Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - Comments

8) Links to economic circles

-Regarding economics, Oxfam-International favours faire trade, corporate social responsibility, the cancellation of unpayable poor countries debts and an increase of public aid to development. The advocacy programmes of its affiliates also target specific actors to improve their social and environmental behaviour. In May 1996, for instance, the Oxford Committee started a campaign asking for the establishment of a code of good practice in the textile industry; the project focused on child labour in Bangladesh and Dominican factories that supplied big corporations. As for Oxfam-Quebec, it collaborates with the trade unions of the Quebec House of Labour (Centrale des syndicats du Québec) to promote the social responsibility of companies that work in developing countries. The objectives are sometimes very limited. Thus, in October 2002, Agir-Ici (Oxfam-France) launched a campaign so that Bechtel, an American trans-national corporation, would give up a compensation of $25 millions after the Bolivian government broke a contract to supply water in the city of Cochabamba. The following month, Oxfam-International sent a petition of 40,000 signatures to persuade Nestlé not to ask a reparation of $6 millions for a factory that had been nationalised in Ethiopia some years before.
-Oxfam-Australia is one of the most active sections in this regard. In February 2000, it set up an ombudsman to defend the rights of local communities against mining companies: in Indonesia, the Dayak of the central region of Kalimantan around the extracting sites of Aurora Gold in Indo Muro and Rio Tinto in Kelian from 1995 onwards; in the Philippines, the peasants of the Cagayan Valley near the Climax Arimco Mining Company’s installations in Didipio in North-eastern Luzon from 1999 onwards, as well as the fishermen of Calanca Bay polluted by Placer Dome in Marcopper on the island of Marinduque from 1993 onwards; in Papua New Guinea, the villagers of the Goilala district who were contaminated by Durban Roodepoort Deep Ltd’s operations in Tolukuma from 2001 onwards; in Peru, the inhabitants of Cusco and Yauri who attacked the Tintaya cooper mine of BHP Billiton in Espinar province from 1996 onwards. In Papua New Guinea after 1998, for instance, Oxfam-Australia helped the inhabitants of Collingwood Bay to win their legal battle against a logging company, Deegold, which had expropriated them. From 2000 onwards, the organisation also lobbied a small liberal party, the Australian Democrats, to push for the vote of a bill restricting the activities of trans-national corporations in developing countries. In this respect, the British section was also dynamic. In Bolivia in 2004, the Oxford Committee supported the claims of the Indians of Don Mario who were demonstrating to ask for compensations to a gold mine company, COMSUR (Compania Mineral del Sur), which belonged to former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, in power in La Paz until 2003. At the same time, Oxfam contributed to the establishment of an indigenous development fund with royalties paid by the gas industry.
-Obviously, the advocacy programmes of Oxfam-International are very peculiar when they address the issue of companies working in war-torn countries. Indeed, they echo the third recommendation of Edmund Cairn to limit the humanitarian impact of armed conflicts by restricting financial and commercial relationships with the belligerents. From this point of view, the organisation focus both on the arm industry and the trans-national corporations that supply or fund dictatorships in developing countries. Oxfam’s position on arms trade has already been mentioned. For the record, it has to be known that some advocacy programmes targeted and named specific companies. In 2001 in France, for instance, Agir Ici won a libel trial against two firms manufacturing fireworks and wrongly accused in 1994 to produce antipersonnel mines: Etienne Lacroix and Ruggieri. Other sectors in the oil, textile and mine industries were also targeted when their investments funded the military budget of authoritarian regimes. In 2001 in Burma, NOVIB thus obtained the closing-down of a Triumph underwear factory that collaborated with the dictatorship, underpaid its workers, was involved in child labour and claimed that leaving the country would just create more unemployment. Likewise, in a press release signed in Toronto with CARE, German Agro-Action, Fellowship for African Relief, Norwegian Church Aid and International Volunteer Organization for Cooperation on the 8th of September 2000, the movement repudiated a Canadian firm, Talisman, that pretended to distribute relief with humanitarian NGOs to compensate local communities evacuated by the army around its oilfields in Southern Sudan in 1999.
-The position of Oxfam on economic sanctions, which also aim at reducing the funding of repression and armed conflicts, is much less consistent. Historically, the Oxford Committee was born in reaction to the British blockade of Greece in 1942 and it condemned the siege of the Biafran enclave by the Nigerian troops in 1968. But it sometimes adopted opposite positions. On one side, it supported economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. On the other, it informed against them in Cambodia during the same period. In general, the organisation condemns the use of hunger as a war crime and considers that embargos hurt civilians unnecessarily. It only accepts smart sanctions which target politicians and spare the rest of the population. It also favours restrictive measures, or even suspensions of international aid, to persuade third world governments to spend more for the poor. “Oxfam, according to its 1995 Poverty Report, believes that new forms of conditionality could help to bring about positive policy reforms… Governments and donors could, in principle, agree on incremental steps for raising investment in primary health care, basic education, and the provision of water and sanitation… Most donors reject such an approach on the grounds that it would undermine the national sovereignty of developing country governments. They have been considerably less reluctant about eroding sovereignty in other areas; through their structural adjustment programmes, donors have obliged governments to impose fees for primary education and basic health facilities, to devalue their currencies, set interest rates, privatise whole industries, and liberalise markets”.
-Actually, the ad hoc position of Oxfam on economic powers changed according to circumstances. For example, the movement now militates for a gradual cancellation of unpayable poor countries debts. In this respect, it differs from more radical organisations that ask for an immediate and unconditional abolition. Interviewed in the newspaper Libération on the 10th of September 2004, an official of Oxfam considered for instance that there was no reason to cancel the loans of Iraq under the pressure of the Americans: the country was endowed with vast natural resources and its debt relief was purely a political affair in order to spare the budget and the oil revenue of the government put in place in Baghdad by the United States.
-A detailed approach of economical problems did not prevent contradictions, or even irrelevancies. On the one hand, Oxfam often criticised oil production in developing countries, especially the so-called “dutch disease” which exacerbated social inequalities, favoured corruption, accelerated inflation and hurt the manufacturing industries creating employment. On the other hand, Oxfam asserted the rights of East Timor on offshore oil and gas deposits that were claimed by neighbouring Australia along a disputed maritime border. In the same vein, the movement criticised the social impact of liberalisation and the structural adjustment plans of the World Bank. In 2002, for instance, NOVIB supported a campaign against the privatisation of water distribution in Ghana. Yet Oxfam-Quebec accepted funds of the World Bank to run a programme for street children in Kinshasa in 2001.
-These contradictions partly come from the fact that Oxfam is both outside and inside international financial institutions. To the eyes of the general public, the movement rather seems to be anti-establishment because of its petitions and media campaigns. But in parallel, it also takes part in various think tanks at the World Bank and the WTO (World Trade Organisation), in order to lobby companies, banks or governments. Oxfam-Australia, for instance, helps the Asian Development Bank to assess the impact of its projects on the population. As for the Oxford Committee, it is one of the founding members of EIRIS (Ethical Investment Research Services), a structure that rates and provides a database about ethical funds and socially responsible companies. Under the pretext of promoting good practices, Oxfam-UK was a consultant for British Petroleum, a corporation which signed in 1996 a contract of 5 millions dollars with the Columbian army to protect its installations against guerrilla attacks.
-Of course, such ambivalence gave rise to tensions within the movement. Through its director Frank Judd, Oxfam-UK, together with NOVIB then CAA, started a “constructive dialogue” with international financial institutions in 1986. The initiative was not accepted unanimously. Pierre Galand, Oxfam-Belgium’s director, preferred to resign from the World Bank consultative committee, created in 1984. Some volunteers also complained about John Clark who left the Oxford Committee to work for the World Bank in 1991. Afterwards, an official of Oxfam-America, Severina Rivera, resigned in 2002 to protest against the liberalisation of her organisation, which advocated the opening of borders to textile products from developing countries. In his article, Walden Bello claimed that it would have been better to frontally oppose the World Trade Organisation, rather than to adopt some of its recommendations at the risk of supporting them all. According to him, Oxfam’s position complied to the requirements of an advertising campaign with a view to obtain quick results, instead of fighting for social justice. For him, the lifting of tariff barriers in developed countries was not the real issue: in principle, this point had already been accepted at the Uruguay Round in 1994. A new negotiation would only favour the penetration of third world markets by the big industrial powers.
-Furthermore, Oxfam is criticised by outsiders for the ambiguity of its humanitarian position as an economical actor that sell many goods. Its commitment for fair trade, which is supposed to improve the revenues of small producers in the third world, raises doubts because the organisation is both judge and party: it lacks transparency and pays to certify its own goods. According to Jean-Pierre Boris, a chief editor at Radio France Internationale, fair trade is only a “fashion”, an “intellectual swindle” to buy a good conscience for a small cost. It represents a negligible part of commercial exchanges with the third world and does not address the real issue, i.e. market regulation through international agreements. The journalist adds that the beneficiaries of fair trade are not the poorest peasants but the most educated ones. Moreover, the multiplication of commissions and auditors reduces the revenues of the producers. Such a system does not put into question the inequality of trade and does not disrupt standard commerce. It benefits marginally to peasants and simply substitutes an intermediary with another. Quoted by Pierre Boris, the Papua New Guinean representative at the International Coffee Organisation in London, Mick Wheeler, claimed that, actually, Oxfam behaved as a trader under humanitarian disguise. With its advertisement campaigns, the movement tried to disparage competition by spoiling the image of the “normal” coffee merchants that fed the great majority of peasants in the supply-chain. As a matter of fact, fair trade represents a very tiny part of distribution. With the Max Havelaar Foundation, Oxfam labelled only 1% of the coffee sold by the Starbucks chain-stores in the United States in 2005.