend their case in international organisations; to marginalised groups, it offers a global tribune…
-Generally speaking, the movement does not pretend to be neutral. It takes political positions in situations of civil wars. “Oxfam, explains Linda Agerbak, does not necessarily seek to have links with both sides of a conflict and therefore is not "neutral" in the sense the ICRC is. Oxfam is however impartial in the sense of intervening for the relief of human suffering without regard to political, ethnic or national consideration”. According to the 1995 edition of the Oxfam Handbook of Development and Relief, the organisation “is not neutral in that it is on the side of poor and disadvantaged people in their search for social justice and equitable development”. As a matter of fact, the movement sometimes selected its beneficiaries in accordance with their political position, like in Mozambique, Nicaragua and Cambodia. In the same vein, the organisation took side with belligerents. Through Susanna Smith, it denounced the occupation of Namibia by South Africa. It also condemned the invasions of the Palestinian territories by Israel, Western Sahara by Morocco and Ituri by Uganda, as well as the blockade of Biafra by the Nigerian army and the American interventions in Nicaragua or Iraq. Yet it did not give any opinion about the occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese troops in 1979, or the military support of India to Bangladesh in 1970.
-Going hand in hand with its secularisation, the movement first experienced the revolutionary drift of many NGOs which were working on development issues during the 1970s. In Australia, for example, CAA supported the independence of East Timor after the visit of Jose Ramos Horta, the leader of the FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente), who fought against the Portuguese coloniser then the Indonesian occupying force. The organisation, which had sent some relief to Timor in November 1975, just before the invasion by Djakarta, tried afterwards to help the resistance illegally. One of its boat was caught by the Australian coast-guards while carrying both medicines and “self-defence” arms, i.e. four revolvers. The crew was arrested and won its trial on appeal. Meanwhile, CAA put pressure on Canberra to stop all military cooperation with Indonesia. Despite the opposition of its representative in Djakarta, Glen Williams, it publicly denounced the occupation of East Timor at the risk of compromising its humanitarian activities in the region. In so doing, CAA had to withdraw from Indonesia in 1977 and Oxfam-UK had to take over its programmes until it could come back in the country in 1988.
-Of course, such commitments gave rise to criticism. During the Cold War, journalists like Allan Brownfield accused Oxfam-America of supporting Marxist groups in Latin America. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the movement then got involved in social forums for a responsible globalisation. It did not give up its political commitments. In Nicaragua, Oxfam-America still funded the Augusto Cesar Sandino Foundation. In Ireland during the commemoration of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, the Oxford Committee was suspected by the media of approving the IRA (Irish Republican Army) when it convened in October 1992 a conference where some activists denounced British colonialism and the violation of human rights in Ulster. In Peru, the authorities even threatened to expel the organisation because of its support to violent groups and its infiltration by the Shining Path guerrilla according to journalist Augosto Elmore in the Caretas edition of July 13, 2002. The previous month, the Oxford Committee had indeed funded a municipal referendum in Tambogrande to ask for the departure of a Canadian trans-national corporation, Manhattan Minerals, which had been working in the region for the last four years. The vote was 98% positive and was supervised by a “defence front” which was responsible for a riot in February 2001, when the offices of the company were ransacked…
-Thus, the political commitments of Oxfam’s partners in the third world are very important. Some went as far as participating in elections or founding opposition parties. In Kenya, for instance, a local employee of the Oxford Committee ran for parliamentary elections in the district of North Turkana in 1997. In Sierra Leone, Oxfam trained 53 women to stand at the municipal elections of 2004, the first ones in this country since 1972. In India, again, women of AWARE (Action for Welfare and Awakening in Rural Environment) participated to local elections and 260 of them were elected in the panchayats village assemblies of Andhra Pradesh and Southern Orissa during the 1980s. After it won an appeal at the Supreme Court, the organisation also lobbied the government to confiscate and redistribute the lands that were illegally occupied by big farmers. According to its own figures, AWARE brought together 10,000 people to demonstrate against the non-application of a law, the Land Transfer Regulation Act, which was supposed to protect native tribes. Some poor peasants invaded the farms, used force and chased the landowners away. By so doing, AWARE was blamed for having Marxist leanings despite its ideological reference to Mahatma Gandhi and his “village republic” (Gram Swaraj). In 1989, the Ministry of Home Affairs of the state of Andhra Pradesh briefly forbade the organisation to receive foreign funds. Actually, AWARE was attacked both by conservative and progressive parties: the urban Bharatiya Janata, which suspected it of trying to convert peasants to Christianity, and the communists, who were loosing ground in rural areas and who accused the NGO of spying for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).
-In Sri Lanka too, the SSM (Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement) shows how deeply political the partners of Oxfam are. An utopian and a candidate of the communist party in Kanatoluwa, a rural area where he settled in 1958 and which was inhabited by Untouchables (Rodiya), the founder of this NGO, Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne, wanted to promote the establishment of small village republics (Grama Swarajya) like Mahatma Gandhi. Close to Solomon Bandaranaike, the socialist Prime Minister of Sri Lanka between 1956 and 1959, he started to put its political ideas into practise with students and teachers from a Buddhist school in Colombo, Nalanda Vidyalaya. Based on a tradition of collective farming, the SSM developed a physical and psychic “philosophy” (Sarvodaya) of “social awakening through mutual help” (Shramadana), the words shrama and dana respectively evoking “energy” and “sharing”. Under the influence of a Gandhist movement launched in 1951, the Bhoodan-Gramadan of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, which intended to collectivise and give vacant lands to poor peasants, Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne set up its first working camp in 1958 in Kanatoluwa. The experiment, which rapidly expanded towards Manawa and Panchichenkerney, led to the establishment in March 1970 of an alliance of about fifty village councils, the gramodaya. At the crossroads between Socialist modernity and Buddhist tradition, the SSM was not devoid of ambiguities yet, and its camps were accused of exploiting workers who were abused by propaganda and religious obedience. A firm believer in the merits of a welfare state, Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne did not want to oppose the government and he was no revolutionary. On the contrary, he advocated the restoration of ancient values and ended up reinforcing the powers that be: in the second volume of his Collected works, he thus explained how he aimed at preventing social conflicts and reforming an educational system that was “perverted” by the British coloniser. His Buddhist philosophy sometimes placed him at odds with the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka. Proclaiming love to everyone, he set up exchange programmes between Singhalese and Tamil families in the south and the north of the country in 1960; he also helped the Tamil victims of ethnical riots in 1983. Since then, explains Kamla Chowdhry, Doctor Vinya Ariyaratne, who succeeded his father as the head of the SSM, tried to keep distance with the nationalist governments of Junius Richard Jayawardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, which criticized the movement. But the organisation remained dominated by Buddhists and focused on the Singhalese.
-The political dimension of Oxfam’s partners in developing countries is very obvious when it comes to human rights organisations. The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation YLBHI (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia) illustrates this quite well. Launched on October 28, 1970, by Adnan Buyung Nasution and an association of lawyers, PERADIN (Persatuan Advokat Indonesia), the LDH institute (Lembaga Bantuan Hukum), as it was then called, initially aimed at mobilizing citizens, providing legal aid, and promoting constitutional reforms with the approval of the government. In 1973, for instance, the LDH thus defended poor families that had been expelled from Kampung Simprug (a central neighbourhood in Jakarta), Halim Perdana Kusumuh (an Air Force Base), Sunter Timur (an industrial zone) and Lubang Buaya (a location cleared for the construction of a leisure park). The following years, the institute also got involved in favour of various people suspected of subversion or illegal activities, from students to peasants or employees of the Jakarta Lloyd Company. With the proliferation of legal aid associations linked to the ruling party (Golkar), the LDH was then accused of being Marxist because it criticised the decisions of the administration. Thanks to a continuous backing of the media, the organisation nevertheless extended the scope of its actions outside of Jakarta and opened provincial offices from 1978 onwards. With 200 employees and a budget of 1.5 million dollars in 1991, it soon became strong enough to defend opponents and support the PDI (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia) of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president Ahmed Sukarno’s daughter. At the parliamentary election in May 1997, the YLBHI eventually played a leading role in the organisation of a voting coalition for the PDI, the Indonesian People’s Council MARI (Majelis Rakyat Indonesia). But the organisation is not so active after the elections of June 1999 that ratify the end of the Golkar dictatorship of General Soeharto. Made up of business lawyers who are close to the richest families of the country, the YLBHI has no influence on the rural masses and seems to compromise. Its founder, Adnan Buyung Nasution, thus defends the son of the former President of Indonesia, « Tommy » Hutomo Mandala Putra, who is sentenced in July 2002 to fifteen years jail for paying a hitman to kill a Supreme Court judge who had convicted him of graft.