Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - Comments

9) The institutional learning

-Based in university cities such as Oxford in Great Britain or Boston in the United States, Oxfam is used to take part in public and scientific debates about development issues. For instance, the organisation launched the journals Development in Practice in 1991 and Gender and Development in 1992. Historically, its executive board always counted some academics, like Hugo Slim in Great Britain. And in general, the movement tried to enhance learning, assess its programmes, train volunteers, implement good practice, edit handbooks and produce studies.
-At the beginning, the organisation did not evaluate its activities because it simply could not afford to send someone to audit operations abroad. Quoted by John Clark in 1991, a former member of Oxfam-UK thus lamented the lack of curiosity about programmes which ended five or ten years ago. In many cases, he said, “they probably will not even know whether the project survives, nor whether there have been any lasting benefits and if so to whom”. Later on, however, Oxfam-UK started to raise questions about its performance and the quality of its programmes, while donors asked for evaluations. A rise in salaries helped to enhance learning and reduced the proportion of employees leaving the organisation after a year: one fifth in the 1980s, against one third in the 1970s. The objective was also to share information through a Cross Programme Learning Fund launched in 1996. Partners throughout the world were then involved in the assessment of some Oxfam’s programmes in 2005.
-The other sections of the movement followed the same trend. In Australia, CAA undertook its first internal evaluation in 1976. This was about India, where the organisation had to expand its work for women, improve its access to the poorest communities and diversify programmes that were too concentrated in two developed regions, Maharashrta and Gujarat. Afterwards, CAA hired in 1981 its first permanent evaluator, Kaye Bysouyth. But she left in 1988 to manage a research bureau, the International Development Support Services, and she was replaced by the overseas director of the organisation, Kamal Malhortra. If Kaye Bysouyth was never employed full-time to analyse the programmes of Oxfam-Australia, she nevertheless facilitated in 1983 the assessment of an Indian partner, AWARE, by consulting the beneficiaries of its activities in the districts of Mahaboobnager and Khamman in Andar Pradesh. As a result, the NGO was criticised because of its bureaucratisation. It had to promote women, adapt to the needs of peasants, and democratise its charter in 1987. Two years later, CAA stopped funding the programmes of AWARE, which were considered to be self-sufficient. In 2000, again, Oxfam-Australia undertook to assess the realisation of its objectives and the social impact of its work in India during the last ten years.
-The institutional learning of the movement can also be found in the handbooks edited by Brian Pratt and Jo Boyden in 1985, or Deborah Eade and Suzanne Williams in 1995. In the same vein, Oxfam-UK got involved in research by facilitating the establishment of specialised bureaus. First known under the name of Euro Action-Acord in 1976, ACORD (Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development) thus resulted from merging two NGOs: an homonymous structure that was created at the end of the war in Southern Sudan in 1972, and Euro-Action Sahel, a consortium that was launched in 1974 to fight drought in Africa. Initially funded by Oxfam, its budget rose from £6,6 millions in 1992 to £8,2 millions in 2002, thanks to governmental subsidies that account for one third of its financial resources (29% in 1992, 32% in 2002). ACORD is now known for its publications about development countries and armed conflicts.
-Other initiatives confirm this concern for institutional learning and improvement. In 1995, Oxfam adopted the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, written in 1993, and got involved in a committee which led in 1998 to the constitution of a more technical Humanitarian Charter, Sphere, with Save the Children, the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Caritas (through the Catholic Relief Service). In 2003 in Geneva, the organisation then contributed to the Humanitarian Accountability Project, which intended to let beneficiaries express their grievances against aid agencies. On the contrary, Oxfam withdrew in 1998 from a project of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), whose handbook for health professionals recommended contraceptive methods that were too sophisticated to be implemented without risk in refugees camps. In the same vein, the Sphere Charter was criticised by outsiders because it was based on consensus, couldn’t go beyond the lowest common denominator and eventually promoted minimal standards instead of quality. Its management model, write for instance Guglielmo Vedirame and Barbara Harrell-Bond, follows the Geneva Conventions and treats refugees like prisoners of war, to be contained within camps.
-Undoubtedly, Oxfam knows that aid can harm. In his book, Tony Jackson showed how free food distributions could hurt and compete with local farming. Likewise, the organisation worried about the way international relief reinforced authoritarian regimes. In 1981, for instance, CAA criticised the Australian co-operation with President Fedinand Edralin Marcos in the Philippines, especially the funding of roads which helped the army to penetrate inside Mindanao Island to crush Communist and Muslim rebels in the hinterland of Zamboanga del Sur. Sometimes, the movement also proved to be conscious about the shortcomings of its partners in the third world. It thus raised questions about the weakness and the lack of vision of Ethiopian NGOs, even if its final report was much softer when officially published in Addis-Ababa with the Christian Relief and Development Association in March 2004. Analysing the mistakes of the World Bank during the agricultural colonisation (Planafloro) of Brazil, Patricia Feeney eventually acknowledged that NGOs like Oxfam, which started in 1983 a vast forestry programme in the state of Orissa in India, were “not necessarily immune from the problems affecting larger, officially sponsored aid programmes”.
-Obviously, situations of armed conflicts are the most difficult to deal with. “One of the greatest challenges to all aid agencies, writes Edmund Cairns, is how to provide aid to relieve suffering during war, whilst not prolonging that war”. Like other humanitarian NGOs, Oxfam fed war economies. It could be when its assets were looted and used by the combatants, like in Somalia or Liberia. It could be when Oxfam provided public services that relieved the belligerents of their social responsibilities towards the people they pretended to protect. Eventually, it could be when the organisation directly funded warring parties. From protection rackets to governmental taxes, there are many methods in this regard, sometimes legal. Hence, for lack of time after the tsunami of December 2004 in Sri Lanka, Oxfam could not negotiate exemptions and had to pay custom duties of 324% to import four wheel drives from India.
-Confronted to such difficulties, the movement organised specific workshops on the issue, as in Birmingham from January 29 to February 2, 1996. In a report of April 1995, its partner ACORD had already written that “in some cases, it may be important not to intervene, as aid will be manipulated”. Oxfam-UK’s director, David Bryer, also voiced his opinion on the matter in an article that he wrote with a collaborator in 1997: “If the combatants are taking some of the food aid, and perhaps even selling it to buy guns, there comes a time when the humanitarian agencies who provide that food aid must ask themselves whether it is doing more harm than good”. Yet the Sphere Charter hardly tackles the problems. According to its article 2.4, “it is the belligerents’ duty to respect humanitarian interventions”. A wishful thinking, for it does not explain how to compel them to do so!
-Unlike Médecins sans Frontières, which withdrew from Ethiopia in 1985 and Rwandese refugee camps in 1995 because it did not want to facilitate violence, Oxfam has not drawn all the consequences of its studies on the shortcomings of humanitarian relief in situations of armed conflicts. Even if it approves the conditionality of international aid to enforce human rights, the organisation usually prefers to withdraw from certain regions rather than from a whole country, as with ACORD in Gulu in Northern Uganda in 1985-1986, Juba in Southern Sudan in 1986 or Uige in Angola in 1987 and 1989. To inform against army atrocities in Uganda in 1989, for instance, Oxfam-UK suspended its operations in Kumi only. Likewise in Afghanistan in 1998, it only stopped for a while its programmes in boys schools to protest against an Islamist ban on girls education. Withdrawals from Somalia in 1995, Burundi in 1996 and North Korea in 1998 remained exceptional. Most of the time, Oxfam actually suspended or stopped its operations when funds were lacking, the objectives were reached or an employee was injured or assassinated, like in the Ugandan district of Pader after a collaborator of ACORD was killed in a guerrilla ambush by the LRA (Lord Resistance Army) on October 26, 2005. Generally speaking, the organisation seldom carries out “strategic” withdrawals that would result from an analysis of its failure and would have nothing to do with financial constraints or security reasons. At best, it shares information and reinforces its coordination with other humanitarian agencies. According to Nicholas Stockton, as quoted by Rebecca Buell, Oxfam and Save the Children thus withdrew from camps in Uganda when they realised that they deterred the International Committee of the Red Cross from intervening and protecting the people, a mandate that NGOs could not implement. Actually, the Oxford Committee usually hands over its programmes to local partners despite the risks of amateurism, impartiality, lack of supervision and diversion of aid. In a document dated 2006 and quoted by Abby Stoddard et al., the organisation thus listed the various possibilities of pulling out according to the conditions of access for the expatriates, the professional training of the local staff, the quality of the suppliers and the reliability of grassroots community leaders.
-Regarding natural disaster, the interventions of Oxfam-UK did not avoid problems either, especially when massive aid dismantled the local economy and the social fabric. Thus, the organisation paid too much attention to the media after the Gujarat earthquake of January 2001 in India. As a result, notices Tony Beck, it focused on the most visible actions instead of assessing the needs properly: the pumps and the pipes that it imported were useless and much cheaper to buy locally. It did not perform so much better after the tsunami of December 2004 in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers struggled for independence in the northeast of the country. According to Jonathan Goodhan, Oxfam-UK had already aggravated existing tensions by working with partners who were not recognised as legitimate by the inhabitants of Mullipottanai, a village of displaced Singhalese, Tamil and Muslim people in the district of Trincomalee. In December 2004, the organisation reacted quickly because it had already send relief and dispatch expatriates for the victims of floods in the regions of Ampara and Batticaloa two weeks before. Thanks to its previous contacts, it therefore managed to build shelters of a much better quality than those of newly arrived NGOs. Unlike World Vision, for instance, it took time to check that landowners would not chase away the survivors accommodated on their plots on a temporary basis. Yet Oxfam-UK made some mistakes according to Abhijit Bhattacharjee et al. In the south of the country, it paid villagers to rebuild roads and repair irrigation systems around the rural town of Hambantota. Its incentives were higher than the usual standards, so they delayed the revival of agriculture and the return of peasants to the countryside. They even attracted villagers from the hinterland who had not suffered from the tsunami, as Oxfam-UK selected one person per family but was not able to check that only victims would come to work and receive a salary.
-Therefore, one wonders how the organisation learns from its experiences. Quoted by Rebecca Buell during a workshop in Birmingham in February 1996, some employees complained that Oxfam concealed its failures and avoided consulting them when they came back from a difficult mission in a war-torn country. It also happened that internal assessments were kept hidden because they revealed important shortcomings. In its unreleased report about relief in Cambodia in 1980-1983, for instance, Tigger Stack noticed “operational confusion”, “over-expenditures”, the “failure to recognise what pressures such a vast programme would place on Oxfam”, and “misplaced expectations of Oxfam’s partnership with government”. In an interview to Oxfam Archive Oral History Project on 25 August 2005, a former employee of the organization in Sudan in 1987, Maurice Herson, revealed that its very critical evaluation of programmes in Darfur in 2004 also “ended up in a safe somewhere”. He regretted that “an increasing sophistication” got the Oxford Committee into “an overspecialised trap”, “doing a lot worse job in Darfur than… 15-20 years ago”. Such an institutional learning problem is not limited to Sudan. In 1996 by Chris Roche analysed “weak structures and systems for extracting and disseminating information” in general. Learning was not rewarded, he explained, and this “unfavourable climate for learning related to job insecurity, short term contracts and difficulty of working across the line management system”.
-In this regard, one must emphasize the limits of internal assessments that are only conducted to approve Oxfam’s programmes. The organisation does not seem to learn from its failures. But it excels in criticising governmental co-operations. On behalf of the NGOs consortium ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), for instance, a report written in 2008 by an expert of Oxfam-UK, Matt Waldam, analysed the inefficiency, the waste and the lack of coordination of western aid to Kabul: projects bypassed the government, weakened the state and were too costly because of the salaries paid to expatriates or consultants. In the same vein, the organisation knows how to use academic arguments to reply to criticism. Chris Roche's book was thus a direct answer to the work of Roger Riddell and Mark Robinson, who showed that NGOs did not reach the poorest rural people. In a Journal like Development in Practice, Oxfam’s representative in Zambia in 1988-1993, Krishnamurthy Pushpanath, also wrote dithyrambic articles about the organisation. As for Oxfam-America, it always refused funding from its government and so avoided the assessments that are usually conducted by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) before it renews a contract with an NGO.
-By so doing, the main risk is to be both a judge and a party of the quality of the programmes in developing countries. Supposed to act as a kind of ombudsman, the Humanitarian Accountability Project tells us a lot in this respect. Its guidelines stipulate that complaints of the beneficiaries are not handled by an independent body but directly by the incriminated NGO! In Indonesia after the tsunami of December 2004, for instance, Oxfam tried to monitor grievances about aid in Aceh. But the organisation established and supervised its own Complaint Dealing Committees. Composed of five members each, these structures gave a majority of votes to Oxfam’s employees and their local partners. The two other members were representatives of religious chiefs and local authorities, i.e. the most likely persons to embezzle aid in a very corrupt country. As a matter of fact, there were misappropriations of funds anyway: in May 2006, Oxfam-UK had to suspend ten local employees and punish twelve others after a theft of 22,000 dollars in its offices. Likewise in Maslakh camp near Herat city in Afghanistan, the complaint boxes are not adapted to the illiterate population, weekly meetings are dominated by local leaders and few displaced people can genuinely complain about the diversion of humanitarian items.
-Eventually, the learning difficulties of the organisation remind the problems of the World Bank. In a pamphlet published in Oxford in 1995, the Oxfam Policy Department elaborated recommendations that the movement could use for himself. For instance, it noticed that “information on World Bank projects often remains inaccessible and unreliable”: a statement that describes very well its own annual reports and the refusal to release critical assessments of its programmes. The authors of the pamphlet also lamented the “apparent failure to learn… from the mistakes of the past” —something that Mark Duffield witnessed with Oxfam-UK in Sudan as well. Like Roger Riddell and Mark Robinson, who analysed why development NGOs did not reach the poor, they complained that “local elites may have been the main beneficiaries of the projects” of the World Bank. Their conclusion in 1995 are still valid for Oxfam today: “the Bretton Woods system must be opened to wider public scrutiny, and be made more accountable”.